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"It's very isolating": Discourse Strategies of Conservative Student Groups on a Liberal University Campus


As national political polarization increases in the United States, the number of studies attempting to make sense of politically conservative movements has increased. Several studies portray the contentious election of Donald Trump as a consequence of the rise of the so called “alt-right,” an amorphous movement promoting racism and anti-PC (politically correct) culture and policies. Given the online nature of the alt-right movement, some scholars and journalists have traced its rise and characteristics by examining the discourse of online spaces. Others have looked to “red” or politically conservative states to better understand the experiences of this emergent population, with researchers going to “Trump Country” to speak to largely white rural Americans in the South and Midwest. Online approaches investigate mostly younger conservatives but only through a digital medium, while ethnographic approaches capture in-person data, but only from a population that skews older and more rural.

By ethnographically focusing on conservative student groups on a liberal University of California campus, this thesis instead highlights conservative political identity formation outside typical conservative bastions. The guiding research questions for this study are the following: How do conservative students discursively navigate the liberal context in which they find themselves? What is the purpose of provocative activities such as controversial guest speaker invitations? How does conservative student discourse align with or depart from national conservative political discourse? And how is “free speech” understood among conservative students on college campuses? Three discursive strategies emerged from this study: contrastive essentialism, appropriation of liberal discourse, and memeing. These discursive strategies of conservative students are deployed together with an ideology of “free speech” as constrained by liberals. This thesis argues that, while conservative student spaces can serve as a transitional space for some students, the ideology of “free speech” as constrained renders in-group moderation difficult and, thus, attracts and empowers bigots. These bigots are able to maintain plausible deniability, utilizing the above discursive strategies to obfuscate their bigotry. Understanding the discourse of this demographic is crucial, as the current college generation is forming its political identity in one of the most turbulent times in recent history. This ethnographic engagement with such groups offers linguistic insight into bridge-building strategies, college campus climate concerns, and freedom of speech issues.

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