The Next Right-Wing Populist Will Win by Attacking American Higher Education

(Photo: Aviahuismanphotography)
The academy is primed to be a punching bag for the GOP’s next standard-bearer, just as the media were in 2016.

I want to make a prediction: The next successful Republican politician will rally the Right by making America’s universities his punching bag — and the universities will prove even more vulnerable to that politician’s attacks than the media were to Donald Trump’s.

A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that Republican opinion of the nation’s higher-education system has deteriorated remarkably in a very short time. In 2015, 58 percent of Republicans thought that colleges and universities had a positive effect on the country; an only slightly larger share of Democrats, 65 percent, agreed. Just two years later, the numbers are dramatically different: Only 36 percent of Republicans view colleges positively, compared to 72 percent of Democrats. A whopping 58 percent of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

Now imagine what could happen to that number if a Republican presidential nominee tweeted every day and gave speeches around the country attacking our colleges. Imagine how many more Republicans would come to view the nation’s academic enclaves negatively if their party’s standard-bearer complained daily about the indoctrination of our children, the ceaseless rise in tuition costs that bleeds regular folks dry, the decline in pedagogical rigor, the political bias, the lies. Imagine what would happen if such a politician branded universities as the “enemy of the American people.”

Post-Trump, the Republican party will likely be disunited. Voters and politicians will wonder what the party stands for anymore. Is it pro– or anti–military intervention? Pro– or anti–free markets? Culturally conservative or vulgar? The GOP will need a message around which to coalesce. More precisely, it will need an enemy. Republican voters may disagree on policy and principle, but they can agree on whom they don’t like:

Radical professors, race-obsessed provocateurs, gender-studies grifters, anti-Israel fanatics, weak-kneed administrators, disgusting libertines, angry feminists, and illiberal student protesters.

Conservatives can get on board with this critique. They have long railed against the liberal bias of colleges and its effect on America’s young. They might get uncomfortable when the critique gets extreme, of course, but the extreme version of the message is not meant for them. It will hammer the same themes as before but excite populists with different terms. “Radical professors” will become “anti-American” or “Communist.” “Racial provocateurs” will become “anti-white racists.”

In short, everyone will hear what he or she needs to, and respond accordingly. The alt-right will cheer. Conservative thinkers will write treatises on the pernicious influence of radical intellectuals and call for a new type of American university. Policy wonks will cite studies demonstrating the decline in intellectual diversity on American campuses, drawing up plans to lower tuition or expand technical education while noting responsibly that universities are not for everyone. Each story about silly student protesters and each intimation of a speech code will spark a thousand “hot takes,” a Fox News interview, and comment from public officials. Populists will decry the “end of free speech.”

These blows will land for three reasons: 1) They’re partially true; 2) universities and the Left are in denial about their truth; and 3) Republican voters have been primed to believe them.

American higher-education is incredibly screwed up. Only its most servile apologists will deny that. For one, it’s a bubble. Tuition prices never stop rising, far outpacing inflation, even as the services rendered seem to have deteriorated. Exorbitant tuition imposes an immense strain on parents, who often must reshape their lives around paying college bills, and on students, many of whom struggle under the burden of student debt for years after graduation.

These blows will land for three reasons: 1) They’re partially true; 2) universities and the Left are in denial about their truth; and 3) Republican voters have been primed to believe them.

Moreover, to what does all that tuition really entitle a student, anyway? The elimination of core curricula in the ’80s and ’90s has destroyed the foundation of American liberal-arts education. The “studies” majors have themselves drawn students in without being able to offer a promise of real erudition or substantial job prospects. Many disciplines have shifted dramatically toward the study of race, gender, and class.

The bias is undeniable: Left-wing professors and students predominate, while conservative thought is often ignored, sometimes marginalized, and occasionally forbidden by oppressive speech codes or threatening mobs. Political correctness and identity politics rule many campus student groups. And college life reliably promises socialization into progressive ideas and sexual mores, as well as a confrontation with the most relaxed attitudes toward drinking and drugs.

Nor do universities themselves recognize the validity and potency of their critics’ charges. In covering the Pew survey, InsideHigherEd laid blame for the shift in Republican attitudes at the feet of “perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education.” This is typical of how these discussions go. There are only “perceived” problems. The evidence of how fields have drastically changed and how the professoriate has drifted radically leftward since the 1990s is ignored.

Does this sort of denialism sound familiar? If so, it is likely because the media made the same arguments for years when they were accused of liberal bias. Conservatives were always either “making it up” or they weren’t, but bias was just unavoidable. “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” joked Stephen Colbert. “On the liberal bias of facts,” read the headline on one Paul Krugman column in the New York Times.

By refusing to own up to their own bias and weaknesses, the media didn’t make their critics disappear; they only angered and empowered them, making themselves more vulnerable to attack. Trump took advantage of that vulnerability by proving he could strike at the media harder than anyone else ever had. A lifelong Democrat and buffoon, he proved his bona fides to Republican voters by waging war on mainstream journalists.

The educational establishment makes the same mistake but expects a different result, while its left-wing allies cheer it on. Anytime conservatives criticize the academy, they are laughed out of the room. “America hits peak anti-intellectualism” is how Salon interpreted the Pew survey. The Washington Post called David Gelernter, the groundbreaking Yale computer scientist and writer, “fiercely anti-intellectual” for his comments on the Left’s dominance of academia.

By burying their heads in the sand, universities allow the viewpoint disparities on their campuses to grow worse. Defenses by supercilious left-wingers may protect the schools for now, but they will ultimately make the academy into a juicier target for right-of-center populists. When a clever or merely loud politician finally puts the college system in his sights, the Right will be ready.

It already is, in fact — has been for years.

In 1951, William F. Buckley Jr. published God and Man at Yale. His central accusation against the university was this:

The institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists . . . addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.

In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind. In his telling,

the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old.

The universities, the Right has long insisted, have abandoned the West. The canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s, during which core curricula and Western-civilization programs were dismissed as “ethnocentric,” only solidified this impression.

Since then, every conservative publication worth its salt has raced to expose the latest campus outrage. In the Internet era, whole websites have sprouted up to document protests and speech codes, delusions and demands. Fox News devotes valuable coverage to university issues; Tucker Carlson grills campus protesters live on national television. The drama at Middlebury over Charles Murray became a national controversy. More outrages are sure to follow.

It’s not hard to see the breaking point of these campus wars on the horizon: the first time a politician dares to make higher-education into a national campaign issue. Before Trump, the media’s “anti-intellectual” label might have scared politicians, but it doesn’t any longer. Trump’s assault on the media has irreparably damaged its credibility, reducing its claims of expertise and knowledge to fodder for right-wing voters’ laughter.

The next Trump, then, will play to the worst fears of parents by going after colleges and universities. In doing so, he will unite the best, the worst, and all the other elements of the Right. They will be primed to hear the critique, which will be partially or even largely correct. The next Steve Bannon will seek to “overthrow” the university system from behind the scenes. And the universities, like the media before them, will walk right into the trap, while the Left rejects potential voters as deplorable ignoramuses.

Can you see it yet?


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Elliot Kaufman — Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review. He studies political theory and history at Stanford University. His writing has previously appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Stanford ...

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