January 16, 2013

A Liberal View of 'Becoming Right'


By Peter Sacks

As a staffer with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the early 1970's, would-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. penned his historic, if awkwardly titled, memo, "Attack on American Free Enterprise System."  In that August 1971 "confidential memorandum," to the Chamber's board of directors, Powell called for an unprecedented effort on behalf of corporate America to fight back against the dark forces of Communism and socialism -- and their agents in government, universities and the mass media -- in order to save and preserve conservative ideals and American capitalism.

"The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians," Powell wrote. "In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking." Powell concluded his wake-up call by claiming that  "business and the (free) enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late." 

Some 42 years later, I dare say that not one in 10 randomly chosen American adults could even tell you who William Kunstler was, nor why Lewis would consider him -- or even a hundred men like him -- such a threat to corporate America. As for Ralph Nader, another dangerous man in Powell's 1970's era lens, the consumer advocate indeed enjoyed his bright and brief moment in history. But the mighty ocean that is American capitalism ran over and through the Naders and Kunstlers as if they were specks of dust.  "The Greening of America," you say. Wasn't that a book about horticulture?

Indeed, if Powell were now looking back from 2013 to what has transpired in American business, military, and politics since his memo, he would be well pleased. His efforts helped to inspire corporate and conservative forces to arise, like sleeping giants stirring to life.  And they did so with a vengeance, reinforcing and reinvigorating a conservative, capitalistic machine that, arguably, constitutes nothing less than the chromosomal engine that is essential to America's national identity.

Historians have thoroughly documented the late 20th Century "rebirth" of the corporate self -- and of the multitudes of corporate selves -- that are part and parcel of American capitalism. Equally clear is the documented rise of the conservatism in the political realm, culminating, perhaps, in the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th U.S. president one fateful "morning in America" in 1980. Not as well documented, or acknowledged as a pivotal force in the re-awakening of conservative-minded capitalism, however, has been the revolution of conservatives on American college campuses, according to two sociologists at the University of California, San Diego. 

In their book, "Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives," Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood argue further that the leading conservative argument regarding higher education -- that campus conservatives and others continue to to suffer from academic and social marginalization at the hands of leftist professors, politically correct administrations, and intolerant liberals -- is misleading at best, and, in large part, unsupported by considerable evidence. 

Citing numerous examples of the increasingly hefty financial and political support that conservative foundations, think tanks, conservative-sponsored student groups, in addition to a "cottage industry of conservative websites and publishers," the sociologists contend that a massive investment in conservative ideas in American higher education has "attracted little systematic notice." The authors go on, "The movement to build a corps of young, ideologically dependable lawyers, journalists, congressional staff, voters, and academics has been a central priority of the political Right, but few have investigated the effort to mobilize right-leaning students on college campuses, or how those students experience their undergraduate lives." Still, the authors contend, conservative critics continue to paint American college campuses as a bastion of liberalism, marginalizing and discriminating against conservative students and their ideas. Furthermore, critics argue, the liberal machine on campuses nationwide sharply narrows the range of acceptable political discourse.  

"The argument that conservative students are
overrun by liberals doesn't hold up

But, the authors of "Becoming Right" suggest, the argument that conservative students are overrun by liberals doesn't hold up. Citing historical trend data from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, Binder and Wood show that between 1970 and 2006, the percentage of "far left/liberal students has declined steadily from a peak of just over 40 percent in 1970. Since then, their numbers have gradually declined and flattened out, and by 2006 self-identified liberals accounted for about 25 percent of all college students.              

Students who identified themselves as middle of the road have been the vast majority of students since 1970 and continue to be so. Numbers of moderate students reached a peak of about 55 percent in the early 1980s, and have gradually declined during the 36-year stretch, but the relative number of moderates, about 45 percent of students, remains what it was in 1970. Meanwhile, as moderates have gradually declined in the percentage of students, the percentage of "far right/conservative" students has moved steadily upward since 1970, when they were slightly less than 20 percent of all students. By 2006, the percentage of far right students had caught up with far-left students. Hence, moderates have been gradually replaced by more conservatives and more liberals. Still, the percentage of moderate students, at 45 percent in 2006, dwarfed the percentage of both liberals and conservatives.

"Although conservative critics argue that right-leaning students are in the minority on college campuses across the country, in the aggregate they are much in the same company as their liberal peers, who also find their numbers small compared to the number of moderates," the authors write. Along with these historical trends a plethora of conservative organizations have sprouted during the past 40 years -- inspired perhaps by Powell's doomsday scenario -- coalescing around the widely disseminated allegation that conservatives on college campuses remain isolated, marginalized and discriminated against.

