In Britain and Western Europe, young people do not organize themselves into political activist groups. Tocqueville noted in the mid-19th Century Americans’ penchant for civic and political engagement that went far beyond the European norm, and the strong youth groups active in America’s process may be unmatched anywhere in the world. Just this year, a hard-fought Republican primary race produced another activist group in a key swing state, one that could determine the outcome of this year’s presidential race.
“Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania is an independent, non-partisan grassroots youth organization dedicated to the preservation of individual liberties and freedoms through limited government,” it says. “YCOP is an organization that enables young principled conservatives the opportunity to participate in the political process. YCOP believes that there is no better way to educate and train young citizens as to the working of our government than to have them directly involved.”
After conservative Pennsylvanians worked long and hard but narrowly lost their fight to nominate conservative Rep. Pat Toomey over incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter for the Republican line in this year’s Senate race, some of the younger insurgents formed the all-volunteer YCOP. Toomey chairs its advisory board, which includes more than ten state representatives. YCOP endorsed President Bush for re-election on September 29.
In the large, closely divided state, “many of our members are campaigning for Bush,” said Charles Mitchell, YCOP’s vice chairman for communications. “We’re doing other endorsements if our local chapters are strong enough to make a difference.”
YCOP is organized by county, not by college, and seeks Pennsylvanians 18 to 40. One candidate it has not endorsed is Specter, even though his Democratic opponent, Joe Hoeffel, is more liberal than he is. Nerves are still raw from the Specter-Toomey fight, in which the Republican establishment, including the trusted Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.), worked hard for Specter.
“I voted for Hoeffel,” said Mitchell, who voted early. “I don’t want Arlen Specter to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hoeffel will have no power. He’ll be a back-bencher who will be knocked off in six years.” He and many other conservatives believe that Specter will block President Bush’s key constructionist judicial nominees.
Mitchell was front and center on the cover of the New York Times Magazine when it did a May 25, 2003, story on “Armies of the Right: The Young Hipublicans.” “I thought the article was quite good,” said Mitchell. The article said: “At campuses across the country, undergraduates like Charles Mitchell have organized for an assault against the university establishment not seen since the 1980s, when Reagan’s popularity triggered a youthquake of conservative campus activism. Today’s surge reflects a renewed shift pronouncedly to the right on many defining issues, after several years during the Clinton presidency when students gravitated toward more liberal political labels.”
Now Mitchell is making news elsewhere. “Charles Mitchell, a senior at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, said the 2001 terrorist attacks forced young people to think about their government in a way they never had. ‘9-11 happened our freshman year. Well, that’s a seminal event of young people’s lives,’ said Mitchell, vice chairman of communications for the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania,” said the Harrisburg Patriot-News, October 3. “It does give people the belief that America is under attack and puts them more in tune with the idea of a strong national defense.”
“Are you pro-life, pro-gun, patriotic, and proud of it?” asks YCOP State Chairman Chris Lilik on the group’s website. “Finally, do you believe in principle over party? Join Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania.”
“We’re trying to do in Pennsylvania what Young Conservatives of Texas did,” said Lilik in an interview. “We’re non-partisan. If a Zell Miller emerges in Pennsylvania, we’d consider supporting him.” Lilik said that much of the network of activists that helped Toomey do so well–though not well enough–in his battle to unseat Specter in the primary has joined YCOP. “We won the western part of the state for Toomey,” he said.
“We want to build in the Northern tier of Pennsylvania,” said Mitchell. “We don’t have many contacts up there.” After graduation, Mitchell says he thinks he might move to Washington, D.C., to “fight the good fight.” He can’t understand why it’s not going better at the moment, at least in the presidential race considering John Kerry’s qualities.
“The race shouldn’t even be close,” he said. “The anti-war protests, the most liberal senator. He’s out of touch and haughty. He’s obviously bad for our security.”