PRINCETON, N.J.—Here on Prospect Avenue, among a row of august mega-mansions masquerading as academic buildings, the next generation of America’s conservative elites is being groomed. Far away in Washington, D.C.—well, not so far away on the Acela—American politics seem to keep getting more and more chaotic, with Donald Trump’s impeachment, nonstop Twitter drama, and White House staffers staging their own spin-off of Survivor. At Princeton, however, conservative-leaning students and professors are mostly insulated from the day-to-day tumult. They’re more interested in a bigger question: What should conservatism—and America—look like moving forward?
It’s a weird time to be young and conservative, especially at a school like Princeton. Elite conservative circles at these universities tend to focus on great books and big ideas, on statesmanship and lofty principles. Nothing could be further from the culture of American politics at the national level today, driven as it is by tribalism and thirst for the blood of political enemies. The students I spoke with mostly cast a side-eye at the meme-driven, own-the-libs mentality promoted by organizations such as Turning Point USA that are popular on many college campuses. Instead, students at Princeton who lean to the right have helped build a robust suite of conservative groups, most prominently the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, an expansive academic center overseen by the prominent scholar Robert P. George. At a distinctly anti-elite moment in American politics, the leaders of this microcosm are doubling down on one of the oldest theories of politics: that ideas have the power to shape the direction of the country.