25.8.04

FOURTH TURNING ALERT. Students return to campus, where the times, they are a-changing. Outside the Beltway points to a Time column discovering -- gasp -- libertarian-conservative thinking among the students. The column rounds up the usual Old Right suspects as catalysts of the mood shifts. There is something happening here, which to Time isn't exactly clear.
Many of them think the President has betrayed them by signing bills fattening Medicare and the Department of Education. Though the students embrace small businesses built on enterprise, they criticize big ones for knowing no borders and observing no national loyalties. And while he is fringe even among those students, 40-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur Reginald Jones — who says the Iraq invasion was unconstitutional because Congress never declared war and who decries post-9/11 security measures as infringements on our freedoms — has become one of the most popular figures among the young right. His raucous seminar on the evils of abortion, taxation, the Democrats and "milquetoast" Republicans — as well as the pleasures of NASCAR — didn't end until 2:30 one morning.
That first sentence is particularly promising, as it suggests future student radicals will discover the root cause of high textbook prices. Young people are speaking their minds in a different way.
But while professors may lean left, many students are tilting right — especially toward that brand of conservatism known as libertarianism. According to a well-regarded annual survey sponsored for the past 38 years by the American Council on Education, only 17% of last year's college freshmen thought it was important to be involved in an environmental program, half the percentage of 1992. A majority of 2003 freshmen--53%--wanted affirmative action abolished, compared with only 43% of all adults. Two-thirds of frosh favored abortion rights in 1992; only 55% did so in last year's survey. Support for gun control has slipped in recent years among the young, and last year 53% of students believed that "wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now," compared with 72% 11 years earlier.
Many students want to win one for the Gipper.
At the National Conservative Student Conference earlier this month, the students cheered nearly every time Reagan was mentioned — which is saying something, given that the name of the recently deceased President was invoked constantly. The conference's souvenir T shirt featured Reagan's image and the words THE REAGAN REVOLUTION LIVES! On the first morning, when the students were invited to the podium to introduce themselves, several said the 40th President had inspired their conservatism.

No one mentioned Bush. Which brings us back to this year's race. Although students are moving right on many issues, the President isn't necessarily benefiting. In 2000 Al Gore beat Bush among 18-to 29-year-olds by only 2 percentage points, but recent polls show Kerry with a double-digit lead among the young. (The race is a virtual tie overall.) Of course, very few conservative students will vote for Kerry, but most of the kids who attended the conference didn't seem eager to become field troops for the President either. As National Review editor Rich Lowry noted on the conservative magazine's website the day after he spoke at the conference, "What was most notable about this year was just how many smart young conservatives out there seem to think that there are no important differences between Bush and Kerry."
Some see the value of gridlock.
One student laid out a conservative case for Kerry: "When a Democrat is in office and proposes the same policies that Bush has proposed, Republicans act Republican and kill them," said Aakash Raut, 23, a senior at the University of Illinois at Springfield, in a heated debate with pro-Bush students. "And you have actually more conservative government than you do if a Republican is in the White House."
Outside the Beltway is a bit perplexed by the Reagan nostalgia.
What's odd about the piece is that it attributes this trend to Ronald Reagan, noting that these kids all grew up in the post-Reagan era and that they seem more enamored of Reagan than Bush. While Reagan was certainly a major proponent of liberty, he was hardly libertarian by most standards. And one suspects the relative affection for Reagan over Bush 43 has more to do with nostalgic reflection and the former's oratorical skills rather than substantive policy issues.
No, it might have something to do with substance. Compare and contrast. President Reagan's inaugural address asserted, "government is the problem." President Bush greeted Congress with, "Year after year in Washington, budget debates seem to come down to an old, tired argument: on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need." As that essayist put it, "George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan."

The Time essay touches on the possibility that student libertarianism and conservatism is simply the newest form of youthful rebellion, a point King at SCSU Scholars raises in commenting on a Christian Science Monitor article discovering libertarians and conservatives, before he makes an observation that is likely closer to reality: "I don't think people are sick of "do what you want" when it means freedom. Perhaps they've learned that liberty and libertine are two different things, and maybe they've learned that what their parents had in the 1960s wasn't freedom." A companion Monitor article lends some credence to that observation.
On many campuses, protesters dwell on the margins rather than in the mainstream of campus life. Some of their fellow students may admire their convictions - but others confess that they find activism more annoying than persuasive.

At Harvard University - where protests range from noisy antiwar rallies to smaller but equally zealous antiabortion demonstrations - many students say such actions are missing the mark.

"A lot of [the activists], liberals and conservatives alike, are fanatics or hopelessly idealistic," says Michael Soto, a Harvard senior studying Latin American development. "I'm not sure how much they actually accomplish, since it's just a small group. They are mainly annoying to the rest of the campus, and ineffectual."
What's that bit about an activist being someone whose mouth is more active than his mind? Best of the Web has a somewhat more transgressive hypothesis: the make-love-not-war parents of the early Eighties aborted many of the leftist students who would otherwise be here today.

