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What Do Campus Conservatives Reveal About the Modern-Day GOP?

A DEEP DIVE into the under-examined world of campus conservatives, Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood’s book can feel like an anthropological account of a disappearing tribe. Despite a lackluster economy that held few jobs for the newly graduated and dim prospects for those still in school, young voters were overwhelmingly pro-Obama this November. But as Binder and Wood discover, the conservative heart still beats defiantly in many of our colleges. And the ardor with which movement professionals tend to the campus grassroots suggests the central role higher education plays in the conservative cosmology of American decline. Campus conservatives may be outnumbered by their moderate and liberal classmates, but they are better organized and trained. And their cultivation has consequences well beyond campus walls.

Both sociologists at the University of California-San Diego, Binder and Wood conducted almost one hundred interviews at two “paradigmatically liberal strongholds”: “Eastern Elite,” a private institution in the East, and “Western Public,” a public university system in the West. The students are, for the most part, bright and articulate (though they voice the occasional parroted talking point), and keenly aware of their marginal position. Some describe conservative life in their liberal enclaves as akin to living “underground” or being in the “counterculture.” This romantic feeling of embattlement is fundamental to the undergraduate conservative’s identity. “I really have been able to fine-tune my arguments and my thoughts and my politics as a result of being around so many liberal people,” says one student. “I really sincerely feel that you become a much lazier thinker if you are part of the majority because you just aren’t challenged that much,” says another. Hardly victims, these young conservatives suggest an image of the liberal university as a crucible from which a more supple and resilient conservatism can be forged.

As Binder and Wood detail, a well-established professional network nurtures these upstart advocates. Funded by tens of millions of dollars from familiar names—Koch, Bradley, Olin—organizations such as the Young America’s Foundation (YAF), the Leadership Institute, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute nurse the new guard with resources and an intensity that have no equal on the left. One student at Western told the authors that the Leadership Institute called him to offer unsolicited financial support for his conservative newspaper. “I still get phone calls from them, ‘What else can we do?’” he added. The organizations also offer a wide array of activities, from training sessions and speaking programs to conferences and funding, to further bolster the young conservatives.

Although it outlines the influence of conservative big money on campuses, Becoming Right’s primary focus is a narrower question: What styles of conservatism arise in the two institutions? Binder and Wood identify two dominant modes: “provocation” and “civilized discourse.” The provocative style prevails at Western Public. The College Republicans there stage events designed less to persuade than to inflame: On “Catch an Illegal Alien Day,” students pose as undocumented immigrants and are imprisoned when caught; “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” is your typical bake sale—except white customers pay more for their pastries. Suspicion of professors as biased is rife; outreach to liberals and moderates is nearly non-existent. There is bad faith all around.

By contrast, Eastern Elite conservatives feel more sympathetic toward the liberals in their midst. With its “unparalleled reputation as an elite institution,” Eastern Elite binds its students, regardless of their politics, in a tighter communal sphere. Unlike the Western interviewees, the conservatives at Eastern are more integrated into campus life—the difference between a tony private institution and a sprawling public one, the authors claim. Mindful of the expectations attached to attending such a prestigious school, conservatives at Eastern see good-faith conversation as the default mode for engagement. There is even a hint of condescension in the way Eastern Elite conservatives view the rabble-rousing of their Western Public counterparts. “The only thing that I have ever seen come from putting on events like that is divisiveness and anger and lack of communication,” says the head of Eastern’s College Republicans. Another Eastern student sniffs that such methods are “populist.”

Binder and Wood’s findings add an important dimension to our understanding of the right. The last two decades have seen historians and political scientists extensively study the rise of conservatism. A trenchant addition to that literature, Becoming Right offers a thick description of the state of college conservatism and explains the factors that shape the student—and, it follows, the citizen. The authors’ interrogations leave the promise of a better politics hanging in the air: if Binder and Wood are accurate in their depictions, campus cultures that seek to build a stronger sense of community and ideological tolerance could be one key to a more civil national discourse.

The book also enriches our understanding of the right’s mentality. Binder and Wood restrict their analysis of the conservative infrastructure to the present, but on full display here is a tendency that has defined postwar conservatism. There exists a cottage industry of books about the radical left’s infiltration of the campus, conjuring up visions of professors with Che posters in their offices persecuting students who dare to venture a politically incorrect thought. The right has been obsessed with academic leftism for decades—never mind that conservatism has been a vibrant presence on campuses that whole time. Lest we forget, two years before the Port Huron Statement—the grand statement of ’60s student radicalism—there appeared the Sharon Statement—a conservative manifesto adopted by the student activists of the Young Americans for Freedom. (The manifesto was named after William F. Buckley’s Connecticut hometown where it was ratified.) Indeed, in 1966, conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans castigated the media for fixating on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) when YAF members actually outnumbered SDS members 28,000 to 2,000. Those two contradictory cries—the left have overrun our campuses! the media overstate the student left’s strength!—sum up the overdeveloped sense of siege that has long animated conservatism.

But if this mentality is essential to the myth that the right tells itself, Becoming Right hardly belabors the point. Indeed, the book’s engagement with the ideological battles of our time is oblique at best. As it is, Binder and Wood walk in on one of the most consequential political debates of our time through a side door. Reading about the differences between “Eastern” and “Western” styles of campus conservatism, one cannot help but hear the echoes of the ongoing argument over the soul of the Republican Party. The students at Western revel in the annoyance of their liberal peers and find succor in the right-wing media entertainment complex. The Eastern students resist provocation and show faith in dialogue to promote conservative values. It is an altogether confident, high-minded, and admirable approach to politics—and jarringly quaint.

Binder and Wood do not explicitly graft their findings onto the contours of our national politics, but their findings’ resonance is hard to miss. Their portrait of reasonable conservatism at “Eastern” is all but unrecognizable; its foreignness speaks volumes about the phase of American politics that we are currently living through. Becoming Right yields many valuable insights about the possible future of conservatism. But the vision this illuminating book most vividly conjures is the depressing present of conservatism: ugly, unyielding, and provocative to the point of nihilism.

Elbert Ventura is the Managing Editor of Democracy. Follow: @ElbertVentura