Commentary Magazine

Class Struggle

Becoming Right:
How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives
By Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood
Princeton University Press, 422 pages

When I was a senior at Harvard and the editor of the campus conservative paper, a well-known conservative provocateur strong-armed an invitation to deliver a public speech at the university. He would get an honorarium from a national organization, he told me. All he needed was for the paper to sponsor him. What followed was embarrassing. The “invited” guest delivered an hour-long rant about the difficulties of being a conservative on Harvard’s campus, how it must be, he said, like “living in a ghetto,” how no one understands you, and how you must be subject to constant insults by faculty members and fellow students. The few people who actually showed up for the speech sunk further and further into their seats as the tirade went on. This description of being a conservative at Harvard bore almost no semblance to reality.

A more accurate account of college conservatism is to be found in Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. Amy Binder and Kate Wood, sociologists at the University of San Diego, focus on conservative student populations at two very different universities and ultimately draw conclusions that transcend the red-state/blue-state paradigm.

The schools have been disguised at the request of their respective administrations and are referred to only as “Eastern Elite” and “Western Flagship.” At Eastern Elite—strongly reminiscent of Harvard—conservative students do not live in a “ghetto.” College Republicans regularly co-sponsor events with College Democrats. Students on both sides of the political aisle often engage each other in serious political discussions in the cafeterias. In addition to having their own paper, conservatives frequently write for the main daily campus paper. They enjoy provoking their classmates, but in an intellectual rather than theatrical fashion.

While conservatives at Eastern Elite correctly perceive their professors to be overwhelmingly liberal, students are not generally subject to political tirades in the classroom. As one Eastern Elite student explained: “If you go to a school like Eastern Elite, you expect a certain level of seriousness from your professors….If you polled them, I’m sure most voted for Barack Obama, and for John Kerry before that, but at least in the courses I took, that did not jaundice in any way their presentation of materials.”

If the professors at Eastern Elite are just being subtle about their bias, such subtlety would be a welcome break for the heartland conservatives at Western Flagship. According to those students, their professors regularly use classroom time to indulge their views of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. In a class on the American Revolution, one student at Western Flagship reported that her professor described those who don’t believe in universal health care as wearing “tinfoil on their heads.” Many conservatives at Western Flagship report receiving lower grades on papers that offer a contrarian take on environmentalism or economics. Others decide to jump through the hoops and tell the professors what they want to hear. Most of them have faced at least one Ward Churchill clone at the lectern, a professor with an activist-level political bias and without intellectual seriousness.

Such professors are not the only factors contributing to the beleaguered feeling among Western Flagship conservatives. Large class sizes mean that teachers rarely interact directly with students of varying political opinions. Core requirements often mandate that students take classes in Ethnic or Gender Studies, the foundation of left-liberal identity politics. And because the living arrangements push most students off campus after freshman year, there is no sense, as there is at Eastern Elite, that students make up a community in which everyone must get along.

One reason it behooves conservative and liberal students at Eastern Elite to get along is that they will soon be ruling the world together. The authors’ interviews with students suggest that they “tend to view their fellow students as classmates they should act respectfully toward because, first, they made it in to Eastern Elite University, so they must be gifted and talented to some extent, and second, they are the people with whom Eastern Elite conservatives will very likely be wandering the same corridors of power at later points in their lives.” We’ll all be at Goldman Sachs soon, so I won’t call you a Communist and you won’t call me a racist. OK?

The civilizing effect of shared destinies doesn’t hold among Western Flagship conservatives; they prefer a “provocative style” of politics. This kind of theater ranges from affirmative-action bake sales to Empty Holsters week, during which students demonstrate for their right to carry guns on campus. Naturally, liberal students respond with counterprotests, during which their members lie down and pretend they’re dead. If conservative agitation is prolonged, it might earn a friendly mention from Bill O’Reilly. Most Eastern Elites express harsh disapproval (with a dash of condescension) when the authors ask them about such tactics.

Because Western Flagship tends to have more of a party atmosphere than does Eastern Elite, its students are less concerned with how these theatrics might play when it comes time polish their résumés. But the difference in behavior also highlights a difference in the kinds of conservatism that dominate at each campus. Libertarianism tends to be more common at Western Flagship, while Eastern Elites subscribe to some combination of fiscal and social conservatism.

Respective religious beliefs shed additional light on the difference between the student populations. Despite the fact that Western Flagship is located in a state that has a “reputation for being a stronghold of the Christian right,” the interviewees were not particularly evangelical. Indeed, the ones at Eastern Elite were more likely to identify themselves as religious than were the Western ones. And among the religious subset at Eastern Elite, the authors found that a surprising portion (11 out 17) were Catholic.

If it hadn’t been clear before now, Becoming Right is really a study of class differences. The Western Flagship students will, we are meant to understand, turn into their generation’s Sarah Palin–loving, Fox News–watching Tea Partiers, while the Eastern Elites will be the future equivalent of Mitt Romney-voting, First Things– or Commentary-reading conservatives. One can quibble about the specifics, and the line between the camps can get very blurry at times, but Binder and Wood are right about the divide. That the faithful folks tend to be at the elite schools confirms findings by Charles Murray and others that religious practice tends more and more to be a characteristic of the upper echelon.

While campus life is not the sole source of the cultural split, the authors make a persuasive case that colleges do perpetuate it. We should care about how these students are formed because, as they note, “college is about the production of certain forms of citizenship.” Or in sociology babble: “Organizational contexts affect shared meanings.”

Despite Becoming Right’s valuable insights, Binder and Wood’s own liberal bias occasionally shows through. In studying this strange species known as conservatives, they seem to think that the subjects overestimate how much of a minority they represent on campus. Conservatives make up 18.5 percent of students at private elite institutions and 20.1 percent of students at public flagships, according to a national survey of college freshmen. But why, the authors wonder, do conservatives see themselves as surrounded by a sea of liberals when the same survey shows that 32.7 percent of students at elite schools and 44.3 percent of students at public flagships say they are “middle of the road”? The authors make no attempt to determine what “middle of the road” means to students. As pollsters know, people of all political bents often describe themselves as “moderate” or “middle of the road” or “independent,” but if you ask them one or two more questions, you’ll be able to put them in a liberal or conservative box pretty quickly. Most college kids fall rather neatly into the former.

Which side, it’s worth asking, really sees itself surrounded by a hostile enemy? The authors include a chapter called “Sponsored Conservatism” about some of the national organizations that support conservative groups on campus, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Young America’s Foundation. The chapter has a bit of a “We uncovered more of the vast right-wing conspiracy” air to it. “National organizations,” they write, “are spending significant amounts of money on the next generation of conservative voters and leaders, particularly on the areas of media, politics, and government.” Doubtless, the same could be said of the other side. But don’t hold your breath for the follow-up, Becoming Left.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.

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