"A massive investment in conservative ideas has attracted little systematic notice."

The book portrays three conservative organizations in particular that have an outsized influence on the conservative cause in higher education.  At one end of the spectrum, according to the authors, is the Young America's Foundation, which, the authors say, "has grown to be the largest and richest organization aimed at cultivating the next generation of conservative leaders for the nation."  With assets reported at $41 million in 2008 and expenditures of about $15 million a year, the YAF's influence is considerable, having put forth a multi-year "battle plan," as YAF calls it, including internships, regional conferences, seminars, and dozens of various publications and projects to arm campus conservatives with money, jobs, information -- and ultimately, power. YAF fashions itself as tactically aggressive and openly confrontational on college campuses, the authors tell us. 

Another prominent group of the "populist" variety is the Leadership Institute, founded in 1979. With total assets of more than $19 million in 2010, the organization spent roughly $74 million from 2002 through 2010, funneling these resources to conservative activists on college campus.  Its focus, according to the authors, is laser like: "training conservative activists and decision makers in the manner of a hard-charging elephant -- the organization itself is extremely multifaceted in its approach to recruiting and educating young people." 

And then there's perhaps the granddaddy of all conservative student organizations, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, co-founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1953.  In contrast to the openly confrontational and populist conservative groups (whose tactics are more aligned with the values and styles of students at public universities), the Leadership Institute has carved out a more deliberate, intellectual and circumspect niche, and primarily occupies ground on elite, private, and academically rigorous college campuses. In 2010, the group listed assets of more than $19 million, and it recorded total expenditures from 2002 through 2010 of roughly $108 million. 

Mirroring the tactical and stylistic orientations of the various conservative organizations that target college campuses -- varying from populist to intellectual -- is the tenor of the conservative experience on college campuses, depending fundamentally on whether a college is private and elite or public and not so elite.

Accordingly, the authors' guiding research methodology is the case study method, comparing student experiences at one anonymous public university campus that the authors call "Western Flagship," with another unnamed private university the authors call "Eastern Elite." Although the western public flagship campus is not named, one strongly suspects that the authors have drawn many of their conclusions about conservative students' experience at public universities based on observations made at the University of California at Berkeley. The authors write: "Western Public System is a public, multi-campus system that includes several campus locations throughout the state," which is highly suggestive of the University of California statewide campus system. The flagship campus "often is a political target for right-leaning politicians or other conservatives in the state." Conservative pundits, such as Bill O'Reilly, "take shots at the University for being "off the charts radical," and that it's hardly unusual for conservatives to "deride the Western Flagship campus on the Capitol floor for being far to the left of voters and thus undeserving of greater taxpayer aid."  The authors add that the Western Flagship campus is located in a very liberal, "crunchy" community, yet another a thinly disguised reference to UC Berkeley and its environs across the Bay from San Francisco.               

As might be expected on a campus such as UC Berkeley, conservative students do complain that they sometimes feel isolated and marginalized in this hotbed of liberalism. One conservative student at "Western Flagship" quoted by the authors said: "There's always this tone of, this subtle tone of liberalism that probably at any one point isn't enough to be objectionable. But it's so constant. It's like a constant that gets on your nerves sometimes."

Of course, the conservative students the authors interviewed did decide to apply to and enroll at this bastion of liberalism, and they did so for the school's social and academic reputations. Though notoriously liberal, and "though many of our interviewees -- as prospective students -- were well aware of these reputations, politics did not appear to loom large in their minds during the application process. Instead, other factors such as value or academic rigor, appear to have been much more prominent in their considerations of which schools to apply and to attend," the authors write.

Even if the authors' "Western Flagship" campus were not UC Berkeley, but perhaps another liberally oriented campus in another statewide university system located in a "crunchy" western city (highly unlikely given the authors' description of the campus), the authors' inferences about conservative students' experiences on a public university campus are highly objectionable as indicative of the conservatives' experience at public universities generally.  Indeed, conservatives students' experiences on such a left-leaning campus are hardly comparable to another state university campus in, say the Inter-mountain West, such as Idaho or Wyoming,  in which students, the campus and the surrounding community are all far more moderate that their peers at a campus like UC Berkeley.  UC Berkeley is representative of nothing except UC Berkeley in regards to the conservative students' sense of alienation and marginalization on American campuses.  

