Phi Beta Cons

Active and Passive Campus Conservatives

I appreciate Jonah’s Corner post on the vitality of campus conservatives. His experience — that “conservative students tend to come out of universities sharper, more self-confident, and more ready to rumble in ideological debates” — is the same as mine. Conservative students with moral fortitude and a willingness to scrap can thrive on campus. While they may face tough times, even those students who’ve faced the worst challenges have generally emerged better for it. In other words, once a conservative student decides to stick his head above the foxhole and challenge the Left, he is typically invigorated by the fight. We’ll call this person the active conservative.

In fact, I don’t sense that conservatives suffer much attrition in the ranks of true ideological combatants, and they may even pick up a convert or two. The attrition comes primarily from the passive conservative, the campus conservative who isn’t all that political — the one who grew up conservative and identifies as generally conservative, but the ideological side of whose life isn’t terribly important. These are the people we’re losing in droves. It’s not that they’re convinced by leftist arguments; rather, they drift from their “home” ideology in response to peer pressure, perceived norms, and stigmatization. The apolitical leftist is comfortably at home in the academy. The apolitical conservative feels the constant leftward push, and their overall ideological indifference (relative to their other priorities) means that they ultimately emerge from campus with a substantially different worldview.

This is where I think you see the bulk of the leftward movement on issues like same-sex marriage or abortion. It’s not that masses of conservative students are engaging in ideological combat and losing. Rather, most students — liberal and conservative — don’t have all that much interest in combat to begin with, and they tend to gravitate toward the perceived consensus. In other words, if a student sees himself as “moderate,” then his moderation will move leftward with the leftward tilt of the academy. Even students who vaguely identify as conservative will move left as their soft conservatism tacks just a few degrees right from the radical academic left.

The stunning ideological polarization of our urban professional centers, with some of our most populous and important cities voting up to 90 percent Democratic, means that many of these same students never really leave the ideological reservation. These students (now professionals and parents) lose a sense of the true national political spectrum and allow the entire cycle to repeat with their children. Cultural inertia is a very powerful thing.