Failed Strategies: Turning Point USA

Earlier this summer, at a retreat in Colorado, the Koch brothers took aim at the conservative effort to reclaim college campuses. In short, they criticized the anti-intellectual, anti-liberty sensationalism of groups like Turning Point USA, that have targeted professors who promote leftist ideas and called for the destruction of education in cultural Marxism. Doubling down on intellectual freedom, the Koch brothers, according to the Washington Post, encouraged students to learn about and engage with Marxism, Leninism, and other theories that Turning Point USA believes should be purged from college education, along with suggesting that curricula include more works by Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. But the power of this goes beyond intellectual freedom, as implicit in the Kochs’ suggestion is the idea that pedagogy which educates students in depth on both sides of opposing arguments creates a dynamic conducive to productive discourse and persuasion. Putting aside their usual inflammatory elitism, the Koch duo displayed the sort of prudence and nuance that is so gravely lacking in the conservative movement nationally.
While the Koch brothers did not go as far as to challenge the popular— and largely unfounded— victim narrative of college conservatives, their defense of intellectual freedom and debate ought to be praised by conservatives and liberals alike. Their approach to the “Campus Question”— that is, the question of whether college campuses are a lost cause for the conservative movement, or that they can be liberated from the “grip” of “cultural Marxists and radical feminists”— is decidedly conservative in principle: we can “win” by proving we offer the best ideas through free and open discourse. The “Koch approach” is, in essence, to be completely informed— philosophically and historically— about all sides, and, through that, to build an intellectual arsenal that can effectively and rigorously contest the claims of the “Left.”

The potential success of what the Kochs have suggested is difficult to calculate, but it is certainly a more measured response than advocating for the annihilation of leftist thought. The viability of the Kochs’ call-to-discourse is not, however, the issue that I wish to address; rather, I wish to argue that the current conservative campus strategies being employed by groups like those that the Koch brothers criticized are, in addition to failing, making a mockery of conservative principles.

Charlie KirkTurning Point USA (TPUSA), in addition to being the group most heavily criticized by the Koch Network, is a rapidly growing grassroots organization. The founder, Charlie Kirk, is only twenty-three, and never attended college. Over the past few years, Kirk has grown the organization to over a thousand campuses and has raised millions of dollars. While Kirk is himself a rising star in the conservative movement— he was the youngest speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention— his organization is employing a problematic and largely ineffective strategy on the campuses themselves. Unsurprisingly, Dartmouth’s own TPUSA chapter collapsed after less than a year. TPUSA’s main strategy is based around the following:

  • Educating students about the importance of free market values through well-planned, effective activism initiatives.
  • Re-branding free market values on college campuses through student-driven messaging efforts and face-to-face conversations.
  • Effectively pushing back against intolerance and bias against conservatives in higher education.

The tactics that TPUSA relies on, however, are often taken from the playbook of the very “leftists” that they vilify. While TPUSA is quick to criticize leftist ideology through historical tragedies like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, they are not as willing to acknowledge the well-documented injustices of capitalist America. TPUSA uses American exceptionalism to corroborate the free market values it proposes, disregarding any negative historical context just as many advocates of universal healthcare ignore the failings of socialism. TPUSA’s claim that many professors conspicuously ignore the historical ills that resulted from leftist ideology is largely defensible, and yet they themselves have co-opted that same superficial approach to arguing in favor of capitalism. Admitting that capitalism and America are imperfect and advocating for their continued success and improvement are not mutually exclusive, and doing so can actually prove to be quite persuasive. Obviously, this is not to say that TPUSA should engage in “America-bashing,” but it ought to be more nuanced and skeptical of absolutist arguments if it hopes to gain support on college campuses. If Kirk and TPUSA are serious about “rebranding free market values,” this is the way to do it— their current brand concept is unoriginal, as it is equally trite and polemical as the Left’s but merely opposite in message.

While TPUSA’s approach to educating students and rebranding might be ineffective, they do not directly conflict with conservative values. But that is not the case in TPUSA’s most infamous campus strategy: crusading against anti-conservative bias. There are two problems with this: first, the legitimacy of the problem itself, and second, the tactics used to fight this crusade.

Through Kirk’s own vociferous speeches on college campuses and FOX News, TPUSA has been able to effectively sensationalize the “dangers” that conservatives face on college campuses, exaggerating the narrative of liberal professors “discriminating” against conservative students. While there are plenty of examples of professors and college administrations acting like, frankly, idiots— that is, after all, one of the primary reasons people read The Dartmouth Review— I question whether or not these incidents constitute “oppression” in any significant way. Conservative critics, especially TPUSA’s Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk, have lambasted people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and other historically unequal groups for claiming that universities and society at large discriminate against them. Even with the “social progress” on college campuses, these groups often do still face legitimate obstacles based on their identity. There are certainly still issues of sensationalism and exaggeration among these groups’ narratives, but the principle remains that they are still often targeted. Despite the flashy protests at Berkeley whenever a conservative tries to speak, the reality remains that most campuses are quite safe and comfortable for conservatives, if not socially, then academically, and certainly physically. In my own experience, and based on conversations I have had with conservative student activists around the country, conservatives are ostracized more often for being indecent than for being conservative. There are few proven instances of conservative views impacting grades. And perhaps most ridiculous of all is the claim that conservatives are not physically safe: in the small handful of cases where a conservative student was physically touched, it almost never constituted an actual assault. The irony is that TPUSA is simultaneously criticizing these groups for using the “victim card” to secure protections, advancements, and empathy while themselves being deceptively dramatic with their own victim narrative in order to secure the exact same things. TPUSA infantilizes conservative students, and in doing so, has done exactly what they have accused leftist students of doing.

More importantly, however, are the concerns about TPUSA’s tactics. In November 2016, Kirk created TPUSA’s professor watch list, which is “dedicated to documenting and exposing college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The list has taken on a McCarthy-esque life of its own, with numerous professors having their personal information publicly exposed and receiving threats of physical violence. Additionally, much of the information on the list, which is provided by the public, has been found to be factually inaccurate, and even completely fabricated. Once more, TPUSA, which has criticized the left’s use of the tactic of “doxing”— publicly exposing the contact information, home addresses, and places of work of alleged members of the alt-right— have abandoned their principles and hypocritically adopted the very tactics they condemn.

The overall strategy of TPUSA has not only proven to be ineffective, but it is not based on any conservative principles. Conservatism’s philosophical roots go far beyond “fiscal responsibility.” Prudence, decency and propriety, and proportionality are as constitutive of conservatism as freedom, liberty, and individualism. And yet, the strategy being employed on college campuses is utterly devoid of any of these principles. The reliance on hyperbole when discussing the issues conservative students face is more hysterical than prudent. The professor watch list stands in stark opposition to intellectual freedom, lacks any and all decency, and is irreverent of proportionality. TPUSA may be able to stomach the delusional prospect of a consequentialist victory at the cost of conservative principles, but we ought not.