Student Activism on Campus: It’s Not Just for Lefties Anymore

By Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood

When talk turns to college student activism, most people will conjure up images reminiscent of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. But when it comes to campus politics, the students doing the acting are not just on the left and the style they use are not just in-your-face protest. In our soon-to-be published book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton University Press, Fall 2012), we demonstrate that universities have an enormous influence on the tone and tenor of right-leaning students’ political styles—styles which, presumably, inform these students’ political activity later in life. Studying a population rarely explored by scholars of either education or social movements (but see work by Rebecca Klatch and John Andrew), we discovered that while conservative students’ ideological beliefs may be more or less shared across campuses, their political styles vary substantially from one university to the next.[1] By shared “ideological beliefs” we mean students’ commitments to fiscal conservatism, national security, social issues, and the like; by divergent “political styles” we mean students’ expression and performance of their politics.

Conducting interviews with students and alumni/ae of two universities that vary along some dimensions (the public/private divide, selectivity of admissions) but which are similar along others (both are secular, Research 1 universities that conservative critics frequently point to as ‘liberal bastions’) we found that a “provocative style” dominates conservative political action in a campus system that we call Western Public while a “civilized discourse style” prevails at Eastern Elite University. Provocative political actions at Western—such as Affirmative Action Bake Sales, Catch an Illegal Alien Day, or Global Warming Beach Parties—are meant to get under the skin of fellow students, administrators, and professors (the vast majority of whom are considered by right-leaning students to be off-the-charts liberal) and to attract the attention of local media and politicos. The civilized discourse style at Eastern, meantime—characterized by long discussions or sponsored events aimed at getting liberals and moderates to more fully understand the conservative perspective—reflects students’ high regard for their classmates’ and professors’ talents (if not also their politics).

What are the roots of these very different stylistic differences at Western and Eastern? We argue that such norms are not wholly, or even predominantly, part of students’ cultural repertoires before they step foot on their college campuses. Instead, we contend that they are to a large extent shaped by their college experiences. This is not to say that students enter their universities with no preconceived ideas about what constitutes appropriate political behavior for students like them; in our book we spend a good amount of time discussing our interviewees’ background characteristics and show that, for example, Eastern conservative students come from more highly educated households on average than do Western conservative students, which may incline them toward a more refined style. We also fully acknowledge (and account for) the strong selection effects deriving from certain types of students applying to certain types of institutions.

But we found that these early experiences and background characteristics are far from perfect predictors of college styles. It turns out that prior to college several Eastern Elite students in our sample had watched Fox News just as a good number of their Western counterparts had, participated in confrontational protests against abortion or other volatile issues, and were well-versed in, and to some extent subscribed to, conservative critiques about liberal bias in American universities. Eastern conservatives, that is to say, adopt the civilized discourse style to the almost complete exclusion of the populist provocative style once they enroll at Eastern, when they discover that such actions are inappropriate in their new institutional setting. Meanwhile among our Western interviewees, we found even those who had grown up with dinnertime political discussions and high-minded reading preferences adapting to the provocative style once at school.

So what is shaping such distinctive political expression? First, relying on the work of the educational sociologist Kenneth Feldman and his co-authors, we view campuses as “arena[s] of social interaction in which the individual comes into contact with a multitude of actors in a variety of settings, emphasizing that through these social interactions and other social influences the identities of individuals are, in part, constituted.” [2] Conservative students, that is to say, operate in a series of formal organizational arrangements and informal social groups on their campuses—including housing, clubs, peer groups, and on a more abstract  level, the distinctive college rituals and ‘organizational sagas’ of their schools—which lead them to have certain ideas about how to be active and creative members of their community. This includes ideas about what appropriate styles of political discourse and performance might be.

On the campuses in the Western Public system, students are socialized to (and by) the relative anonymity of being a Western student. At the large state flagship campus virtually all students live off-campus after their freshman year; few have reason for any type of informal social contact with a diversity of classmates each day, and they are subject to impersonal registration procedures for large lecture classes which give them few opportunities to know their professors (or in many cases, graduate student instructors) personally. Western Flagship students also go to a school where fun and recreation are a major draw. These institutional features at Western, we argue, affect the everyday experiences of all students, down to the kind of political style that students find appealing. For conservative students, the relative anonymity they experience on campus, combined with both their widely-shared sense of being politically marginalized as well as participants in a fun and recreational social scene results in a shared taste for exciting “gotcha” politics that are designed to be over-the-top and attention-grabbing.

In contrast, Eastern Elite students—who live in a social and academic “bubble” of fellow Easterners, created from living and dining on campus all four years and attending small classes with “eminent faculty” and highly esteemed peers—are socialized to a kind of “collective eminence,” or understanding of elite “we-ness,” that leads them away from such divisive actions.[3] Conservative students at Eastern believe that being in an academically and socially elite environment gives them the luxury of having reasonable conversations across the political spectrum, while also obligating them to refrain from a more confrontational style, which they understand to be overly populist. The civil mode underscores conservative students’ bona fides as reasonable members of their elite community, effectively drawing boundaries between themselves and, say, “right-wing whackos,” as one of our Eastern interviewees put it.

Of course universities are not monoliths, and they do not generate singular norms of political appropriateness for all students. In fact, we should note here that we found that conservative students also use two subordinate styles in their political expression: “campaigning,” which occurred on both campuses, and “highbrow provocation” which was in evidence at Eastern Elite. But the point here is that universities are venues for distinctive group styles, where ideas about one’s political expression are based on culture in interaction.[4] College-age political identities are largely the result of shared understandings that are durable over time and which are significantly influenced by particular organizational and cultural opportunity structures on campus. The political styles that students showcase on any given campus emerge out of distinctive combinations of the ideas, beliefs, symbols, discourses, practices, and opportunities that are contained in the cultural and organizational repertoires on particular campuses.

[1] Both Klatch and Andrew studied the Young Americans for Freedom. See Rebecca Klatch, 1998, A Generation Divided: The New Right, the New Left, and the 1960s. University of California Press and John Andrew, 1997, The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
[2] See page 464 in Kaufman, Peter and Kenneth Feldman. 2004. “Forming Identities in College: A Sociological Approach.” Research in Higher Education 45:463-96.
[3] The quotations in this sentence are from our interviews. Robert Granfield discusses collective eminenence as a feeling state enjoyed by Harvard Law School students; see Granfield, Making Elite Lawyers: Visions of Law at Harvard and Beyond. New York:  Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1992.

[4] On group styles, see Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman, 2003, “Culture in Interaction.” American Journal of Sociology 108: 735-794.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Student Activism in Social Movements

2 responses to “Student Activism on Campus: It’s Not Just for Lefties Anymore

  1. Pingback: (Col Sellin) Challenge the Political Establishments Now or Kiss the Constitution Good-Bye « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

  2. Pingback: Student Activism on Campus: It’s Not Just for Lefties Anymore « Learning Change

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