Former VP Mike Pence visits campus; speaks against ‘wokeism’

Ainsley Platt and Maven Navarro

Former Vice President Mike Pence, a self-described “Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third,” was greeted with an uproar of applause as he stepped out on stage to address what he sees as America’s biggest hurdle in the modern world: “wokeism.” 

Pence, who visited The University of Alabama as the speaker at the Young Americans for Freedom’s “Saving America from the Woke Left” event on April 11, spent his time behind the podium in the University of Alabama Student Center Ballroom orating about the dangers of President Joe Biden’s administration and “politics of personality and the lure of populism, unmoored to conservative principles, ” and cracking jokes about former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. 

Prior to the event, The Crimson White asked Pence to define “woke.” 

“There’s been an effort to suppress voices that that cherish traditional values,” Pence said. “People that will hold up traditional conservative views and use the opportunity in academia in the corporate America to advance a liberal social agenda that comes to be known as, as the woke movement in this country.” 

Pence’s visit to campus marks him as the third conservative speaker YAF has hosted on or around campus within the last year, previously including Matt Walsh and U.S. senator Ted Cruz. 

Faith, and its relation to his position and actions as a policymaker, were central tenets of Pence’s message. The former vice president opened the event with a heavy focus on his Christian identity while commanding the attention of the more than 1,500 people in attendance — roughly 500 in the main event room, and the rest in two overflow rooms. His remarks intertwined Biblical references with many current political flashpoints, such as abortion, transgender rights and the freedom of speech. 

“My faith became real for me in college [and] my understanding of the foundations of our country became real,” Pence said.  

The UA YAF chapter President Wyatt Eichholz commended Pence’s discussion on faith, specifically noting that leaders should live their professional lives in a manner that is consistent with their faith values. 

“I thought it was a blessing to hear the vice president share so much about his personal faith,” Eichholz said. “I admire him as a leader, not just for his political leadership, but for who he is as a Christian and how he uses that in his government.” 

Pence spent time touting the achievements of former President Donald Trump’s administration, especially in the realm of the federal judiciary. In particular, he promoted his and Trump’s role in getting conservative justices installed on the Supreme Court, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

He also addressed his strained relationship with Trump — one that Pence said “didn’t end well.” Despite the tensions, Pence said Trump’s recent indictment was an outrage. 

The speech wasn’t all serious; Pence poked fun at his old syndicated radio job, calling himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” When asked by an audience member why he has “such a problem with wokeness,” Pence asked “with wokeism? Or with Pelosi?” 

Other than his jokes, Pence touched on a variety of topics, including calling for banning critical race theory in schools and “political indoctrination.” 

“During the Biden administration, ‘wokeism’ has run amok in our public universities and our schools,” Pence said, before adding that critical race theory “is nothing more than state-sanctioned racism” that should be banned from schools. 

The term “woke” has become a common Republican attack against liberal viewpoints, especially in the realm of LGBTQ rights and in conversations about continuing racism in the U.S. The Alabama state legislature has passed several pieces of legislation chipping away at the ability of transgender youth to obtain gender affirming care and play on sports teams that match their gender identity, although some of these laws have been blocked in federal courts.  

“What is a woman? A female human being,” Pence said. 

Pence also discussed his belief that political leaders should not dwell on the past. “We need to offer a positive agenda focused on the future. Elections are always about the future,” Pence said. “As I look around the country to candidates in my party, the ones that were focused on the future, focused on the challenges the American people were facing today, did very well — here in Alabama and across the country — but the people that were focused on the past … did not fare as well.” 

Pence’s remarks touch off a continuing conversation in the Republican Party in the aftermath of the 2022 midterms. Many expected the GOP to flip both the House of Representatives and the Senate after rampant inflation hit historic highs and fears over a potential economic recession soured public opinion. Instead, the GOP won a slim majority in the House and Democrats gained a seat and maintained control of the Senate after multiple tight races in states like Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania — all states that were instrumental in Biden’s narrow victory in 2020.  

Pence also said that the U.S. national debt could increase by “a factor of five” if the Biden administration continued with its current policies, leading to fiscal insolvency. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s forecasts for the national debt predict that the national debt will increase just over 47% to roughly $46 trillion by 2033 — nowhere close to five times the current amount as claimed by Pence. The report also said that growing debt will continue unless current laws are changed.  

Pence also said that the national debt matched the size of the U.S. GDP for the first time ever. This claim, while technically true, is potentially misleading — the national debt to GDP ratio hit 100% in 2013, and Republicans controlled one or both chambers of Congress through many of the years since with no decrease in the ratio. Total spending was mostly stagnant in Trump’s first two years in office, before beginning to increase in his third year. In Trump’s final year in office, federal spending spiked due in large part to COVID-19-driven economic stimulus efforts. Total spending has begun to decrease since Biden took office in 2021.  

Former Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who assisted YAF in identifying donors to finance the event, said he thought Pence’s visit was “outstanding,” and that the event was good for the campus and community. 

“I think his message was a message of conservativism, a message of confidence and a message of boldness that people need to hear and need to understand where we are today as a country, and if we don’t stand up and start pushing back, we’re going to lose our country,” Merrill said.  

One appeal of the event for some in attendance was the opportunity to hear a prominent political figure speak in an accessible way. 

“Getting to see the vice president in person is a once in a lifetime experience,” said Ben Hardy, a freshman majoring in finance. “Getting to do it at my school was something that was really hard to pass up, especially as someone who, throughout his term of office, was very fond of the things he had done for our country.” 

Some students, like Laney O’Donoghue, a junior majoring in psychology, felt the event failed to accomplish its intended purpose. 

“I feel like there was a small point in the speech that addressed some of the issues in America today,” O’Donoghue said. “However, a large majority of it was just about his beliefs in general. … He didn’t really talk about solutions to any problems.” 

Despite a range of reactions to the event itself, some students found Pence’s response to specific issues to be lacking. 

“One of the things that I found to be a little interesting was his talk of how we have record high [national] debt currently,” said Conrad Bartenstein, a sophomore majoring in finance. “But what I found to be a bit contradictory was that he also said that we need to continue to aid and fund the war in Ukraine.” 

Pence’s visit also led to a group of students protesting the event outside the Student Center. 

Though Pence largely focused on problems he believes the nation is facing, he ended his speech by expressing hope in young people. 

“I’m inspired by this rising generation, and the opportunity tonight to come and talk about the principles of freedom with young people here on the campus of The University of Alabama, ” Pence said. “I’m simply someone who believes in freedom.”