Apart from the logistical convenience of these two UC San Diego scholars picking Berkeley for their case study of conservatives on a public college campus, over say, the University of Wyoming flagship in Laramie, perhaps the authors figure that if conservative students are doing OK at a place like Berkeley, then maybe they are doing OK in general. I can only guess at this rationale because the authors never really fully explain their odd choice for the case study and why we should believe any conclusions from this case study can be remotely generalized.   Similarly, the authors chose another deeply liberal and private university on the East coast to contrast and compare the conservative student experience with that of the Western Flagship. This "Eastern Elite" university, as the authors call it, is claimed to be representative of similar institutions on the East Coast in terms of the experiences of conservative students, a claim that I do find plausible. 

According to the authors, it would be the rare conservative student indeed who would turn down the opportunity to attend "Eastern Elite," which, despite the liberalism pervading the university and its surrounding community, is among the best universities in the world. Indeed, the international prestige and reputation of the Eastern Elite university in this case study is so attractive to students and parents -- Harvard and Yale are likely suspects here -- that one's personal conservative politics quickly recede in importance next to the opportunity to join the elite of the elite. One conservative student from a mid-sized city in the Northwest told the authors, "When I got into Eastern Elite all my friends and family were like, oh my goodness, you can't turn down "Eastern Elite!"

If there is one research discovery in this book that struck me as one of its most interesting findings, it is the excellence with which Eastern Elite, including its professors and administrators, appeared to treat all students, regardless of their political leanings.  In contrast to the occasional put down of a conservative students' politics at the liberal Western Flagship, such marginalization of conservatives was rare at Eastern Elite, despite the often-liberal personal political beliefs of its professors. 

"I mean you probably know this, but most of the 'Eastern Elite' faculty is very, very liberal," one right-leaning student told the authors. "But I have not encountered overwhelmingly liberal faculty in terms of classroom conduct. For the most part the faculty I have encountered...have been very willing to not announce their personal political beliefs. In fact, they don't want to."

Another finding in this book also struck me as noteworthy and was perhaps the authors' strongest counterargument against the conservative critique that liberal college campuses isolate and alienate young conservatives.  Regardless of whether conservative students attended a generally liberal public university or a private one, the contrast of overall political philosophies on campus, often in sharp contrast to conservatives' own beliefs, in the long run was actually beneficial to the student conservatives. Rather than blending in to the pervasive ideology, and allowing their arguments and thinking to become accordingly sloppy, the conservatives on both types of campuses told the authors that political differences actually sharpened their thinking and ability to hold their own whenever they were called upon to defend their arguments, either in social or academic settings.

"Across campuses, these students drew strength from being in the ideological minority, and in spite of the trials they said they'd faced -- the 'pop quiz that could happen at any moment,' for example -- none said they would have had a better experience at a more conservative school," the authors write.

To be sure, "Becoming Right" is flawed. The methodology for the case studies is suspect or at least not fully justified; the thinly discussed identity of the college campuses is annoying; and the narrative can be painfully dull. What's more, as a reader it felt as thought I would round a corner and then was hit by surprise that the book's best arguments just sort of popped up by the side of the road, as the authors seemed to hope that readers would notice them.  Considering the absence of skill with which the two sociologists highlighted and developed its arguments from beginning to end the book screams for sharper organization, planning, and editing. 

But for motivated readers who are willing to spend some time with this book, the authors do deliver a compelling case.  "Becoming Right" suggests that conservatives who yell and scream that American college campuses alienate, isolate and marginalize young conservatives perhaps could do with some sharpening of their own arguments when that proverbial pop quiz comes.


Peter Sacks is a writer and economist. He is the author of "Generation X Goes to College" and "Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education".

Comments (2)

George Leef:

I think that Sacks' ho-hum view of the politicization of college life ignores two serious costs. First, conservative students are not much pressed to improve their arguments because no matter what they say, they're apt to meet with sarcastic put-downs or worse from leftist faculty members and students who are convinced that dissent from their ideas must either be due to stupidity or venality.

Second, liberal students are short-changed because they come to think that they don't really need to try to understand and logically argue with their intellectual opponents.

Arnold A. Stahl:

Mr. Sacks is inaccurate. I attended the University of Florida from 1950-1954. The political science department was loaded by the left, and one professor, whose lectures I was required to attend, were decidedly and distinctly marked by his interpretation of American political history as being guided by "imperialism" with political attacks on our free enterprise system and capitalism. The few of us who considered themselves "conservative" during those years didn't stand a chance against his vitriol. He was later discharged after an appearnce before HUAC. Mr. Sacks knows not whereof he speaks.

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