The Liberal College Bubble Must Burst

A new poll from NBC News that looked at second-year college and university students is generating attention after revealing that, “nearly half of college students wouldn’t room with someone who votes differently.” More specifically, the poll found that 54 percent of sophomores would “definitely” or “probably” be open to living with someone who supported the presidential candidate they opposed in 2020, but 46 percent said they would “probably not” or “definitely not.”

The write-up of the poll concluded with a pollster suggesting that campuses will be sites of deep division, as this data paints a “pretty powerful picture — you have Trump dorms and Biden dorms.” This narrative, however, is quite misleading and incomplete, for many  conservative students are far more open to political difference than their liberal counterparts.

That being said, with political ideology becoming central to many peoples’ individual identity in recent years, the hesitancy to live with someone on the other side of the aisle is not particularly novel. There may just be real areas of deep disagreement that are hard to bridge, making it easier to live with someone more like-minded—that is not unreasonable as a general proposition. What the survey found that has not made headlines and that is both striking and disturbing was that a strong partisan divide emerged when it came to being open to engaging with differences—a keystone of civil society and a healthy democracy.

Specifically, the NBC poll found that Democratic sophomores were significantly more opposed to rooming with someone who voted differently in 2020 than Republicans and Independents. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of Democrats reported that they would “probably not” or “definitely not” room with such a person while just over a quarter of Republican (28 percent) and a third (32 percent) of Independent students felt the same way.

[Related: “‘War is a Stern Teacher’: The Academy According to Thucydides”]

It is time to accept and respond to the fact that so much of the balkanization on campus and in the political world is caused by the Left. This is an open secret that I have observed as a professor who has taught college and university students for almost two decades now. Despite preaching ideas about inclusion, diversity, acceptance, and love, leftists appear to be consistently intolerant of those who see the world differently; one is welcome if he fits within a narrow band of ideas and identities, and everyone else is an oppressor of some sort.

The data on left-of-center student intolerance is clear: in 2021, Axios found that young leftists, particularly females, were far more narrow-minded than conservatives, with just 5 percent of Republican college students saying that they would not befriend someone from the opposite party compared to almost 4 in 10 (37 percent) Democrats. The data also demonstrated that 30 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans would not work for someone who voted differently from them, while 71 percent of Democrats but only 31 percent of Republicans would not date someone with opposing views.

Turning to the nation at large, the numbers from the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey reveal similar levels of liberal bias toward political opponents. The survey found that despite our polarized politics, only 15 percent of Americans report ending relationships over political disagreements; the overwhelming majority—84 percent—have not walked away and figured out how to work with others with whom they may disagree.

[Related: “Democratic Students Are Never Satisfied”]

A further breakdown of the responses, however, uncovers some troubling findings. While 10 percent of conservatives say they have lost a friend over politics, 28 percent of liberals say the same. For extreme conservative identifiers, 22 percent say they have canceled a friendship, a handful of points higher than the national average. In contrast, a whopping 45 percent of extreme liberal identifiers have ended a friendship over politics—twice the figure of their conservative counterparts. Time and time again the data tells the same story: liberals, both on and off campus, are far less tolerant than their moderate and conservative counterparts. This should not be ignored.

Headlines such as this NBC study, which only reports facts and findings in the aggregate, are doing the nation a disservice. It is true that most Americans are reasonable. Thus, it becomes even more important to highlight the fact that American liberals tend to be far more open to cancel culture and ending relationships than most Americans. These liberal impulses are not only hypocritical given the language of love and tolerance liberals preach, but they are also counterproductive. The NBC poll headline was remarkably misleading; while the majority of liberal sophomores are opposed to becoming roommates with political adversaries, only minorities of conservatives and independents feel the same way.

College should be uncomfortable for students; viewpoint diversity should be embraced, and students need to learn how to work through a world full of conflicting ideas. Real education confronts difference—it does not avoid conflict and disagreement. Collegiate life, and our civic vitality, is threatened when people cannot find shared humanity and recognize that politics is about tradeoffs and hearing the other side.


Image: Brian Jackson, Adobe Stock

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

3 thoughts on “The Liberal College Bubble Must Burst

  1. Surely this is not a surprise.

    When you simply KNOW, beyond any shadow of a doubt, what is right and what is wrong…what is good & bad….moral & deplorable….when you not just know, but know absolutely….how on earth could anyone ask and expect ME to not just tolerate but accept into My Own Room, Satan Incarnate, Oppressor Supreme?

    [Sounds kinda like a new sandwich from Subway, doesn’t it!]

    The Left knows best what’s best for everyone… and they know with a degree of True Believer certainty we typically associate only with Kool Aid Kultists. The Progressive Narrative provides every single answer to every single question. Climate Change, Systemic Racism, Rape Culture, Heteronormative/Cisgendered Oppression, ProChoice (no way that’s a baby in there!), Electric Cars, Guns, Christian Bigotry, Wealth Redistribution, Capitalism, Gender Fluidity, Free Speech is Violence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, Social Justice … have I left anything out?

    These things and more they know are absolutely, 100%, always and everywhere, completely & utterly true. How could any Eloi live, study, and work with anyone who’s not similiarly Eloi?

    The short answer, survey sez: They can’t. Imagine, if you will, those 3 Crouching Monkeys…they do not see; they do not hear, and they definitely do not speak. Minds clicked firmly shut by 20. It makes life so much simpler when you already know the answers to every question…and can comfortably despise those who don’t.

  2. Since the author teaches at a pretty snazzy private liberal arts college, I looked with interest for material in the post related to the title “The Liberal College Bubble Must Burst” and accompanying graphic. I find nary a word in the actual post that fits with this. Somebody is doing pretty dishonest or at least inaccurate headline writing. Could this reflect the dreams of the website editor?

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