College as a Hotbed of…Conservatism?

The hope for a leftward push within the Democratic Party lies with future generations. But what if inequality is pushing the economic views of college students in the opposite direction?

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Bernie SandersCollegeEconomics

Bernie Sanders’s path to victory was never going to be easy, but it has become even harder after Super Tuesday. The dwindling likelihood that he will wrest the nomination from Hillary Clinton is prompting supporters to reiterate a key rationale for his long-shot candidacy: Even if it fails, it will still have transformed not only the race, but the entire Democratic Party. As David Marcus writes, this is a larger goal that cannot be reduced to the outcome of one primary campaign: “A new generation of liberal Democrats and radical activists is emerging, hoping to push the Democratic Party to the left.”

There’s evidence of this “new generation” in Sanders’s polling numbers, and in this journal, Kevin Mattson recently sketched out the logic of why today’s young voters may become tomorrow’s (relatively) left-wing establishment. College-age voters, in Mattson’s experience, seem “confused but searching” about democratic socialism: They’re “open to listening to new (old) ideas and are recognizing that they live in troubled financial times, that they deserve social policies that can make their lives better and more secure.” A generation that grew up amidst the financial crisis is, understandably, less moved by older rhetoric about the magic of markets.

So, when it comes to the flowering of a young generation ready to shift American politics leftward, the circumstances seem right, and the primary numbers offer some evidence. That’s why I was so surprised to see new research from three Princeton scholars reporting that affluent colleges—historically, one place where these shifts originate—appear to make their students more conservative on economic issues. The cause is probably linked to income inequality: Affluent students are more likely to attend and graduate from college, which is reducing the economic diversity of student populations. But the resulting shift in political views also seems to be linked to prevailing attitudes on many campuses: “An affluent campus atmosphere combined with a cohort norm touting the value of financial gain can teach students, especially those from affluent families, to favor policies that benefit the wealthy.” For many students, college is chiefly a path to making money.

This results in what the researchers call a “conservatizing effect” on affluent students at affluent schools. Their views shift rightward far more dramatically than those of their well-off peers who attend less wealthy schools. And the effect is especially strong on affluent campuses “where most students indicate they are attending college for financial gain.” (The high number of Harvard graduates who go into finance—which dipped after the Great Recession, but has recently begun to rebound—comes to mind, although recent work suggests that the fault may lie partly with universities themselves, for steering students towards those industries.)

As I’ve written before, one of the most disturbing facets of income inequality is its tendency to produce a negative feedback loop. This can be observed at an institutional and political level: as the ultra-rich succeed in pushing their political agenda, the results (like weakened unions and cuts to education) eventually reinforce inequality, weakening the poor and empowering the rich, and setting the policy cycle in motion again. One disturbing implication of this study is that not only our institutions, but our attitudes are vulnerable to the effects of income inequality—including in settings we’d normally think of as friendly to liberal and egalitarian sentiments. For the suggestion of this research is not that young liberals are converting in the wake of some heady first encounter with Hayek or Friedman; it’s that their opinions are being shaped in a far more pedestrian manner, by social factors that are a result of bad political decisions—and which threaten, in turn, to reinforce those decisions. If that’s true, then it introduces a wrinkle into hopes for a leftward push led by the next generation. That’s not to say campuses won’t play a role in shaping the future of Democratic politics, but the path may be a little rockier than it first appears.

Read more about Bernie SandersCollegeEconomics

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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