A Liberal View of ‘Becoming Right’

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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”
.

Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks is an author, economist, essayist and social critic.

2 thoughts on “A Liberal View of ‘Becoming Right’

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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