As his videos have gone viral, 13-year-old CJ Pearson has picked up a number of labels, including ‘activist’, ‘pundit’, and ‘YouTube star’. But now he’s rejecting the most commonly-used descriptor: ‘Conservative’.
Pearson, who until earlier this month served as the national chairman of “Teens for Ted” as a part of the Ted Cruz presidential campaign, told TIME he had felt constrained by his political affiliation because he could not speak out on issues like racial discrimination without upsetting members of his party.
“If there’s an issue I take issue with then I definitely want to talk about it and give my opinion on it, free of labels,” Pearson says. “I need to be my own person, be my own voice. I can’t do that if I’m constrained by an ideology.”
Pearson said a conversation with a friend about the video of a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald prompted his announcement. His friend urged him to speak out about his views on discrimination and systemic racism, but Pearson had been reluctant to go against stances that were prevalent among Republicans.
Pearson has no plans to go quiet on political issues. He plans to be an independent voice for his generation, rather than a partisan voice touted as a young face of the GOP. He’ll speak up more about issues that are important to young people, such as racial discrimination and student debt.
“If you look at my generation,” Pearson says, “We’re less concerned about the ‘R’ or ‘D’ [answer] and more concerned about the right answer.”
Pearson says responses from conservative pundits have been pretty one-note, calling him uninformed or a “flip-flopper.” He’s been surprised with the blowback; the same people who praised him for having his own views before are now denouncing him for doing the same thing, only now he’s not agreeing with them.
The activist has racked up more than 5.5 million YouTube video views, 37,000 Twitter followers and 100,000 likes on Facebook. At the end of September, Pearson attracted attention and accusations of faking what the claimed to be a screenshot showing his Twitter account blocked by President Barack Obama’s account. Moving forward, he plans to use YouTube less and write about his take elsewhere.
“I think videos do well because of sensationalism, not substance” he adds. Pearson’s two most popular videos, “President Obama: Do you really love America?” and “Dear Mr. President and Ahmed” each had over 2,000,000 views. He’s also done with campaigns for now, describing working for one as “probably the most stressful thing you can ever do.”
Ultimately, Pearson says the divisiveness of American politics is standing in the way of progress. But he sees hope in his own generation, which he thinks will be much less polarized in the future. So he doesn’t want to “be a main player in that divisiveness” now.
“I want to be a voice that can unite members of my generation, a voice that’s been missing from discussion for a long tim,” Pearson says. “I think young people deserve to be at the table.”