The much-ballyhooed young conservative movement of the early 1980’s may soon come to an inglorious and grinding halt. While the early 80’s were marked by a certain gusto on the part of conservatives fighting to overthrow entrenched liberals, the middle 80’s are a time of unwarranted complacency. One can almost hear cries of “Reagan is in and all’s well!” throughout the land. But the hard fact is that while we have a conservative White House, the Congress (not to mention most state houses) is still in the hands of the old establishment.

This unwarranted complacency, what I call “unsecure security,” has its most devastating effects on college campuses, the breeding ground of activism. Those who started the latest wave of campus conservatism, the people who founded at least 70 conservative newspapers and hundreds of conservative forum groups in the early 1980’s, have all since graduated. They are no longer around to guide and rally their campus troops. The new campus leaders were just entering high school when Ronald Reagan was first elected President. Their memories are of the Reagan Honeymoon and the pitiful administration of Jimmy Carter that preceded it. George McGovern, Vietnam, and Watergate are only vague memories, and a serious liberal opposition is no more real than the bogeyman.

Complacency has become evident even among such bastions of attention-grabbing outrageousness as The Dartmouth Review. Cone are the days of mangled “Mr. Bill” and burning cross cover photos. A typical issue now sports a portrait of an administrator or athlete on the cover. At my own alma mater, The Northwestern Review has—of all things—moved more toward the center in search of more staff; a recent issue carried a feature on one Professor Robert Eisner, devoted Keynesian, calling him “one of Northwestern’s greatest assets.” Such praise of a professor who tells students that “inflation doesn’t matter” would have been anathema to the old guard at the Review, and indeed raised considerable criticism from the right when it was published. The long-fought battle to return the American flag to the Northwestern campus (in which we chalked up a victory last year) would probably not occur now, in the age of complacency.

The new generation seems to regard the old battling and point-making as eccentric or even undignified. They fail to recognize that such things are occasionally necessary to sustain interest in a campus conservative organization—the element of boisterousness needed to inspire the team in a serious game.

If any institution has encouraged a return to business as usual, it is the Republican Party, which never altered from its staid, slightly right-of-center course. This became painfully apparent during the 1984 primary season, when conservative Congressman Tom Corcoran challenged Republican Senator Charles Percy. When Northwestern Republicans organized 47 workers for the local Republican organization, the Evanston (where NU is located) chairman made it clear that these eager young people were distinctly unwelcome. As it happened, about two-thirds of them were conservatives, and the erstwhile chairman was skittish of the possibility of having a Percy endorsement bungled. The rules were changed at the last minute to deny the Northwesterners membership, and 47 workers were sent back to campus, along with an admonition that students ought to vote at home, instead of the place where they spend about 10 months of the year.

Those who worked on the campus Reagan-Bush campaign were a distinctly timid and complacent bunch, signing up more in order to say they had worked for Reagan-Bush than for any real activism, or so it seemed. When Geraldine Ferraro made a campaign stop at Northwestern, a group of peaceful “Fritz-Busters” was organized for the event, but not by the Reagan-Bush crowd—the Conservative Council arrived nearly 100 strong. Reagan- Bush types were noticeably absent.

The picture is not entirely bleak, in spite of a currently meek generation of conservatives on campus. There now exists an unprecedented conservative infrastructure for campus activists. The Leadership Institute, Institute for Educational Affairs, National Journalism Center, and many other fine organizations are working hard to sustain the campus conservative movement and to place conservatives in positions that matter (politically) after graduation.

Dartmouth Review alumni are now spread about media and public policy circles. Co-founder Gregory Fossedal now writes for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Dinesh D’Souza and Benjamin Hart are now at the Heritage Foundation. Albert Veldhuyzen, who was a driving force in building the Northwestern Conservative Council, is now with the Leadership Institute. There are a number of others who have graduated to similar positions.

But the danger remains. The days of hapless Carter-Mondale Democrats are gone. The left learned a hard lesson in 1984 and is reorganizing into a force that must be taken seriously once again. Conservative complacency, unsecure security, will invite defeat.

If the stage was set in the early 80’s, the real show will play out in the late 80’s. The future beyond Reagan is a question. Whether the gist of the answer is positive or negative for conservatism depends a great deal upon whether or not a successful leadership transition and subsequent revitalization of the conservative movement occurs on campuses.