The University Utopia

The University Utopia

By Robert Tracinski - March 27, 2013

Just after November’s election, I posed three paradoxes of American politics, asking why certain demographic groups make up reliable voting blocs for the left, even though the pro-free-market ideas of the right have so much to offer them.

I have begun to revisit these paradoxes. In part one of this series, I laid out the case for why the pro-free-market right needs to reclaim these key demographic groups—young people, racial minorities, and city dwellers—and why I regard these as natural constituencies for the free market whose lockstep voting for the left is a paradox.

In this installment, I take up the first of the paradoxes: Why do the young vote for dependency—when the essence of youth is a quest for independence? My purpose for now is mostly just to solve the paradox, to explain the reason for the apparent contradiction, and to indicate what this implies for how the right should change its message and its sales tactics. When I am done looking at all three paradoxes, I will look in greater depth at an agenda of reform for the political strategy of the right.

First, let me explain why I do not include women among the main demographic groups the right needs to reach. Despite the left’s rhetoric on this issue, women are not a monolithic voting bloc. If you break down the numbers for last fall’s election, for example, Mitt Romney won the vote of white women by 56 to 42 percent. President Obama only won the women’s vote on the strength of his enormous advantage among racial minorities. The “marriage gap” was equally striking. Romney won 53% of the votes of married women, while Obama won 67% of the votes of unmarried women.

You can see how these voting patterns connect to issues that are uniquely important to women; abortion and contraception are of much more direct, practical interest to young, unmarried women. But women do not align their political preferences primarily by gender, but by other factors such as race and age, with age being obviously correlated with marriage. Much of the “gender gap,” therefore, is subsumed under the other issues we are discussing, including youth.

Of young voters, by far the largest constituency for the left is college students and recent college graduates. They made up the core of Obama’s non-minority support, and this includes an especially influential cohort: upper-middle-class elites who went to graduate school. (Obama won their votes last year by 57 to 39 percent.) This group provides the left with a huge source of fundraising and a large pool of activists. More important, this group dominates the arts, the media, Hollywood, and the universities themselves, perpetuating the left’s outsized cultural influence.

If we ask why this group leans so far to the left, on one level the answer is simple. College students and recent graduates lean left because of what they were taught in the universities, which are notorious as one of the last domains for Marxist theories and “political correctness.” But this answer is oversimplified and perhaps a bit circular. After all, why are the universities bastions for these ideas—and why do today’s youth, raised in a culture of pointed, sarcastic skepticism, accept those so ideas with so little resistance?

The enduring influence of the left’s ideas has to do, not just with the message students encounter at the universities, but with the environment in which they encounter it.

The reason I regard the left’s lock on the youth vote as paradoxical is that youth is characterized by a desire for independence. No one wants to live in his mom’s basement for the rest of his life—or at least, that’s considered something to be ashamed of. So why do young people want politicians to act as their surrogate parents?

The first clue to the answer is to observe that most college students are not, in fact, independent. Or rather, the independence they seek is somewhat selective. Most of them are economically dependent, with someone else paying for their tuition and their room and board—usually their parents, or the government, or the givers of grants and student loans. And they have grown to regard this as normal, even as a kind of birthright, to be supported for at least four years of study, insulated from the pressure of making a living or even of preparing for a career. As for intellectual independence, well, I’m not the first to observe that universities operate on a kind of factory model: they are assembly lines that install pre-fabricated ideas into students’ heads. Yet young people do expect to be totally independent in one realm: their personal lives. The whole point of living on campus is to be out from under the watchful eye of mom and dad, while the universities have entirely abandoned the old idea of monitoring students’ behavior in loco parentis.

So take a look at the college experience, particularly for a liberal arts major, from this perspective. You study topics in which the answers are subjective, no one is too concerned about whether it has any practical application or economic value, and everyone is pretty much expected to repeat the conventional wisdom. You express abstract concern for the poor and for the starving masses of the Third World, while never actually mixing with anyone from outside the prosperous First World middle class. Someone else, off at a distance, provides for your material needs, paying for your housing, food, clothing, and condoms. But at the same time, no one pokes into your personal life or asks too many questions about who you’re sleeping with, what you’re smoking, or what you do with your free time. Finally, this whole lifestyle is paid for with huge amounts of debt, and it is considered bad form to ask too many questions about how big the debt is or how you’re ever going to pay it all back.

Does any of this sound familiar? Put it all together, and college life is the contemporary left’s ideal. The universities are liberal utopias.

A person’s view of life isn’t just influenced from the top down, from the ideas they are taught. It is also learned from the bottom up, from their actual experiences of life. The most powerful combination is when ideas and life experience coincide, and that is what happens in college. Young people learn the same lessons from their professors’ lectures as they do from the lifestyle of the dorm room.

