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How conservatives want to break Bernie Sanders’s spell over young Americans

These young Americans are sold on conservatives' anti-socialist messages

Volunteers at the Turning Point USA booth wait to speak with people attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2017.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Volunteers at the Turning Point USA booth wait to speak with people attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2017.

Mercedes Schlapp was delivering a warning about the dangers of young Americans' support for socialism when she turned to face the thousands of conservatives in the crowd.

"Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — this is your responsibility," Schlapp, a columnist at the Washington Times, told a Conservative Political Action Conference event on Thursday. "You have to take this message to your children and your nieces and nephews."

Schlapp was moderating a panel titled "FREE-stuff vs. FREE-dom: Millennials' love affair with Bernie Sanders." It was both an exploration of young people's skepticism toward capitalism and a brainstorming session for what should be done about it.

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"The old story used to be, 'Wait until they have a mortgage, and then they'll become conservative,'" said Timothy F. Mooney, an attendee who is a partner at the Republican political consulting firm Silver Bullet. "I honestly don't think that's true anymore."

This week marks a celebratory moment for attendees of CPAC — the first such conference since Republicans captured both branches of Congress and the White House this November. But beneath much of the enthusiasm, some conservatives here acknowledge they're also worried that their recent victories could be undone by a generational shift toward the left.

After all, "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders won more votes from those under 30 than any other presidential candidate in primary history. Donald Trump is wildly unpopular with people under 30 (they disapprove of his job performance by a 67-25 margin, according to Pew), and millennials will soon be the country's biggest voting bloc. And polls show that, for the first time ever, young people are more supportive of "socialism" than "capitalism."

Conservatives and free market adherents are well aware of the trend-lines — and wrestling with their response.

"You have to go out every day and argue about lower taxes"

On Thursday, 23-year-old Jonathan Stack was at CPAC with a group of young conservatives called Turning Point USA. Dozens of Turning Point students milled around the convention hall, wearing matching T-shirts with "Socialism Sucks" written on the front in Sanders's iconic font and style. The Bernie-themed shirts serve as a way of drawing young people into a conversation that can become an explanation of conservative and free market principles, Stack said.

"When I go out to campuses, people immediately see this and they walk right up. Then they see what we're talking about and we can have a good discussion," says Stack, a student at Penn State.

Of course, not every Sanders supporter is a willing convert. But Stack says many are persuadable, and he is convinced more will become so during the Trump years: "Right now, it's just a Bernie Sanders fad … I really believe in what Trump and the Republicans can do with full control — when people see those changes in two or three years, they'll change on capitalism."

"It's all about articulating what it means to be an American. … That sense of history and understanding, I think, will make a big difference." -Rep. Ron DeSantis, (R-FL)

Similarly, other Turning Point students agreed they had close friends who supported Sanders — but that those friends didn't understand the implications of his socialism. "I don't know if they know what the true form of socialism really means," said Isaac Michaud, of the University of Maine.

Once Sanders's fans did understand, many of the students believed, they'd change course. Added Alli McGough, 21, of the University of Iowa: "I have a lot of friends who like Bernie. But they don't understand it — they just hear, 'Free stuff; that's what I want.' … They don't understand how taxes work. It's just what's cool right now."

Joe Field, 17, a high school senior from Davenport, Iowa, said he has gone to activist training summits to learn about conservative principles. Davis is "frequently debating" friends of his who support Sanders — in his government classes, on weekends, in school — because he thinks there's no guarantee they'll eventually come back into the fold.

"You can't just ignore them and say they'll come around," Field said. "You have to go out every day and argue about lower taxes, and 'no tariffs,' and stuff like that."

Conservatives: we need American education to warn of socialism's dangers

Older conservatives also cited a range of tools they hope will snap the Sanders spell. Some said young Americans would fall out of love with socialism as they grew older. Others expressed hope that an accelerating economy would improve millennials' faith in capitalism.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) said in a panel discussion that if millennials saw that national monuments that pay homage to America's heroes, they'd be more likely to adopt American values.

"Come to Washington, go to the National Mall and see the memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — all of these great people who stood for all of these great ideas," DeSantis said. "It's all about articulating what it means to be an American. … That sense of history and understanding, I think, will make a big difference."

Overwhelmingly, most argued the biggest difference would come from changing American education. Chris Astriab, 64, of Fairfax, Virginia, said students had forgotten "Economics 101" because they failed to teach it school.

"They need basic economics about how the free market works," Astriab said. "These kids are so spoiled today that they don't even realize that the free market made them a possibility. That's the biggest problem."

Other attendees cited the need to use government resources to reform American universities because the "indoctrination just starts younger and younger these days," said Brandon Johnson, 43.

"I don't know if it's through cutting of use of funding or civil rights lawsuits, since a lot of these universities do engage in organized conspiracies to suppress assembly by conservative groups," said Johnson, a lawyer who volunteered on the Trump campaign.

"If professors are saying 'Trump is Hitler' in class, if they want to use their teaching pulpit to bully their students, they should be willing to deal with the consequences. Change the tenure system."

Show them the dangers of the Soviet Union, remind them what capitalism does

If fixing higher education didn't work, conservative attendees stressed that young Americans needed to be reminded of life under the Soviet Union, arguing that they were insufficiently aware of the dangers of authoritarian states under communism.

"They need to take a one-week ticket to Cuba, spend some time there, and then come back and tell me about socialism," said Ana Quintana, of the Heritage Foundation, at the CPAC panel about Sanders.

This was a common refrain: The panel repeatedly mentioned lessons from countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and the former Soviet Union, saying that millennials had to understand that socialism is inseparable from dictatorship. Dr. Greg Dolin, a senior fellow at the American Conservative Union and another panelist, agreed with Quintana: "Part of the problem is millennials are in thrall with socialism because they haven't experienced it; they've only seen flowery eulogies to Fidel Castro."

The panelists also argued that young people simply hadn't realized that many of the products that they know and like are created by capitalism. They saw an unrecognized contradiction between millennial consumption habits and their political ideology.

"Guess who is using Uber?" Dolin said. "[Millennials] like the freedom and the ability to pick up the phone and order food from any of the 20 restaurants in town. But you cannot have Uber and a socialist-run health care system — it's both or neither."

But despite the panels discussions and campus drives, at least one attendee remained convinced there was essentially nothing conservatives could do to cure young people's love of socialism. "The only people Bernie appeals to are those in college with no direction, who are like welfare students and welfare people whose money is paid for by their parents," said Geraldine Davie, 76, of Virginia.

"There's nothing conservatives can do to change those mush for brains. They're just going to have to wait … When they have a job and a baby, they can talk to me about socialism. Because then they'll say, 'no thanks' and become rugged individualists."