Cosmopolitan Leftism in Higher Education
Hamilton College lies in the gorgeous Finger Lakes region of upstate New York about three miles west of the gingerbread town of Clinton. Coming north from Philadelphia, you follow the exits off the turnpike and take Franklin Avenue into town. Hang a left after Tony’s Pizzeria, go west on College Street, and you can’t miss it. There’s no reason to go into town if you’re coming back from Syracuse.
Official student charges for 2022–23 at Hamilton total $78,580, of which tuition is $62,050. A three-story climbing wall, hiking in the Adirondacks, and study abroad in Madrid are standard here. Like other colleges, Hamilton must seduce and scandalize adolescents, making them feel sophisticated and edgy in the eyes of their peers. Youthful rebellion and virtue signaling are now part and parcel of the higher education of elites.
The trick to generating the applications needed to keep a college’s admissions rate low, and thereby maintain its elite status, is to entice students with struggles for the social justice most of them crave. Ergo, Hamilton invites to campus a red-blooded communist, an actual paid advisor and supporter of the Chávez and Maduro regimes of Venezuela. Spanish politician, journalist, and activist Pablo Iglesias has been an apologist for narco-terrorist regimes across Latin America. He’s also smart and cute, a mix of Che Guevara, Noam Chomsky, and Ben Affleck.
Per a pact among Spanish communists, socialists, and separatists in the government of Pedro Sánchez (2018–present), Iglesias was actually the Second Deputy Prime Minister of the fifth-largest country in the EU for most of 2020. His party, which he founded and led in the years 2014–21, took its name Podemos—“We Can”—from Obama’s famous campaign speech. Iglesias’s group, which recently fused with Spain’s other far-left party Izquierda Unida, are basically radical egalitarians. Tactically, they echo Gramsci in their attention to the ideological nature of the struggle for political power, and they echo Lenin in their goal of a dictatorship of radical interest groups. They embrace such policies as price controls, wealth redistribution, and the nationalization of multiple industries. In their assault on the bourgeoisie, they target Madrid and the more traditional, center-right Partido Popular. They are natural allies of the more Fabian socialists in the Partido Socialista Obrero Español, as well as the nationalist separatist parties of Cataluña and the Basque Country. Finally, Iglesias and his followers embrace the gender agenda and language policing. The name of their new party fuses Podemos “We Can” and Izquierda Unida “United Left,” but it awkwardly eschews the neuter Unidos Podemos “United We Can” in favor of Unidas Podemos “United W/She Can.”
Make no mistake, Iglesias epitomizes the cosmopolitan Left. Like Obama, Ocasio-Cortez, Trudeau, or Corbyn, he pushes a strident collectivism that vilifies Jews, capitalists, and American imperialists. When not in office, such figures generate income from books, media appearances, speaking engagements, teaching appointments, and posts at foundations funded by moguls like George Soros, Carlos Slim, and Bill Gates.
A job at Hamilton is good paid leave for someone like Iglesias. Nobody can fault him for that. His latest gig, then, is in film and media studies. But talking about movies and politics is a low bar at college. Why not ask Iglesias to teach Machiavelli or Steinbeck or Ortega? Better yet, why not ask him to defend his political ideas? He’s good at it.
But will Hamilton invite Spanish Partido Popular deputy Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo to debate Iglesias? Álvarez has eloquently defended the rule of law, constitutionalism, and the rights of the minority Spanish-speaking population in Cataluña. How about Colombian politician and CATO Institute senior fellow Daniel Raisbeck? Raisbeck ran for mayor of Bogotá on a platform that included legalizing drugs, liberalizing education, and deregulating the economy. Or maybe Francis Suarez, the current mayor of Miami? Suarez is one of the main obstacles to the notion that the Left in the U.S. has a right to the Hispanic vote because that group is supposed to prefer socialism.
Don’t hold your breath. Hamilton can’t afford to be receptive toward more conservative and libertarian politicians who believe that freedom empowers minorities and improves societies more than collectivism.
How did we get notorious communist darlings teaching at institutions like Hamilton? A lot of infamous leftist rulers have been educated in Paris, New York, or London, but I can’t recall any who were hired to teach or advise there. Inattention explains this. The paradox is that this sort of inattention characterizes successful democracies.
Alexis de Tocqueville realized that we undo ourselves as a function of human relations in egalitarian orders (see Democracy in America 2.2.8). Broadly, a democracy has “been abandoned to its primitive instincts; it has grown like those children who, deprived of a father’s care, are left to fend for themselves in the streets.” This unleashes the “vices and wretchedness” of society. One result is that intellectual battles gain strength inside families, where wretched youth accuse wizened elders of secret vices. In an aristocracy, authority is transferable permanently from father to son. That ended in America, and as a result the voices of authority have grown ever more random and less moored to the previous social order.
Another factor is the fairer distribution of a father’s property among heirs instead of practices like entail or primogeniture. This has two effects. First, the gentry fragments into “ever decreasing parcels” of land. Second, the idea itself is corrosive. Ending entail changes moods and habits: “When the law of inheritance institutes equal division, it destroys the close relationship between family feeling and the preservation of the land which ceases to represent the family.” The children of landowners can now imagine “being no less wealthy than their father but not possessing the same property that he did.” Those heirs with fungible and functional wealth who don’t go to the frontier become the new commercial class, i.e., the bourgeoisie: “merchants, lawyers, or doctors. … The last traces of hereditary rank and distinction have gone; the law of inheritance has reduced all men to one level.”
