For Conservatives, Bad News from the Campus


One of the main findings of this year’s American Freshman Survey Is the drift of 2012 first-year college students toward the political center.  The report collects 2008 and 2012 results and finds that “in one significant point of comparison, students moved toward the center in self-perceived political orientation, with the ‘middle-of-the-road’ category growing from 43.3% in 2008 to 47.5% in 2012.”

The shift comes entirely from the left, too. Youths identifying as “conservative” or “far right” in 2008 at a rate of 25.5 percent for males and 20 percent for females, while in 2012 males rose slightly to 25.6 percent, females more so to 20.7 percent.  On the other hand, liberal males slid from 30.3 percent in 08 to 26.4 percent in 2012, while females dropped five percentage points from 37.4 percent to 32.3 percent.

Is that a finding to embolden conservatives? They would certainly like to see the campus climate turn less left-wing, especially in light of the extravagant support President Obama has among college students.  Indeed, recently some conservative observers have changed their opinion of leftist bias in academia, now stating that exposure to ideological courses and extra-curriculars isn’t so easily shrugged off by undergraduates as many have assumed.  The title of David Gelernter’s recent book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture says it all, while Heather Mac Donald in a Commentary symposium this month on the future of conservatism put it this way:

The racial and ethnic voting tallies could also represent the triumph of academic identity politics, as William Bennett has noted.  (Even the youth vote split along racial and ethnic grounds.) Conservatives have hopefully asserted that students tune out the racial and gender victimology spouted by their professors; that claim may have underestimated how easily bad ideas spread throughout the culture.  And if the crusade for universal college attendance is successful, the reach of the academic worldview (including its anti-capitalism) will only expand.

Has the Liberal Wave Crested?

In the same forum, Dennis Praeger states, “Leftism is the prism through which students in elementary school, high school, and university learn about life,” while Harvard professor Ruth Wisse declares, “all along, the academy has been reconfiguring the polity.  Where others attribute electoral shifts to demographic changes (as though we expect people to vote their skin color), I see a political landscape influenced by university policies of racial profiling.”  

If students enter college less inclined to the liberal outlook, perhaps it means the academic era of identity politics that the Obama campaign wielded so skillfully (and the Republicans fumbled again and again) has crested.  

Not so fast.  The general categorization worked through self-identification, with 18-year-olds doing the labeling themselves.  The American Freshman Survey also asked respondents about particular social and political issues, and the results complicated that identification.  In fact, the discrepancy between the self-identification as “middle-of-the-road” and a decidedly liberal tilt on some of those issues suggests an even worse situation for conservatives than would a rising self-identification as “liberal.”

When asked about a national health care plan, support among respondents went down from 2008 to 2012 by nearly eight points (70.3 percent to 62.7 percent), a sign of rising limited-government thinking.  A similar trend comes in the assertion that “Racial Discrimination Is no Longer a Major Problem in America,” which showed a jump in the rate of those who agreed of nearly three percentage points (20.1 to 23 percent).  But look at the absolute numbers: more than three-fifths back national health care and more than three-quarters of them still regard racism as a “major problem.”  Let’s not over-read a few points in the conservative direction.

More Liberal by 2016?  

Moreover, on other issues, liberal attitudes actually went up.  Agreement with “Abortion Should Be Legal” climbed from 58.2 percent in 2008 to 61.1 percent in 2012, while support for “Preferential Treatment in College Admissions” for those of “social disadvantage” inched up from 39.5 percent in 08 to 41.9 percent in 12.  Also, 64.6 percent of them still believe that “Wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now,” 75 percent of them support same-sex marriage, and 67.8 percent agree that “College should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus.”  Nothing in these findings suggest that the youth vote will be any less Democratic in 2016 than it was in 2008 and 2012.  

So why do we see a significant shift to “middle-of-the-road” identification?  For a reason that should keep conservatives up at night.  Instead of youths moving away from liberalism, liberalism has moved steadily toward centrist status, at least among the young.  Same-sex marriage isn’t a left-wing position–it’s a moderate one, and so is support for affirmative action, national health coverage, speech codes, and abortion rights.  Those who oppose them appear ever further on the Right, ever more ideological, while those who favor them appear ever more at the center and less ideological.  

This puts conservatism among the young and on campus at an initial and permanent disadvantage.  It’s like the network news back in 1974, when Walter Cronkite could appear neutral and normative, Dan Rather a thoughtful and reasoned, if mildly liberal, reporter.  Liberalism is the natural way to be, conservatism an insertion of politics into an otherwise normal situation.  Of course, most 18-year-olds don’t care much about politics–only 34.5 percent of them agreed that “Keeping up to date with political affairs” is important–and they have acquired their opinions mainly by socio-cultural osmosis, heeding the implicit values of Harry Potter and ESPN and prime-time TV, not the explicit positions in op-ed pages and Senate hearings.

Perhaps that gives conservatives an opening, the chance to alter opinions that are held so superficially and inconsistently.  But the respondents in the American Freshman Survey are just starting college, and in the following four years they are going to hear little conservative thought amidst the tsunami of diversity-talk and race-class-gender readings.  If there is any consolation in the 2012 Freshman Survey, it is that students generally intend to avoid the most politicized departments.  When the questionnaire asked what students planned to major in, nursing drew 5.9 percent, engineering more than ten percent, biology 6.9 percent, math and computer science 3.1 percent.  Ethnic/cultural studies pulled in 0.1 percent, women’s studies 0.0.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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