Young conservatives target 'wokeism' on US campuses
The University of Virginia campus, where young conservatives are grouping together against 'woke' progressives

Charlottesville (United States) (AFP) - Back in high school, Jack used to be picked on for his politics. Now, as a college student, he is banding together with like-minded conservatives to fight back against what they see as the tyranny of "wokeism."

"They called me names, called me bigoted, like backwards and whatnot," the first-year student, who asked not to use his last name, told AFP recently on the sprawling campus of the University of Virginia, a few hours south of the US capital.

"I got excluded from groups due to my political views," said the young man, who describes himself as "moderately conservative."

In a trend mirrored across the United States, Jack has been a part of student pushback against a "woke" ideology they see as dominating the traditionally left-leaning culture of college campuses.

Once a rallying cry for Americans to be alert to systemic racism and injustice, "wokeness" or "wokeism" have become the political terms of the hour, widely co-opted to denigrate "political correctness" and leftist orthodoxy.

Like Jack, more and more people on the right -- prominent public figures but also everyday people -- are coming together to accuse progressives of seeking to muzzle ideas they don't agree with.

Ronald Reagan pins

On the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville -- a storybook setting where carefree students play Frisbee on the lawns -- Jack started attending events of the Young Americas Foundation, a student association that invites commentators, politicians and radio hosts to speak about "how to save America from the woke left."

On one mild evening this spring, the association was hosting a distinguished guest: Donald Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence.

A message proudly trumpeting Pence's arrival was written in chalk on the tarmac, among the elegant red brick buildings that helped make the campus a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Abby Hinton, a freshman, came to learn how to "defend" herself against those who "try to push their politics" in a university environment where left-wing ideas predominate.

Once inside the auditorium where Pence was to speak, the students were offered miniature copies of the US Constitution, Ronald Reagan badges and stickers proclaiming: "I support free speech not political correctness."

'Culture war'

In front of a full house, Pence launched into a tirade against the "political indoctrination" which, he said, has replaced the "patriotic education" that Americans used to enjoy.

One student asked him about the case of a female swimmer from the university who came second in a freestyle race against Lia Thomas, a transgender athlete whose participation in women's college championships has ignited major controversy.

"Our tradition of excellence has been affected by the woke left," lamented the young man, arguing that Thomas should not have been allowed to participate.

Pence took the bait, telling the crowd that runner-up "Emma Weyant won that race."

"Many on the left have spent years agitating for a culture war," said the former vice president. "Looks like they got it and looks like they're losing," he added, to loud applause.

Future campaigns

Sitting on the steps of the rotunda, political scientist Larry Sabato -- a longtime professor at the university -- saw a clear strategy to mobilize right-wing voters by whipping up antagonism around the idea of "wokeness," from campus to campus, on campaign rallies and on social media.

"They are people who show for primaries and caucuses," he said, of the Republican voters most receptive to such messaging.

Sabato cites the example of Glenn Youngkin, elected Virginia's governor last November after a campaign heavily focused on combating an alleged leftward shift in how racial and sexual issues are taught in schools.

"Who's upset about critical race theory even though they can't define it, don't know what it is? Republicans," he said.

Sabato predicts these flashpoint themes of race and gender will be central to the upcoming election cycles -- the midterms this November and the 2024 presidential poll.

So by training his sights on "wokeness," is Pence eyeing a political comeback -- perhaps even hoping to ride the wave back to the White House?

When the question was put to him, he laughed quietly and promised: "I'll keep you posted."