The John Birkenstock Society
In an upstairs room at the U of M's Coffman Union, plans for a counterrevolution are being hatched. Tom Meyer, a 19-year-old neuroscience student, has an idea for a John Kerry Olympics. "It would be a good way to piss people off and get our name out there," he says. Meyer is tall and boxy, and wears a T-shirt with a cartoon elephant flashing a middle digit. The words, "Kerry this, Hippie! This is Bush-Cheney Country, Biiiaaatch!" are inscribed in chunky lettering across the front. The Kerry Olympics, to be held sometime soon on campus, consist of participants running a flip-flop race, tossing a makeshift grenade into a pile of rice, throwing fake medals over a fence, and possibly gobbling a waffle.
Welcome to a meeting of the Campus Republicans, where after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and asking God for wisdom in plotting their next steps, a group of guys from late teens to thirtysomething discusses gun control, Social Security, hating Michael Moore, and Fetus Festivals. To this group of conservative young voters, a dead Joe McCarthy is a better candidate for president than Democrat John Kerry.
The independent conservative organization, whose goal is to ensure that the Republican Party remains as conservative as possible, split from the Minnesota College Republicans in 2000. The group also is at the heart of conservative offshoot groups like Students for Family Values; Students for a Conservative Voice; Students for Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the conservative campus newspaper, the Minnesota Patriot. "I think we should do a festival of the fetus," says Tom Gromacki, an elder of the bunch who is running for House representative in District 60A. "It's a pro-life fundraiser where we have all of the little plastic fetuses [that we handed out on campus]. Maybe we could fill up a fetus piñata," he suggests. Everyone laughs as if this is the most ridiculous thing they've ever heard. Destroying a fetus piñata strikes the group as plain silly. But an Easter egg hunt for tiny pink plastic fetuses--that's the ticket! "During the Lent season, we're going to have the first annual hunt for life," says Marty Andrade, a 23-year-old psychology and philosophy student. Last year, the group organized an affirmative action bake sale where the goods were priced based on the purchaser's ethnicity.
These events are intended to incite a reaction. And while many people are angered, Meyer claims that a large number of students find these actions speak to them and for them. "I think campuses in general are becoming more conservative," says Campus Republican ringleader Orlando Ochoada, who also ran for state representative in District 62A in 2000 (he received a little less than 14 percent of the vote). "The interesting thing about college campuses is that they galvanize people," he continues. "People who maybe weren't that conservative when they came here become more conservative because they are agitated by all the liberalism."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on September 10 found that Kerry led Bush by only 3 points among 18- to 29-year-olds, which amounted to a 28-point turnaround in Bush's favor over just five weeks. Here in Minnesota, the Minnesota College Republicans have had the largest recruiting drive of any state in the organization's 112-year history. Since the beginning of the school year on September 7, the group has registered 5,000 new members on 68 campuses, doubling its numbers from the end of last year. At the Twin Cities campus alone, 600 new members got on board in a two-week period. By contrast, the College Democrats estimate their membership at 3,000 to 5,000 statewide, or half that of the College Republicans.
Jake Grassel, chairman for the Minnesota College Republicans, attributes much of the growth to the president's perceived leadership after September 11. "The aftermath and the effects on the state of our nation really opened people's minds and ears to listening to our elected officials and the viewpoints that they had," says the 23-year-old finance and marketing student at Bethel University. "We've been able to see and listen to and study the president and how he has conducted the war on terror." According to Grassel, the trend isn't relegated to only Minnesota: The College Republicans now boast a nationwide membership of 40,000.
Aside from a renewed sense of patriotism after 9/11, the guys in Campus Republicans say the trend is propelled by a number of other hard-line issues. For one, they say, the fear that Social Security is drying up has made young people more interested in their economic future. "Young people are becoming more savvy about economics and finances," says 22-year-old biochemistry student Jeff Dahl. The bespectacled and brainy Dahl was a Nader supporter in 2000 before befriending members of the Campus Republicans. There's also a resurgence of religiosity among younger voters. And because many young Republicans are the Reagan-era spawn of post-hippie baby boomers, the embrace of conservative values is a natural means of rebellion for many of them. "Plus, young people love guns," Dahl adds.
Gromacki shifts in his seat and offers another idea: "The Democrats have aborted part of their election base," he says. "You look at all those millions of people who didn't attain voting age that typically could've been voting for the Democratic Party. Maybe the ratio is skewed because Republicans made it out of the womb." He cites statistics that 60 percent of people vote the way their mother did (though the numbers don't hold up in this room of young voters, all of whom say they grew up with mothers who were either apolitical or Democrats).
Though much of the group's focus is on abortion issues, the men don't wince when asked why there are no women in the room (though one finally shows up later at an after-meeting get-together at Big 10). Currently, they say the male-to-female ratio is about 8 to 2. "They come and never come back," says Ochoada. "If we had Tupperware parties and stuff, we'd have more women," Dahl offers. It's unclear whether he's kidding.
Andrade, wearing an Ochoada campaign T-shirt from 2000, pipes up to talk about what he describes as the rampant immorality exemplified by overt sexual imagery in pop culture and the much-publicized Enron scandal. "They're lying about their profit margin to get a better return on their stock price," he says. "And that's wrong." And as for the Halliburton scandal and its connection to war profiteering? "I don't know to what extent Dick Cheney is involved in that," Ochoada interrupts. "In a general sense, it was the right thing to do to go to war in Iraq. We are better off." To that end, the removal of Saddam Hussein trumps the administration's alleged lack of moral fortitude. And despite their interest in financial security, the largest deficit in history isn't a factor in their vote, either. "Everything costs more now," says Ochoada. "In relation to everything else, the deficit is not the highest."
Despite the administration's many problems, the group contends more and more young people are finding Republican values a natural fit. "Republicans want to get the government out of people's lives, whereas the Democrats try to social engineer," Gromacki says, citing the smoking ban as an example. He says the conservative Republicans aren't engaged in a form of social engineering when they try to ban abortion, deny marriage to same-sex couples, or use religion to justify various social policies. "Uhh...It's a reversal of social engineering. We want to leave it up to the family unit," he says, stammering a bit. Dahl concurs. It's spontaneous order and not social engineering that the Republicans encourage: "It's the kind of society people naturally engage in by their nature, like a man and a woman. It's just how people are made."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.