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Hint: It used to be the Democratic Party

The libertarians/conservatives/billionaires are badly outworking progressives in recruiting college students to right-wing causes. The counter-attack has just started.

The 2014 midterm election results were disappointing and, in some ways shocking, to progressives. The Republicans not only took the majority in the Senate and strengthened their control in the House, but they are also harvested the fruit of seeds planted decades ago. This bounty, young Republican women and minority candidates, who had been courted by the Republican party for years, made history on election night. NBC news presented an insightful analysis of the new Republican Freshman Class, calling them the “Republican Youth Invasion.” The average age of the Senate Republican freshmen class is now 49 years. Utah's Mia Love was elected the first African-American Republican woman in Congress. Elise Stefanik, at age 30, was the youngest woman ever sent to Washington, and South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, was the first black senator elected in the South since reconstruction.

How did the Republicans get into a position of achieving a "youth invasion" of Congress that includes women and minorities? The answer lies inside the conservative pipeline of ideas, candidates, lobbyists, and supporters.

Any high school coach knows that in order for the Varsity team to win next year as well as this year, the bench or pipeline needs to be filled with future team members. Any coach who is trapped in the urgency of this week’s game and does not invest sufficient resources in future seasons will be forever playing catch-up. The right-wing conservative pipeline in the US is brimming with young talent. Since the groundswell of support for our first young, black president in 2008, Republicans have been hard at work putting Republican minority and women candidates on the fast track to electoral office.

Conversely, the Democratic/Progressive pipeline is filled with cracks, holes and entire missing sections. Erica Payne does an excellent analysis of the conservative and progressive pipelines in her book The Practical Progressive: How to Build a 21st Century Political Movement, which Jonathan Alter of Newsweekcalled “a blueprint for a progressive conspiracy to help save the country.” Payne notes that in the contest between funding candidates for office and funding the infrastructure that would produce future candidates, such as funding for progressive groups on university campuses, the urgency of electoral campaigns overwhelmingly starves out the progressive infrastructural funding.

 The pipelines

Today’s conservative pipeline plan is an outgrowth of The Powell Memo of 1971. The Powell Memo was a secret memorandum that described a roadmap to defend capitalism against perceived communist and fascist threats and the progressive victories of the 1960s. The Koch Brothers/John Birch Society infrastructure of today is the Powell Memo on steroids. The conservative pipeline structure has followed the Powell Memo recommendations in many ways. The front end of the pipeline starts with recruiting, mentoring, organizing and funding college students and professors.

The Target

The millennial generation presents a large threat to the Republican Party. The millennial’s are the largest block of voters in America. They are more progressive than any other generation. The Republicans understand that they have no choice but to win over a large segment of the millennial voters in order to protect their political power, and they are working tirelessly to do just that. Conservatives are actively recruiting future young right-wing intellectuals and candidates. One way this is being done is though rebranding and repackaging conservative ideology on university campuses. The conservative brand, in an effort to be more attractive to the millennials, is now being sold in the form of the new Libertarian brand.


Let's take a closer look at the front end of the pipeline that starts in college. Examining the University of California, we get a quick and eye-opening view of both the progressive and conservative pipelines. Let's take a look at three colleges, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Berkeley as examples of the University of California campuses. UCLA is the largest college in the UC system with 40,000 graduate and undergraduate students. UCLA has 1,000 student groups, of which 50 are political groups. Of the 50 political groups, UCLA has 11 Conservative/Republican/Libertarian Groups. Of the 50 political groups, until 2014 with the advent of Progressive Leaders for Democratic Action, which will be discussed below, UCLA had no progressive groups.

UC Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement and the iconic liberal college in America, has 1,055 student groups and 49 political groups. Berkeley has no progressive student groups at all.

At UC Santa Barbara, there are 400 student groups and 11 political groups. UCSB has no progressive student groups.

UC Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement and the iconic liberal college in America, has 1,055 student groups and 49 political groups. Berkeley has no progressive student groups at all.

Most colleges do have Young Democrat and Young Republican groups. Most of the political groups are single-issue groups or ethnic groups, however. Therefore, having a college “Democratic” group is not the same as having a student “Progressive” group.

 A closer look

Let's take a closer look some of the 11 Conservative Republican/Libertarian groups at UCLA. The groups are:

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  • American Enterprise Institute Student Organization at UCLA
  • Bruin Libertarians
  • Bruin Republicans
  • Federalist Society
  • Intercollegiate Studies Institute
  • Republican Armenians
  • Second Amendment Society
  • Young Americans for Freedom
  • Young Americans for Liberty
  • Heritage & Cato Internships

As apparent in the names of these groups, organizations like American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Cato are supported by some of America’s right-wing billionaires.

Framing and the Message

College students are in a stage of life where their political beliefs and values are being discovered and shaped. Conservative college groups do an excellent job of driving home talking points framed around values, especially the values of freedom and liberty, rather than political issues. For instance, they won't actually say that they are pro-global warming or pro air and water pollution. They say that they believe in liberty and freedom, and that they support protecting the liberty and freedom of corporations and their freedom to operate without regulations. After all, according to college libertarians, liberty, freedom and independence are the values of our founding fathers!


Conservative groups are funded at very impressive levels. Conservative money flows to all of these groups, with the Koch brothers funding many of them. One of these groups, the Federalist Society, was funded with $5 million! The Koch brothers are not pushing the “Republican” brand, however, because the “Republican” brand name has lost its appeal to many millennials. The Koch brothers, instead, spread their investments around to different groups that are pushing the "Liberty, Freedom and Isolationist" brand of Libertarianism. These groups just happen to vote with Republicans.

What’s the Solution?

Since Progressive voters have one of the highest levels of education, the natural place to start progressive groups is at universities. Starting, mentoring and supporting any college group takes effort and resources, however. Funding these college groups must be a top priority for progressives.

In 2014, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) took on the challenge of creating and supporting young progressives with the establishment of the Progressive Leaders for Democratic Action (PLDA), the first progressive student group at UCLA. In 2014, ADA sponsored a three month paid Fellowship in order to attract progressive students to initiate and build the group. After creating a social marketing strategy, PLDA built a website and Facebook page to attract and enroll new students.

PLDA students are now getting real world experience promoting progressive issues and candidates. PLDA has worked on three electoral campaigns during the past year, one for Congress and two for the California State Legislature. Students participated in two day-long retreats. They learned about many topics including the “Logic Model/Theory of Change" which was used as a platform to plan activities for the upcoming semester.

PLDA students were involved in a statewide tuition increase protest and initiated a protest supporting the UCLA diversity class requirement that is under attack at the time of this writing. They also attended a 50-year commemoration of the UCLA Freedom Riders.

Our PLDA President/Fellow attended our ADA Convention and Banquet in Washington DC where Senator Bernie Sanders was honored. He participated in training seminars and lobbied the offices of Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein.

The millennial generation has the power to be the deathblow to the Republican Party or to secure the future of the Republican Party.

The conservative political juggernaut is actively and systematically misleading the millennial generation on college campuses throughout the US. It is imperative that progressives recognize the extent of this problem and take action to protect and support progressive groups on campus, such as PLDA. If we do not put as much thought and resources into building a youth movement as the conservatives do, we should all prepare to be living under a Republican controlled government for a very long time.

joe cicero

Joe Cicero
Peace Action West

Republished from with the American Institute for Progressive Action author's permission.