Tocqueville sees further that when independence of thought and behavior are the rule, this changes the dynamics of families: “from the moment the young American nears manhood, the ties of filial obedience slacken from day to day. Control of his own thoughts soon extends to his own behavior. In America, there is no real period of adolescence. At the close of boyhood, the man appears and begins to trace out his own path.” American fathers are proud of their children’s independence: “It would be wrong to suppose that this happens after some internal struggle in which the son wins the freedom his father was refusing through a sort of moral violence. Those very habits and principles which incite the former to seize independence incline the latter to consider its enjoyment as an indisputable right.”
In this transition fathers play willing and instructive roles. But as fathers recede, i.e., as there is less authority to surrender, fear gradually fills a void which then yields to anger and resentment. Young leftists in a hyper democracy are like Greek city-states wallowing about after the dissolution of their alliance against Persia. Attending ever and again to what might befall them individually, they’re compelled to menace their neighbors, test the limits of their powers, and invade areas left open to them. The process is organic, and it snowballs: “As the state of society becomes democratic and as men adopt the general principle that it is good and proper to judge everything for oneself by seeing former beliefs as information not precedent, the power of a father’s opinions over his sons is reduced, as is his legal power over them.” Finally, the general dominance of the values of families with smaller fortunes makes aristocrats themselves succumb to their charms: “the very people who are the most disposed to resist the dictates of democracy end up by allowing themselves to be persuaded by its example.”
This is tender stuff for individuals. What about nations? Deposing authority risks fearful heirs without model, pattern, or guide for the future. Ivan Turgenev’s anxious Fathers and Children was published in 1862, the year after the liberation of the serfs in Russia. The relationship it contemplates decays along with the society around it. Similarly, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Devils (1871–72) portrays orphaned charismatic scum colluding with nihilistic aristocrats to infect the Russian countryside with the burning resentments of Rome, Geneva, and St. Petersburg.
It’s worse. The familial tragedy reflects a process whereby democracies decay into welfare states. Fear and resentment, but soon also dependency, fill the void in authority left by egalitarianism. Weighing the statuses of fathers before and after the advent of democracy, Tocqueville makes an ominous, dystopian connection: “Amongst aristocratic nations, society recognizes, if truth be told, only the father, and it retains its hold upon the sons through the father; society rules the father who rules his sons. … In democracies, where the long arm of government seeks out each individual citizen … in the eyes of the law, the father is simply an older and richer citizen than his son.”
Mass movements always recruit youth. Why wouldn’t governments play the same game? Financing today’s extremist feminists and neo-racists, for example, politicians satisfy young people’s desire to rebel, benefitting government because ideologically charged citizens with no skills will want help. This transduction of political power into welfare is inevitable. In democratic societies, “the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable,” but taking advantage of the vacuum of authority, a new tyranny presents itself to people as “an immense and protective power … fatherlike … it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood.” Orwell and Huxley novelized Tocqueville’s visions of this more nightmarish tendency of democracy.
The new tyranny requires extra vigilance because it is subtle, ideological, and debilitating: “it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this.” A nanny state will both thrive on and promote abulia and egotism: “Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?”
Generally speaking, in the West the Right embraces regional distinctions, whereas the Left can’t avoid denigrating what strikes them as local and primitive. A cosmopolitan (Greek kosmo + politēs = “world citizen”) wants to transform a nationalist (Latin natio = “birth” or “race”) from a troglodyte who drinks only domestic beer into a civilized wanderer who hangs out in museums. A nationalist was needed in the past to overthrow tyrants or resist invaders; but urban density and commerce with exotic cultures create egalitarians who naturally embrace universalism. Today’s egalitarian Left in the U.S. are a recognizable function of the urban elite at institutions like Hamilton. Logically, they are fearful and want agitprop cosmopolitanism professed by the likes of Iglesias.
Tocqueville tells us what this means politically: “A nation resembles a jury entrusted with the task of representing universal society and of applying justice which is its law.” Within this jury, the modern revolutionary spirit is always the internationalist: “when I refuse to obey an unjust law, I am not denying the majority’s right to give orders; I simply appeal to the sovereignty of the human race over that of the people.” The flip side is that when the national question becomes so split between local and international ideals, elections can assume an existential tone. Politics can become a continuous referendum on whether or not the constitution applies to those who govern us: “Should the jury representing society have more power than society itself whose laws it administers?”
This pattern explains much of the political landscape of Europe since the French Revolution. Universalist and classical Enlightenment philosophers opposed by nationalistic and medieval Romantics: the elitist, cosmopolitan, and unruly vs. the provincial, traditional, and overly law-abiding. The major internal threat to liberty in the West today looks familiar: the state assuages the fervor of a cadre of urban revolutionaries and imposes a legalized regime of redistributive policies on provincials. This then sustains a cycle of dependency and tyranny. Of course, the state bribes many more sectors of society these days, including corporations, unions, farmers, states, and municipalities. But Tocqueville’s larger question remains: Should the elite jury that represents us be allowed to make us fund our own demise?
The comical disaster that is the Biden administration underscores the risk of coddling our nation’s surplus of youthful, urban, cosmopolitan leftists. America’s haute bourgeoisie does not need more public money. At the very least, any bill offering debt relief in the educational sector should also reduce the subsidies that benefit the schools of the elites that hate the nation. Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education under Trump, claimed she had a plan to dismantle the Department of Education but didn’t implement it. Was this Trump’s naïve trust in government agencies that opposed him? Was this the GOP not executing?
Hamilton is a private college. However, like all but a few such institutions, it gets lots of government money, much of it under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 alone, Hamilton received $2.5M in grants and contracts from federal and state governments, and then nearly $600,000 from the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.” About half of Hamilton’s 1,900 students get financial assistance, much of it via Pell grants and federal loans. Given the public’s recent turn against teachers’ unions and academia, if the GOP cannot defund the Department of Education, then which tentacle of the federal leviathan could it ever sever?