This also explains why college graduates tend to move to the right as they get older. They move to the right as they get out into the world, start businesses, start families, and take on the task of becoming truly independent and self-supporting.

But college students’ induction into the lifestyle and worldview of the left hits them in their formative years, and this has an effect that goes well beyond the actual number of votes cast by college students. It is not just that they lean left but that they identify themselves as being on the left by virtue of having gone to college. The ideas of the left are so dominant among college students that they become associated with youthful idealism and with being educated and (supposedly) sophisticated, as opposed to those unenlightened bumpkins who stayed back home and became plumbers instead. By this process, leftism becomes part of the cultural class identity of college-educated people—which is the only real class distinction that this country has.

Charles Murray has been writing recently about the increasing tendency of Americans to sort themselves into two classes, the college-educated and the non-college-educated. So to lean to the right and to support, say, lower taxes and entitlement reform, is to risk a certain degree of social ostracism from one’s professional and social peers. This is particularly true in the “creative” fields and even in technology—fields which are dominated by fellow college graduates, where people tend to be particularly concerned with being “hip” and on the cutting edge, and where they have been (up to now) relatively insulated from contact with the gritty blue-collar world of manufacturing.

So what can the right do to win over the loyalty of more young people, particularly the educated young—or at least to tip the balance so that this group no longer sees itself as inherently left-leaning?

Here’s my first piece of advice: don’t pander to this group by adopting proposals superficially and piecemeal in an attempt to be “cool”—if only because there is nothing more un-cool than trying to be cool. We need to look at the bigger picture.

It’s important to remember that there is nothing inevitable about the intellectual and artistic types identifying themselves with the left. Take a few moments, for example, to read about Elbert Hubbard, a writer and publisher from the American Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century and the founder of the Roycrofters community of artists and craftsmen. One of Hubbard’s claims to fame, aside from coining the phrase “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” was his 1899 essay “A Message to Garcia,” a tribute to enterprise and individual initiative that reads like it might have inspired Ayn Rand.

Then again, Hubbard dropped out of Harvard and was largely self-educated. Which is a clue to the first big answer. One way we can change the youth culture is to hasten the ed-tech revolution, breaking down the role of the traditional universities in favor of an alternative that, in addition to being a lot less expensive, gets students out of the dorm room and out into the economy sooner. I suspect that this would also hasten the decoupling of scientific and technological education from the humanities, depriving the leftist indoctrinators of the captive audience handed over to them in a traditional university system. It would also help break down the cultural class division between the college-educated and the non-college-educated, and perhaps most important of all, it has the potential to change the educational experience of young people so that education becomes associated, not with a four-year holiday and puttering around in the subjective humanities, but with a young person’s first steps toward real independence in the world of work. It would change the message young people hear from higher education, while also changing the kind of life experience they get.

An interesting intermediate reform is a proposal to shorten college education to a three-year program—and in most university curricula, there is more than enough fat to cut out. This would produce trillions of dollars in additional wealth as young people enter the workforce a year earlier, but more importantly, it would move forward the point at which they start gaining the experience in the “real world” that will tend to move them to the right.

This might also help short-circuit a vicious circle identified by Robert Samuelson: the lost generation of college students whose entry into the adult world of work has been further delayed by the stagnant Obama economy that they voted for.

But all of this raises another question. There is one place where young, educated people really do come into contact with the productive economy, where they care about it and are deeply affected by it: technology. Young people may be disconnected from the world of power plants and steel mills and factories, but they are not disconnected from the world of iPhones and iPads and websites and apps and algorithms. It is a vital part of the economy in which young people are actively engaged, and which has an aura of being cool, hip, and exciting. Yet the biggest failure of the right is that it has lost the economy’s technological elite.

Admirers of Ayn Rand’s novels can immediately grasp why this is so important. Who were the capitalist heroes of her stories? They were leading innovators in the fast-growing, cutting-edge industries of the time. Since Atlas Shrugged was written in the 1950s, that meant that her cutting-edge innovators were a steel tycoon who invents a new metal alloy and a young inventor who builds a new kind of motor. But that was 50 years ago, and technology has moved on.

Today’s John Galts and Hank Reardens are not in a valley in Colorado. They’re in a valley in California. The Hank Rearden of Silicon Valley, an innovator who started out in a garage and built a company which became the most valuable in the world, was Steve Jobs. But Jobs was—let’s be honest here—kind of a hippie. He had many of the virtues of an Ayn Rand hero, but a very different personal philosophy.

That brings us to what I think is the most important question to take away as the right examines how to reform itself. How does it win Silicon Valley? How does it get the best, most innovative segment of the youth, the ones who are actually plugged in to a vital and growing area of the economy, to see the value of free markets and to want to fight for them? I put it this way because I think that if the right learns how to win over the young innovators and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley (and its many equivalents across the country), it will go a long way toward learning how to win over the youth vote.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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