In the not-so-distant past, the Typical College Republican idolized Ronald Reagan, fretted about the national debt and read Edmund Burke. Political sophistication, to that person, implied belief in the status quo.
For that bygone breed, an education at an elite institution was a moderating finishing school. Even then American universities skewed liberal, but the conservatives of old had real opportunities to make their case — and have their ideas respectfully challenged — in the public square. At my own school, Princeton, I’ve been told, politics were mostly separable from personal relationships.
How things have changed.
Today’s campus conservatives embrace a less moderate, complacent and institutional approach to politics. Instead of belief in the status quo, many tend toward scorched-earth politics. But these changes aren’t solely the consequence of a fractured national politics.
They’re also the result of puritanically progressive campuses that alienate conservative students from their liberal peers and college as a whole. The distrust of authority, the protest and the disobedience that have characterized the left’s activism over the past half-century or so have arrived on the right. The American universities that once served as moderating finishing schools have become breeding grounds for conservative firebrands.
The story of this transformation, according to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, starts around 2014, when Gen Z arrived on campus. The new progressive students were less tolerant of heterodox ideas and individuals. Demands to rescind invitations to speakers seemed to spike. The terms “microaggression” and “trigger warning” made it into everyday campus parlance. At Yale, for instance, a lecturer’s suggestion that students should determine which Halloween costumes are acceptable for themselves ignited a firestorm.
These changes were felt on my campus, too. “Princeton has become a much more politicized place over the last 10 years,” said Thomas Kelly, a philosophy professor. It’s also become more progressive. Diversity training sessions blatantly endorse progressive ideas: Espousing a colorblind ideal, for example, is deemed a “microinvalidation.” Bureaucrats police conduct and speech. Many programs cater to left-wing causes.
For those on the right, the experience is alienating. The typical American’s views on gender ideology or American history are often irrelevant to his or her day-to-day life. But for the conservative college student, life is punctuated by political checkpoints. Classes may begin with requests for “preferred pronouns” or “land acknowledgments.” A student who jokes about the wrong subject might face social punishment. All students should welcome challenges to their most cherished beliefs, but from what I’ve seen on campus, students are not invited to debate; they are expected to conform.
And those who challenge liberal pieties can face real repercussions. Because a Princeton student defended an unpopular opinion about policing in a private conversation, she was pushed out of her leadership position on a sports team. At Stanford, students who experience “harm” because of “who they are and how they show up in the world” can anonymously report classmates to the university, a policy that some faculty members say threatens free speech.
Sometimes young conservative agitators are dismissed, cynically, as attention seekers or opportunists. But in my experience, the negative consequences of conservative activism on campus, both personal and professional, far outweigh any benefit that they might incur. And, tellingly, most conservatives report censoring themselves during their college years.
Some might think that this pervasive progressivism would encourage conservative students to change their views. But in fact it has the opposite effect. Graduates of schools like Loyola University Chicago, George Washington University and Mount Holyoke have described how the rampant leftism on their campuses pushed them to the right. A 2017 article in The Washington Examiner quotes a Furman University graduate saying that “the aggressive leftist culture on campus made me a more radical conservative because I only had two options: abandon my beliefs and conform, or fight back.” She chose to fight back.
The political journey of Rebekah Adams, a friend and recent graduate, is illustrative. She arrived at Princeton as a self-described moderate. Rebekah, the daughter of a Black Guyanese immigrant father, became frustrated by conversations about race on campus. “I couldn’t bring nuance to the conversation about police brutality,” she told me.
Rebekah says she faced backlash from classmates because of her views and eventually embraced a conservative political identity. She began writing for The Princeton Tory, a journal of conservative thought, on hot-button issues like Israel and started campaigning for free speech on campus. She described a process of “learning how to think for myself.”
At a certain point, Rebekah said, she “lost faith” in Princeton, and her politics evolved further right. She publicly questioned the efficacy of Covid policies, and called diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives a “show.” By October 2020, she was writing in support of Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump and Ron DeSantis are different kinds of politicians from John McCain and Mitt Romney. To be sure, top universities have produced outspoken conservatives like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. But now formative years at elite institutions that have gone woke are convincing right-leaning students and heterodox thinkers that society’s most august institutions — from media outlets to universities — are fundamentally broken and need to be set on a different path. If colleges don’t want to produce a new generation of conservative firebrands, they need to pump the brakes on campus progressivism. Campuses that are more welcoming to conservatives are in universities’ own interest.