Few would accuse the average Tea Partyer of youthful inexperience.
The movement has a reputation, not unfounded, as a grassroots organization comprised of the middle-aged and elderly, not college students.
Despite that, this weekend Phoenix, Ariz., will play host to the first National Tea Party Students Conference, as part of the American Policy Summit, a convention aimed at promoting and continuing the Tea Party movement. The event has secured 50-some seats and five major political student organizations committed to the conference — but bringing the youth into the movement remains an uphill battle.
A fall 2010 survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics showed only 11 percent of youths 18 to 29 support the Tea Party. Another poll, by Quinnipiac University, has the youth giving a more favorable view of the Tea Party: 18 percent.
“What it means is that the Tea Party will go extinct if it doesn’t excel at student-youth outreach,” said Daniel Oliver, the founder of Tea Party Students and organizer of this weekend’s conference. “Raising awareness of Tea Party values on campuses will turn these statistics upside down.”
“Extinction might be too strong a word,” said John Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “But all political movements have a life cycle.”
Like the Perot movement in the 1990s, Pitney said the Tea Party runs the threat of running out of steam after creating the very structural changes the movement sought.
Exceptions like the 1960 political movement withstanding, Pitney said political movements typically concern older generations as younger people generally aren’t interested in policy issues, such as pension reform, even though youths do have a stake in their financial future.
The country’s financial future may be the reason younger conservatives are at least friendly to the Tea Party movement, though.
Matthew Berry, a sophomore and College Republican at Tulane University, said he thinks the Tea Party has done a lot of good for the conservative movement, bringing members disenfranchised by the Bush administration back into the fold.
“As someone who’s first and foremost a Republican, I think it’s great to see some libertarians return to the Republican party,” Berry said.
Fittingly, libertarians have the edge at the conference this weekend. Oliver, 25, said the top five conservative/libertarian youth organizations — The Leadership Institute, Students For Liberty, Young America’s Foundation, Young Americans for Liberty and the Young Americans for Freedom — will all attend.
“The Tea Party is not any one ideology, it’s a big tent movement,” Oliver said. “This shows how the Tea Party brand helps to bring people together.”
Corie Whalen, 22, is the south-central regional director for Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) and said she’s been a part of the Tea Party movement since the start. After all, she said she was the main coordinator at the 2009 Boston Tea Party protest, featuring Sarah Palin.
Whalen, who considers herself a “libertarian leaning conservative Republican,” said many in YAL, and youths in general, don’t identify with the Tea Party.
The problem, Whalen believes, can be attributed to the media’s characterization of the Tea Party, which has alienated the young, and politically active youths.
Bonnie Kristian, communications coordinator for YAL, agreed, saying Tea Party members tend to be older. Kristian said YAL works with the Tea Party to support similar goals, like fiscal conservatism and smaller government, while providing the youth and energy the Tea Party needs around.
While she said there is strength in numbers and that YAL encourages its chapters to work with local Tea Parties during tax season, supporting the Tea Party year round isn’t the group’s goal. Though, she said, YAL does end up working with the Tea Party more often than it does with other groups.
She said the central issue of the Tea Party is fiscal conservatism – a center Tea Parties may have found thanks to Texas Congressman Ron Paul who’s driven a large following with libertarians and Tea Party members.
Paul’s success, or lack thereof, on the national stage could be a telling national political reality for the Tea Party, though.
Pitney said the Tea Party may not be as strong in the presidential election because they placed so many Tea Party candidates in Congress. He said most movements go through the issue attention cycle, where a hot button issue emerges and creates a movement, which in turn creates structural change which in turn has the issue cool off.
But, Pitney said most movements, like environmentalism, leave a residue which could lead to another Tea Party-esque tax revolt.
“Today’s young people are tomorrow’s middle-aged people,” he said.
Michael Mayday is a staff writer for the Hillsdale Collegian. He is a member of the Student Free Press Association.