Junior Ashley Butcher can frequently be found behind tables around campus — usually in Towers Lobby or in front of the William Pitt Union — proclaiming the same mantra prominently displayed on her organization’s signs, pamphlets and social media pages.
“Big Government Sucks!”
Butcher, a film studies and communications major, is the president of Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a national, nonpartisan organization that advocates for smaller government, fiscal responsibility and free markets.
Students may have noticed Butcher or other members of the group around campus lately — sometimes toting a large beach ball — but unlike other political groups tabling for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Turning Point isn’t based on a person or a campaign.
Instead, the recently-formed club focuses on lively discussion between students of varied political backgrounds, trying to stay out of the venomous mudslinging that has defined the 2016 election.
Which isn’t to say the group doesn’t have any ideological sway. Butcher founded the club at Pitt because she said most of her professors and classmates tended to have liberal ideologies, making her feel alienated for having more conservative beliefs.
“It’s isolating when you hear your professors talk about how awful capitalism is when it’s something that you believe in,” Butcher said. “They had me digging deeper into my beliefs. It made me want to be really active because I figured other students on campus were feeling the same way.”
The national organization, which Illinois native Charlie Kirk founded in 2012, seeks to educate college students on the importance of limited government, free speech and First Amendment rights.
Through the work of more than 75 staff members, Kirk said it also attempts to organize and unite youth activists against big government and socialism, and, in turn, make an impact nationally.
“More young people need to be engaged in the political economic movement,” Kirk, 22, said. “[I saw a] great opportunity and a lot of interest from people in my local area.”
Since its founding, the organization has cropped up on 1,000 high school and college campuses nationwide — in all 50 states, according to Turning Point’s website.
While scrolling through Twitter last fall, Butcher stumbled on Turning Point USA and began browsing through its website. When she realized Turning Point didn’t have a presence at Pitt, she contacted the national chapter, which helped her get a chapter started on campus by spring 2016.
Since then, the group has advocated for free speech by doing things like inviting passers-by to write their thoughts on a giant beach ball at a tabling event on campus Sept. 21.
Some wrote trivial phrases, such as “The Eagles will never win a Super Bowl.” Others took the opportunity to draw pictures, pen inspirational statements or declare personal opinions, such as “We need to preach unity, not division.”
“People aren’t used to seeing political messages given to them in this way, especially from conservatives,” said Arnaud Armstrong, a junior political science major and former political columnist for The Pitt News. “Turning Point is unique in how hard it pushes this. It makes people laugh, and it gets them talk to their friends about it. It’s funny, but it makes you think.”
About 30 students attend the club’s monthly meetings, according to sophomore Cameron Gill, the vice president of the club.
“It’s exploded for how young it is,” Gill, a biology major, said. “It was created within a year, and it already commands a pretty high number of attendees to the meetings.”
The group’s email list includes more than 200 people. While not all of them come to meetings, those who do use the time to discuss the direction they want to take the Pitt chapter, focusing primarily on sparking political interest among students and recruiting new members.
Butcher said Turning Point meetings and tabling events have built a community among students who haven’t found a plethora of other settings to share their beliefs.
“I don’t want any young conservative or libertarian to feel isolated or to feel like their values and beliefs are illegitimate,” Butcher said. “I definitely started to feel that way throughout freshman and sophomore year until I got more involved on campus.”
While the organization appeals largely to conservative ideals, Tex Fischer — the Ohio/Pennsylvania Regional Director of Turning Point USA — said the organization’s goals are for more than just a conservative audience. Turning Point USA does not support any particular candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
“Obviously, not everyone will agree with our platform,” Fischer, 20, said. “But we believe we can reach more students by focusing on the harmful economic effects of big government rather than divisive social and cultural issues.”
Fischer said students are fully capable of making their own choice without the organization’s endorsement.
Armstrong, who first heard about the organization when he was still in high school, said students are interested in Turning Point because they haven’t heard its message before.
“Students are so unused to hearing what we have to say, be it from their professors or current politicians. Our message is new to them,” Armstrong said. “That’s what’s exciting as an activist: to be able to see the impact that you’re making.”