Laura Dunnagan – One year after receiving their charter, members of Davidson College’s Young Americans for Freedom—better known as YAF—are celebrating their progress as a student organization. This organization seeks to promote conservatism and add to the political discourse on campus. YAF is not affiliated with any political party or specific candidate; rather, it is an ideological, issue-based organization that encourages participation from students who have a wide range of opinions.
Since gaining its charter, YAF has been advocating for the inclusion of conservatism in what some argue is a largely liberal dialogue at Davidson.
“We’re trying to bring awareness to the idea that there’s another perspective on campus,” says Haley Hamblin ‘19, one of the co-founders of YAF. “I think often that Davidson, as evidenced by the student groups, the speakers brought in, and by the academic departments, is left-leaning. We’re trying to show that there is another side and to provide a space for students to organize and have a space where they can discuss these things and figure out where they stand and how other opinions fit into that.”
As YAF is not affiliated with a political party, their meetings, discussions, and events focus on the conservative ideology and how it can be interpreted through specific issues and policies. Hamblin comments that particularly after the election, YAF leadership had to be strict in differentiating between ideological conservatism and how conservatism is portrayed in the larger realm of politics.
“We have a lot of conversations within the organization about what conservatism looks like and how it manifests itself in certain policies, and we all have different opinions about that,” comments Hamblin. “But it was difficult to separate conservatism from Trump. One thing I struggle with being more right-leaning is that a lot of people assume conservatism equals republicanism equals Trump, and that’s definitely not true.”
Kenny Xu ‘19, the other co-founder of YAF, states that the group has grown dramatically since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year. Xu says that this growth in membership and large turnout to YAF-sponsored events has emboldened members to speak out and demonstrate the diversity of conservative opinions on campus.
“YAF is trying to promote all conservative voices,” says Xu. “You can be libertarian conservative, religious conservative, nationalist conservative— we have all of them in YAF. That’s something we pride ourselves on. We have conservatives of all stripes who want a place where they can be in a community with other conservatives and can be active and expressive in their beliefs.”
Additionally, Hamblin noted that conservatism, like all other political ideologies, can be assumed to be one broad consensus, and due to the small number of conservatives on campus, this assumption has previously gone unchallenged. “There is a diversity of conservative opinions. [But] because conservatism on campus is small, it is hard to see different kinds of conservatism. We have people that support Trump; we have people that are against Trump; and we have people that are moderate,” says Hamblin. “Regarding perception on campus, if one individual in YAF is very vocal, that opinion is usually attributed to all of YAF, and that’s a fallacy.”
YAF not only encourages a diversity of conservative opinion; the organization has seen an increase of non-conservative student membership, as well, particularly since the election.
Jonathan Swann ‘18 identifies as politically liberal, yet joined YAF after the election as an opportunity to engage in discussions that would challenge his beliefs. After meeting with individual members of YAF who voted for Trump, Swann decided to attend YAF meetings.
“I feel like people aren’t trying to engage with the other side, especially with the political hyperpolarization,” says Swann. “I went to YAF meetings, to a pro-life speaker YAF sponsored who talked about abortion, and I joined the YAF Speaker Committee. The opportunity to bring conservative speakers to campus to talk about issues is really important, especially in regards to college campuses being liberal spaces where conservative ideas are suppressed.”
Swann says that although he disagrees with much of the conservative ideology, he appreciates YAF’s mission and learns from their discussions and events. “I think it’s important to listen and respect conservative viewpoints, even if you do disagree,” says Swann. “I’m really glad to be part of YAF even though I’m a liberal…listening and talking to them has been really great.”
Wilson Pava ‘19 is another liberal student who joined YAF post-election to engage with students across the political aisle. “I was pleasantly surprised by the wide range of the political spectrum that’s represented,” says Pava. “I think YAF is a good place for debate and discussion, even if the organization can be alienating.” Pava expressed disapproval of some YAF events, specifically the “March Liberal Madness” bracket, which calls attention to liberal extremism. He notes that these events do not represent the views of all YAF members.
The broad range of ideologies, both conservative and otherwise, help YAF members push their boundaries and connect with students through political engagement.
“We can have these argumentative, passionate debates, then come back and really be friends,” says Xu. “We’re trying to encourage a mentality, not just among YAF [members] but among the campus, to embrace that kind of ideal. Naturally, that’s a long process, and that’s something we’re fighting for—we’re fighting for a culture we believe will foster the best intellectual discourse.”
“Part of higher education is being challenged,” says Hamblin. “We often come from communities that are similar to our beliefs, places that are pretty homogeneous, so coming to college is one of the first times a lot of people experience a heterogeneous environment. YAF’s goal is to push back against the Davidson echo chamber and allow different voices and opinions to be shared in a way that’s respectful. Often we want to see changes, we just disagree on how that change should happen. The opinions of all sides are valid, and it’s important to recognize that.”
YAF’s previous events have included hosting speakers—such as Bay Buchanan—, writing appreciation cards to veterans, and commemorating 9/11. On April 11, the organization will host its next event; a student panel that will focus on what boundaries, if any, should exist in free speech.