There's something happening within the establishment, too. The academician is not reflexively a leftist, although he might not be that effective as a public intellectual.
For better or worse, election years lure many members of my profession out of the ivory tower and into the real world. As political events heat up, historians are summoned to illuminate the political landscape for a wide audience that suddenly craves the insights our expertise supposedly qualifies us to deliver. Generally the appeals flatter, and generally we descend and comply.

Traditionally, the most conspicuous obstacle to our effectiveness as public intellectuals has been the idea that we're all radical lefties marching in lockstep with the Democratic platform. But this stereotype is woefully inaccurate. In reality, academics -- especially middle-aged and older ones -- are just as likely to be libertarians or conservatives as they are woolly minded liberals. In point of fact, our most skewed collective bias is something more disturbing: We're pathologically close-minded.
(Via Betsy's Page.) Not only that, the old order is rapidly fading.
First, it seems we are experiencing one of those moments when history shifts its gears, and the accredited elites cannot seem to grasp what is happening, and cling desperately to the pieces of their fraying reputation. It’s a shift that the army of talented bloggers out there, part of one of the most genuinely populist movements ever to arise in modern American politics, has been announcing for a long time---perhaps a little prematurely and self-interestedly, but what they have been predicting is now clearly upon us. The baby-boomer generation’s journalistic and academic elites sought, and gained, control over the nation’s chief organs of knowledge production, accreditation, and communication, with all the enormous power and influence that has entailed. But now the Gramscian monopoly is crumbling, and they cannot see how they are themselves largely to blame for their own discrediting. The moves by Kerry’s campaign to stifle discourse---threaten booksellers, bully publishers, file lawsuits, seek regulatory restraints---are all too indicative of a reflex to control speech, and thereby deprive a democratic society of the oxygen it needs to thrive. Those of us who live and work in universities have been all too familiar with this reflex, which has been more triumphant than not in the academy, to the enduring detriment of academic discourse. But it is much harder to control and stifle journalistic and non-traditional media of expression. The credential-flashing of Mr. Oliphant (who somehow neglected to mention that his daughter is employed by the Kerry campaign, an uncomfortable fact brought out by the bloggers) looks more and more like the flash of an empty suit.
(Via Newmark's Door.) The shift, moreover, is generational.
This collective view emerged as a rather well-intentioned product of an age of wild hope, ill-informed academic speculation, and youthful optimism about the world. Nurtured in the great European and American universities, it was statist, existentialist, anti-religious, suspicious of any science that did not support its views, snobbish, pacifist, anti-technological, hedonistic in practice, puritan in theory, postmodernist in its tastes, committed to a social rather than an individual morality, hostile to the virtue tradition, sentimentally Romanticist in its attitude to Nature (which, in an unconsciously Creationist turn, did not include human beings), relativist about cultural differences, legalistic, optimistic about human nature, and deeply hostile to the marketplace. In one sense it was a nostalgia for the aristocratic European world of our collective rose-tinted memory, when the virtues of artists and intellectuals and university-educated people were recognized automatically, and merchants and financiers were "rightly" despised. In another sense it was a yearning for the dear lost days of revolutionary fervor, moral certainty, "free" sex and callow cynicism about tradition and respectability. It was escapist in its worship of Otherness -- cultural, social, political, economic, ideological, sexual, biological -- and conformist in its anxious attention to the next move of its "coolest" current leadership.

Harmless enough as a cultural phenomenon, one might think, though perhaps unhealthily centered upon the desires and dreams of a single very large generation of people born in the years following the Second World War. The problem arises when such a fashion effectively takes over the university system, as it did in the seventies and eighties, and then rises into positions of leadership in the great institutions of journalism. The journalistic Boomers themselves, who had often been trained by scholars who believed that there might be truth about a state of affairs that could be closely approached if not fully attained, usually knew when they were bending the truth and spinning for political advantage. Their leftist principles taught them that objectivity was desirable in the abstract and might again become feasible and desirable once the inequities of society were resolved. In any case, they felt, one should not lightly fritter away the legacy of credibility built up since the Enlightenment by the great authoritative institutions of civilization -- science, historiography, the serious newspapers, the great museums, the courts, and so on. But their younger followers and employees, postmodernist in belief-system, educated by ideologically relativist and politically correct junior professors, and increasingly deprived of the basics in logic, ethics, and inductive reasoning by their specialist education, were no longer capable of making any distinction between what was true and what was conducive to their social ideals.
Not only that, the idea of a "long march" to capture the institutions might have been an error. Once one has the institutions, one has to fortify them. Fixed fortifications are more easily bypassed and left to wither than stormed directly. That the people who took possession of the forts became dizzy with success afterward cannot have helped them.

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