Friday, January 14, 2005

Heading Back to School

The Lord of Truth forwards us a terrific piece by Brian Anderson in today's Opinion Journal, regarding the suddenly conservative bent of American youth. It's not as if I find this surprising, but the article actually confirmed a few of my beliefs. First, an excerpt...

The bustle reflects a general rightward shift in college students' views. Back in 1995, reports UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, 66% of freshmen wanted the wealthy to pay higher taxes. Today, only 50% do. Some 17% of students now value taking part in environmental programs, half of 1992's percentage. Support for abortion stood at two-thirds of students in the early 1990s; now it's just over half. A late-2003 Harvard Institute of Politics study found that college students had moved to the right of the overall population, with 31% identifying themselves as Republicans, 27% as Democrats and the rest independent or unaffiliated. "College campuses aren't a hotbed of liberalism any more," institute director Dan Glickman comments. "It's a different world."

Youthful attitudes are volatile, of course, but this rightward trend may intensify. In a mock election run by Channel One, which broadcasts in public schools, 1.4 million high school students re-elected George W. Bush in a landslide, with 55% of the popular vote and 393 electoral votes--greater than the 51% of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes he actually won.

Today's right-leaning kids sure don't look much like the Bill Buckley-style young Republicans of yesteryear. "Conservative students today will be wearing the same T-shirts, sneakers and jeans that you find on most 19-year-old college kids," says Sarah Longwell of the Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which promotes the Western intellectual tradition on campuses. Jordana Starr, a right-of-center political science and philosophy major at Tufts, tartly adds that you can spot a student leftist pretty fast: "They're the ones who appear not to have seen a shower in some time, nor a laundromat."

The new-millennium campus conservative is comfortably at home in popular culture, as I've found interviewing 50 or so from across the country. A favorite TV show, for instance, is Comedy Central's breathtakingly vulgar cartoon "South Park." "Not only is it hilariously uncouth, but it also criticizes the hypocrisy of liberals," explains Washington University economics major Matt Arnold. "The funniest part is that most liberals watch the show but are so stupid that they're unaware they're being made fun of," he adds, uncharitably. The young conservatives, again like typical college kids, also play their iPods night and day, listening less to Bach and Beethoven than to alt-rock, country-and-western and hip-hop.

Yet the opinions of these kids are about as far from the New York Times as one gets. Affirmative action particularly exasperates them. Chris Pizzo, a political science major who edits Boston College's conservative paper, the Observer, points to wealthy Cuban-American friends from his native Florida, "raised with at least the same advantages and in the same environment that I was," yet far likelier to get into the top schools. Where's the justice in that?"

Worse still, many students argue, preferences carry the racist implication that blacks and Hispanics can't compete on pure merit--an implication that holds minorities back. "Affirmative action has a detrimental effect on the black community, whether or not we're willing to admit it," says Jana Hardy, a biracial recent Claremont McKenna grad now working in urban planning.

The war on terror, including in Iraq, drew strong support from most of the students. Typical was Cornell classics major Sharon Ruth Stewart, mildly libertarian--except when it comes to fighting terror. "We have to use any and all means to defend ourselves from the terrorists, who hate the American way of life even more than the French and Germans do," she says. "That means bunker-busters, covert ops--whatever ensures America is safe." University of Maryland junior Nathan Kennedy is just as tough-minded. "I am full-fledged on board with the Iraq war," he says. "We've brought the fight to the terrorists' door, dealing with the radical fundamentalist Arabs who want us all dead."
As Anderson points out, the students aren't necessarily on board with every traditional value associated with conservatives. For example, most are far more open to gay marriage than even most elected Democrats. But their conservatism is heartening for any number of reasons, especially in the face of the rampant liberal dogma that dominates most colleges.

I think several factors are at work here. As Anderson noted, these kids grew up in an era when conservatives came to power -- any kid in college today was born when Reagan was President. In addition, the only Democratic President in their lifetime failed to rally people to the banner of liberalism -- Clinton basically rallied people to support him, but not his party at large, nor the liberal base that makes up the core of that party (as evidenced by the GOP's takeover of the Senate in 1994). In addition, these kids grew up in an age when conservative ideal triumphed. Communism died and free enterprise flourished -- most of these kids see the Berlin Wall as something that was in the history books, or at worst something they watched fall on TV. The Soviet Union is an historical anachonism, confined to movies like The Hunt for Red October. Man, I'm feeling old just writing this.

All of these kids are comfortable with reaching out and using technology to find information, which makes them more likely to question ideas that are presented to them. That's fundamentally a good thing, and a real problem for academia, the last bastion of tired liberal thought next to journalism. Liberalism has been a mess for years, but its inability to articulate a vision for the last thirty-plus years has finally caught up with them at the national level, and it's slowly filtering down to the grassroots. Ironically, liberals have become the party of the status quo, trying to preserve things like affirmative action, or trying to hold back market-based reforms like school choice, or hold sacred government programs like Social Security, or keep abortion on demand available.

Eventually, this lack of vision was going to catch up with liberals. And it looks like it's happening on all fronts, even the cherished world of academia.


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