College student Benji Backer has been an outspoken conservative since he was a 10 year old in Wisconsin nudging his parents to have yard signs and bumperstickers for John McCain’s presidential campaign. Now in his early twenties, he’s long argued political issues with his largely liberal teachers. They’ve argued right back; Backer’s used to that.
Then, at the very blue University of Washington, he began arguing with his fellow conservatives; Backer is an outspoken environmentalist and that's put him at odds with many of the people who are, on other issues, his allies.
This is a guy who’s been a darling of the right, at 16 one of the youngest people ever to address the Conservative Political Action Conference. He talked about the dominance of liberal teaching in public schools and his teachers’ failure to see his views as part of the free speech our society values. His writing about the issue made him one of the top young conservatives in the country.
“Before,” says Backer, “I was the only conservative in a liberal space. Now, I’m one of the only conservatives fighting for the environment in the conservative space.”
As part of that fight, he founded the American Conservation Coalition, hoping to get other young conservatives to join him in advocating for the environment. The organization is currently operating on 90 college campuses, although resistance among his fellow conservatives is strong. “If you try to talk about climate change,” says Backer, “you're going to lose 80 percent of conservatives.”
He hasn’t been welcomed by liberals either. In 2018 he spoke at the University of California, Berkeley, but not before protesters threatened to prevent his appearance—not because he was an environmentalist but because he was a conservative.
Nevertheless he persists. Still a student, Backer keeps trying to recruit other young, college Republicans. He’s also met with representatives of the Republican National Committee and even members of the Trump Cabinet, trying to win them over to environmentalism.
It’s an uphill climb. Backer sees himself as fighting not only for the environment, but also for his fellow conservatives. Being on the wrong side of this one, he’s sure, is not a good place for conservatives to stand.