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Democracy’s Future podcast: How conservatives found their voices in college

Three young men pose for a photo, looking at camera
WGLT staff
From left, Ross Vancil, Riley Wasler and Braiden Gonzalez are all featured in Episode 4 of the podcast Democracy's Future.

In the latest episode of the WGLT/Vidette podcast Democracy’s Future, you'll hear from three conservatives who weren’t always conservatives but who were influenced by the issues in the shift of the political climate during their lifetimes.

Braiden Gonzalez is president of Students for Life of America, a pro-life organization at ISU. He's a sophomore political science major from Frankfort about 100 miles northeast of Bloomington-Normal.

Gonzalez tells Vidette reporters Paul Aguilar and Maggee Bleyer his view of U.S. democracy is positive.

“I like the style of American democracy because it is a little more reliant on aspects of a republic. I believe in more localized principalities (governing) in replacement of a big federal government,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said he was a “silly kid” because he had socialist beliefs growing up.

“It's because I always cared for people,” Gonzalez said, but said he views transformed when he got to high school as he considered the story of his father, who escaped persecution in the Philippines to come to the U.S.

“He really lived the American dream,” Gonzalez explained.

Gonzalez said he used to consider himself an atheist, but he has since changed his mind, hoping to “multiply and fill the earth,” which he takes from scripture. He says his main goal is to get married and have a big family with eight children — all sons.

College Republicans

Ross Vancil is president of ISU's College Republicans. Vancil is a sophomore from Stronghurst, a tiny village in west central Illinois.

Vancil said the College Republicans group has about 60 active members at ISU.

“Our biggest goal that we have is to provide an opportunity for conservatives to come to a place on campus and feel safe sharing their conservative ideas, when some people don’t feel safe doing that in classrooms,” Vancil said.

Vancil said he believes democracy in the U.S. has weakened because partisanship has made it harder for Congress to get important legislation passed.

“(Opposing) sides used to be able to come together and have compromise and work together on more issues and now it’s more polarized. The (two) sides make the other out to be enemies,” Vancil said.

Vancil said he hopes to work as a lawyer, double-dipping in politics and law as a legal studies and political science double major.

Turning Point USA

Riley Wasler is president of Turning Point USA on the Illinois State University campus.

Turning Point USA is a nonprofit organization that promotes conservative politics on high school and college campuses. The Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center have criticized the group for its ties to far-right activists.

Wasler is a senior physics major from the Chicago suburb of Darien. He faced a major turning point in his own political journey.

Wasler described himself as a communist when he met the previous Turning Point USA leader at ISU and they helped convince him to change his ways.

“I actually went 180 (degrees) and had a violent reaction to the action that was me being a communist,” Wasler said. “Now I’m the complete opposite.”

Wasler explains how the group tries to get Gen Z engaged in politics.

“Gen Z is facing one of the worst wars ever fought in humanity, and that is the battle of good versus evil. Today the lack of religion is probably the strongest force that is pushing my generation to not vote, not care. They have a sense of hopelessness,” Wasler said.

Coming up in our next two episodes of Democracy’s Future, you’ll hear from international students and how they view democracy in the U.S., and you’ll hear from students who are already getting involved in the democratic process — through student government.

Please give us your feedback on this series and let us know if there are certain issues you'd like us to explore. Email us at news@wglt.org.

Subscribe to Democracy's Future on the NPR App or wherever you get your podcasts.