Conservatives aren’t good at hip. We latch onto C-list stars with half-baked political opinions and lavish them with our affections. They have tens or hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, so we put them on our television and radio shows, they’re invited to speak at our conferences and gatherings.
Just as we’re not good at hip, we aren’t good at young. The average donor to conservative organizations is past retirement age. While ads for new strollers follow me around the rest of the Internet, I’m greeted with ads for catheters on the sites that don’t use Google ads, which tailor ads using cookies instead of to the average reader of a website.
Just as conservatives heap praise on undeserving celebrities because there’s so few of them, we make stars out of children who are just starting out in the political world while still in their early teens, because it is so uncommon for a young person to espouse the values of personal responsibility and liberty that we hold dear.
Every conservative politico knows the story of Jonathan Krohn, a conservative wunderkind turned liberal. At 13, he delivered a wildly popular speech at CPAC, and by 17 he was declaring himself a political liberal, just in time to fit in on any college campus in America.
Who could begrudge Krohn’s about-face? He was right when he told Politico that he had been naive in his early teens. He wasn’t naive for believing in conservatism, but instead for being under the impression that he was mature enough to understand enough about politics to form a coherent and longstanding opinion on it.
We Usually Recognize that Children Are Immature
One of the cultural trends that make conservatives like myself aghast is social liberals’ belief that children are capable of charting major courses in their life, like obtaining birth control, an abortion, or choosing their own gender, as if it’s all a page in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Teens are far too often allowed to drastically change the course of their lives without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Conservatives (rightly, might I add) decry these “treatments” and call them what they are: child abuse. Children are not emotionally or intellectually capable of permanent decisions like these, and many others.
At the same age that conservatives have declared children too immature for these choices, we elevate wunderkinds in our midst. Despite our experience with Krohn (which wasn’t that a kid can turn from conservative to liberal, but instead that a kid can simply change his developing mind), we have promoted teens to conservative stardom.
One such kid, who has turned into an abject disaster, is former conservative YouTube star C.J. Pearson. He delivered a few incisive tirades via webcam and famously lied about the fact that the White House had blocked him on Twitter. That’s apparently all it takes to be named a teen “advisor” to your favorite presidential candidate, who, at the time, was Ted Cruz.
The ink wasn’t even dry on his TedCruz.org email address before the 13-year-old Pearson decided to denounce conservatism, and then, after the latest Democratic debate, embrace the Democratic Party. He announced he was joining the Democratic Party and began tweeting with the preferred hashtag of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’s fans, #FeelTheBern.
Pearson did much of his activism without the knowledge or consent of his parents. He reportedly forged his mother’s signature on his contract with a management agency, and his father was unaware of supposed threats made against him on Twitter.
Give the Kids Some Meat
Other conservative wunderkinds have turned out better. Ben Shapiro, an author, columnist, and radio show host, emerged onto the scene with his first book at the age of 17. Christine Rousselle, now the web editor at Townhall, first became known after she penned a viral blog post about her experiences with food stamp-bearing customers as a cashier at Walmart at 20 years old. Daniel Mael became famous for his on-campus activism as a college student at Brandeis University, also in his early twenties.
Since she’s now a close friend, I asked Rousselle how she felt about the piece that made her famous. She told me that while she’s happy with where she is and how she got there, she cringes at the writing in the piece that landed her on front pages around the blogosphere.
If Rousselle, who was then a college student, cringes, how will Pearson feel about watching his YouTube videos one day? In ten years, as he’s perhaps applying for his first job as an accountant, these fiery political statements and about-faces will be the first Google results to greet a future potential employer. While Rousselle, along with Shapiro and Mael, had already settled on a career in politics as they chose their college paths, Pearson is still far too young to do the same.
Shapiro, Rousselle, and Mael made their marks with substantive political writing in their late teens and early twenties, the latter two doing so with investigative pieces, not straight political commentary. They formed their opinions outside of five-minute YouTube soundbites and did their own work. They were never managed by a PR team, as CJ has been. They earned their chops in politics, which is why all three have enjoyed staying power in the conservative movement past their 15 minutes of fame.
Politics Is Not for Children
Even when wunderkinds don’t go off the rails, many can’t stand the heat of the limelight once they find themselves in it. Benji Backer and Madeline McAuley are two such former young stars of the conservative movement. In each of their farewell notes to politics on their personal blogs, Backer and McAuley cite burnout and disillusionment as playing into their decisions to step out of the political world.
Since Pearson’s sudden defection, there has been a great deal of animosity directed at his Twitter account, which the teen supposedly operates. But he is a child, and should be treated as such. He was a child as he professed conservative values and was elevated to irreversible stardom (the Internet is forever), and he is a child now in his defection. To on one hand decry a 13-year old obtaining birth control without her parents’ knowledge or consent and on the other egg on a teen positioning himself behind a political podium before voting age, especially without his parents’ go-ahead, is nothing but hypocritical.
Conservatives know that children aren’t mature enough to make major life decisions, including those that pertain to their online “brand.” When those decisions blow up in their faces, the adults of the conservative movement should act like it, and greet his pronouncements and denouncements with the same grace we hope others would extend to our own children.
Perhaps next time we’ll learn our lesson, and when the next barely teenage wunderkind appears in our midst, we should encourage him or her to join the local debate team, enjoy childhood, and come back to the grown-ups’ podium in a few years.