A major theme in the modern conservative movement has been its attack on elites, university elites in particular. William Buckley famously remarked that he would “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” When Ronald Reagan was first elected governor of California, one of his major campaign themes was to “clean up the mess at Berkeley.” George W. Bush decried the “intellectual arrogance” of his undergraduate alma mater, Yale University. More recently, conservative activists like David Horowitz wrote a book called the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.
But Tuesday’s election hinted that the relationship between conservatives and elite universities might be changing. Congress is now home to a group of Republicans who not only went to Ivy League Schools but also flaunted this credential during their campaigns. In upstate New York, Elise Stefanik became the youngest woman elected to Congress after running ads that noted she “graduated from Harvard University.” Tom Cotton won a Senate seat in Arkansas after flogging his Harvard degrees so much that his opponent complained he had “used Harvard to further his political career.” Ben Sasse—a graduate of Harvard with a Ph.D. from Yale and the author of a TEDx talk on higher education in the past year—won a Senate seat in Nebraska.
America’s universities became more politically liberal in the decades after World War II, culminating in the liberal 1960’s. Conservatives initially responded in the 1970s and 1980s by creating an alternative university structure for those on the political right—not only to educate students but also to network them into power. Jerry Falwell created Liberty University in 1971 and Pat Robertson created Regent University in 1978. When George W. Bush became president, he filled many important positions in his administration with Liberty and Regent graduates.
But Republicans did not withdraw from elite universities entirely. In fact, they were trying to carve out their own spaces within them. Centers like the Hoover Institution at Stanford University remained major hubs of conservative thought, particularly on economic policy. The Federalist Society was founded in 1982 at Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago Law School, and helped launch the modern conservative legal movement.
Slowly, elite universities became more conservative—even if in relatively small numbers. These schools started to realize that conservative perspectives needed to be represented in higher education. As Alan Brinkley, a former provost at Columbia, once wrote: “[I]t would be hard to argue that the American Right has received anything like the amount of attention from historians that its role in twentieth-century politics and culture suggests it should.” Law schools hired scholars who argued that the Constitution should be interpreted according to what it meant at the time it was drafted, a position that the Republican Party has embraced. Economics departments, which tend to be relatively conservative, rose in prominence in universities.
This year, these iterative changes on elite university campuses might have finally percolated into our national elections. The Republican Party has embraced its new crop of proud Harvard alumni. Stefanik was the subject of a story the week before the election by The New York Times labeling her a “rising star in Republican circles.” Tom Cotton has been labeled a “conservative superstar.” Glenn Beck proudly featured Sasse on his show several times.
Many Republicans now see an Ivy League education as a signal of sincere conviction. These politicians’ beliefs are battle worn from their time at university campuses dominated by unsympathetic liberals. One supporter of Sasse noted that the candidate had never been influenced by the “group think of those liberal institutions” he attended.
Ivy League degrees also signal a politician’s transformative abilities. Vote for me, the Republican argument goes, because I have helped transform these elite universities from liberal ivory towers to places where conservatives can thrive. An essay in The Wall Street Journal endorsed Cotton by noting that he could “redeem Harvard.” The essay notes that Cotton fought against orthodoxies at Harvard by writing conservative columns for the student newspapers. After graduating from Harvard Law School, this essay argues, he fought back against campus orthodoxies by joining the military despite the anti-military attitudes on the Harvard campus.
Why the change? It might just be that Republicans are sick of having their candidates labeled as less intelligent and less qualified. In the past, Democrats sometimes pointed to their university affiliations to legitimate themselves and cast Republicans like Michele Bachmann or (going farther back) Reagan as unintelligent and unqualified for power. No one will or can criticize the intelligence of Stefanik, Cotton, or Sasse because of their educational backgrounds.
An Ivy League education comes with other perks for any ambitious person. Stefanik, Cotton, and Sasse’s educations helped them obtain important positions in the public and private sectors and accelerated their path to public office. All three are young—Stefanik is 30, Cotton is 37, and Sasse is 42—and could be major players in conservative politics for decades to come. Stefanik and Cotton also both turned to Harvard alumni for major financial contributions. When Cotton was attacked for the work that he did at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he was publicly supported by his Ivy-League educated colleagues.
To be sure, large swaths of the Republican Party are still hostile toward elite universities. As The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times reported, Tea Party supporters at the core of the Republican Party are still wary of Ivy League degrees. Republicans in Congress have also tried to cut funding for the National Science Foundation, which provides $7 billion annually to fund research—particularly research at universities. Republicans rail against the climate change science produced in universities.
Still, such attacks will lose their edge if Republicans continue to elect proud graduates of the very places they attack. The party has a long way to go in overcoming its anti-elitist reputation. If that does change, though, we could look back to Tuesday’s election as an early moment when that started to happen.