This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Sharon Statement, which officially launched Young Americans for Freedom and the young conservative movement nationwide. Long-time Young America's Foundation board member Wayne Thorburn offers the below reflections on the impact of this organization through the years, and has authored a new book on the subject entitled A Generation Awakes: Young Americans for Freedom and the Creation of the Conservative Movement (Jameson Books, 2010).
By Wayne Thorburn
September 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of
the founding of Young Americans for Freedom, an organization that had a
significant impact on the development of the conservative movement in the
latter half of the 20th century.
While the young
radicals of the left were trying to tear down American
society in the 1960s, it was the optimism of the young radicals of the right
who succeeded in transforming much of American society. This optimism and its
motivation for the young conservatives can be seen clearly in the results of a
survey from the mid-sixties.
In the summer of 1966, a doctoral
student in sociology contacted the national office of Young Americans for
Freedom and obtained permission to survey those attending the organization’s
summer leadership conference. As part of
the survey, the YAF members were asked to imagine the nation’s path from 1966
to 2000. Their responses showed an
optimistic outlook about the future of American politics and some cannily accurate
One YAF member foresaw a decline in
America’s economic and international standing in the 1960s and 1970s, followed
by a turn towards conservative principles.
“Finally in the 1980s or thereabouts the American people realize that
economic security is not necessarily freedom… They realize the economy is
becoming too regimented and the government too bureaucratic. The people will
then change the trend of events back to common sense, conservative principles
Yet another young conservative
predicted a series of events in the near future: 1968, conservative victory;
1972, Reagan elected President; 1976 Reagan re-elected; 1978 fall of Soviet
Russia; 1980, fall of Red China; 1985, end of welfare, social security, and
Medicare; 2000, end of unions. As the
researchers concluded, “Compared with their SDS counter-parts on the Left,
YAFers seem to have a mountain of naïve faith.”
Some 45 years later, this “naïve
faith” seems to have been rather prescient. Change a few of the dates and
modify a few of the conclusions and these YAF members, then only high school
and college students, have laid out the history of public policy of the last
third of the 20th Century.
Nixon’s victory in 1968 brought both a re-alignment in American politics
as well as, admittedly, the disgrace of Watergate, impeachment and
resignation. Reagan’s victory came eight
years after the YAFer’s prediction and was indeed followed by a landslide
re-election. It took nine more years for the Berlin Wall to fall, closely
followed by the demise of the Soviet Union.
Then, in his 1993 State of the Union address, a new Democratic President
promised to “end welfare as we know it,” and the reforms were enacted a short
while later as conservatives gained a majority in the U. S. House of
Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
Two years later that same President declared “the era of big government
No longer was the talk of allowing
alternatives to social security limited to academic discussions, and the
establishment of individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans provided
additional means of preparing for retirement.
Educational vouchers were being used in school systems across the
country, including in the District of Columbia. Conservative concepts and
proposals were not only being discussed, they were being implemented in areas
foreseen only as hopeful possibilities by the YAF members of the mid-sixties.
Looking back from the present it is
not merely the optimism of youth nor the ability to predict the future that is
most significant in these projections.
Something even more important can be seen: this “naïve faith” of 1966
became the battle cry for the young conservative activists as they moved on to
involvement in American politics throughout the remainder of the century. In
adulthood, they contributed to making their faith a reality in so many ways
that affected American society and moved it in a more conservative
direction. What is just as amazing is that
this optimism about the future of America and the conservative beliefs they
held was being expressed less than two years after the devastating defeat of
their candidate for the presidency.
These college and high school students could look beyond a time when a
conservative candidate carried only six states to a time when a conservative
President would win 49 states in his re-election.
Students who were beginning to
identify their values with conservatism in the early 1960s had few resources on
which to draw. Nevertheless, their commitment to conservatism was aided by the
appearance of a limited collection of works from writers such as Whittaker
Chambers, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ayn Rand,
among others. Along with the fortnightly
National Review and the monthly The Freeman, these works
supported an intellectual foundation for their newly developed beliefs and
provided, as researcher Lawrence Schiff noted, “a means by and through which
the young conservatives can come out in the open on campus and, more significantly,
the embrace of the conservative ideology can come out in the open from within
For those who became campus
conservatives in the early 1960s, there was only a nascent conservative
movement to support and encourage them, no litany of organizations devoted to
espousing conservative policies and principles, only a limited collection of
books on philosophy and current issues, and a few periodicals beyond National
Review, Human Events, and The Freeman. In essence, there was little more than a
Goldwater campaign and Young Americans for Freedom. Young conservatives today confront an
environment that is quite different from that of some fifty years ago. As a movement developed and established
itself, the resources needed to assist college and high school students in
their philosophical journey became much more available. Today’s students do not stand isolated and
apart but rather can tap into an established movement covering a wide spectrum
of conservative views, beliefs, approaches, and interests. They can “come out in the open” knowing that
they will be supported by others and have access to resources never thought
possible by their predecessors some forty or fifty years ago.
Young Americans for Freedom was born
at a time when few identified with the term “conservative” and many associated
it with unsavory opinions. To overcome
this unpopularity and negative connotations it took the power of both ideas and
individuals. Through their efforts to boldly proclaim conservatism in hostile
campus environments the members of Young Americans for Freedom played critical
roles in advancing the philosophy of conservatism. That philosophy took hold and became
personified in William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry M. Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan,
without whom conservatism would not have become the dominant philosophical
identification it is today.
Despite the fact that the Democratic
party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2010, the
American people identify more with the term conservative than any other. Summarizing sixteen surveys conducted by the
Gallup organization in 2009, one finds that 40% of Americans chose the label
conservative while only 21% identified with the term liberal. This is a drastic change from the early
1960s, when liberal was the more accepted label. It is in this framework that the history of
Young Americans for Freedom is in so many ways the history of the development
of the conservative movement and of the growth in support for conservatism
among the American people.
are now well into the 21st Century and new challenges and
opportunities confront the youth of America.
Thanks to the efforts of Young Americans for Freedom and those who were
nurtured by it, there are ample resources available to assist today’s young
conservatives. It is their turn and
their time to assume leadership in the conservative movement and in American
society. They too, like their
predecessors, are concerned about the future of America and are committed to
bringing about positive change in a conservative direction. The history of
Young Americans for Freedom shows a dedication to principle can indeed bring
about change. Today’s young
conservatives have a responsibility and an opportunity to do the same.
THORBURN was a long-time board member of Young America's Foundation and author of A Generation Awakes: Young Americans for Freedom and
the Creation of the Conservative Movement (Jameson Books, 2010).