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  • Celebrating 50 Years of YAF

    9/10/2010 11:00:49 AM Posted by Roger Custer

    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).  

    How Youthful Optimism Begat Real Change 

    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 predictions. 

    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 of government.”

    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 is over.”

    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 the individual.” 

    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.

    We 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.

    WAYNE 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).


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