Monday, January 13, 2014

Obama's Failure And College Political Culture

Recent news stories have been commenting on the sharp drop in support for Obama among young voters, disappointed both with his failure to live up to their imaginings and with the reality of policies he supported (Obamacare) or tolerated (NSA). The interesting question, going beyond the next few elections, is what effect if any this will have on their political views.

One thing that struck us when we were visiting colleges our kids were considering and that then struck our kids as college students was the uniformity of left wing views at elite colleges. By our daughter's account, the difference between Oberlin, where she started, and Chicago, which she transferred to, was that while at both schools most students took left wing views for granted, at Chicago they were at least curious as to why someone might disagree. At Oberlin the default assumption was that if you didn't agree you were either stupid or evil.

I expect that students at both schools, indeed at all the schools we looked at, voted and worked for Obama in both his elections. If many now think that was a mistake—according to one poll, nearly half of young voters said they would recall Obama if they could—how will that affect their political views?

One possibility is that it won't. They will conclude that the policies they supported were good ones, they  got fooled this time by a clever politician who pretended to support those policies and will try in the future to find and support politicians who really do support them.

Another is that they will conclude that the policies they supported were good ones but the political system is hopelessly corrupt, so the right response is either to withdraw from politics, try to foment a revolution, or try to change the system in some fundamental way, perhaps by "getting money out of politics." The last is the theme of the "NH Rebellion" that Larry Lessig has been posting about of late.

A final and more optimistic possibility is that they will conclude that they were wrong. If the system works so badly even when their hero is elected with a large majority and (initially) control of both houses of Congress, perhaps more government isn't really the solution to the world's problems after all. If the federal government can't run a web site nearly as well as Amazon, perhaps it isn't competent to run everything. Perhaps, even, we would be better off if it ran less of the world instead of more.

Different students will reach different conclusions, probably including all of those and others I have not thought of. My guess is that the political monoculture of (at least) elite colleges will survive Obama's failure, due if nothing else to the pressures of conformity. But one can hope.


Anonymous said...

The political monoculture has been around for decades before Obama, and will survive decades after Obama.

It's going to take a reverse cultural revolution to rip academia from the deathgrip the Left has on it. Obama is basically a sideshow on this front.

brendan said...

"The interesting question, going beyond the next few elections, is what effect if any this will have on their political views."

You're specifically asking about the long-run impact, and I think the answer is there is none.

NSA and Obamacare are the proximate causes of the popularity decline, but ultimately this looks like simple normalization off of an unusually extreme popularity peak driven by 1) the Bush's Iraq/recession double-whammy, and 2) Obama's youth/blackness/coolness.

Again, I think the magnitude of the popularity decline reflects its extremeness of its prior level; like a growth stock with a 50 P/E, the inevitable toe-stubbing produces a price collapse, but the fundamentals are unchanged.

jdgalt said...

My take is that there is no hope of America's "mainstream" universities reforming politically for the same reason there is no hope of those universities rejecting the phony science of climate change: because those institutions rely heavily on federal funds which will be taken away if they make any serious attempt to reform. The ongoing flap over speech codes and the new federal requirement that students charged with rape not get due process (see for both) are examples.

The only hope I see is that, as groups like Occupy publicize the rising cost and declining value of a college degree (and the inescapability of student loans), the public will abandon federally funded universities en masse, leaving the field to dissident institutions like Hillsdale College.

RKN said...

One thing is clear from the data: These disappointed youngins sure as hell ain't flocking to the Republican camp.

Anonymous said...

I point out this homonymic misspelling only because such errors are so rare here: "...recall Obama if they could—how will that effect [sic] their political views?"

Feel free to delete this comment.

Anonymous said...

I suspect there will mainly be a variation of the first outcome you mentioned, the 'no true Democrat' one. They will not change their opinion of Obama or the political system per se, but will instead start to think that the large changes in the US that they want to see can only unfold slowly, and the current President did about as much as he could reasonably be expected to do to move in the right direction.

The things a young college radical should disapprove of under Obama (most obviously the NSA spying on many millions of innocent people) can be ignored or marginalised for ideological reasons rather than undermining their faith in Big Government and more broadly the democratic system. 'Just because I think Obama was a good president doesn't mean I agree with the NSA spying scandal or how he reacted to it.'

Tibor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tibor said...

Anonymous: I think you are too pessimistic. Most people are actually just forming their political views in college (although, ideally, you should never stop questioning your views) and it is not uncommon to go from one point to a radically different one on the spectrum in a matter of years. The fact that older people are usually more right wing than young people is not caused by them being raised in the "good old ways" or anything like that, it is because they observe the realities and get disappointed by politicians over and over. Some of them still stay on the left even after experiencing disappointment because they associate the right mainly with religious conservatism and hawkishness...while libertarians are often either misunderstood or seen as too extreme or even more often probably seen as a "third party", voting for which equals to losing your vote (although I would say that the chances are your vote won't mean a thing either way and if you vote for the big parties, you can be sure of that even if your vote in fact does change the outcome). These college students of today will distribute probably about the same way their parents did.

Also, you don't see all the young people in the US or elsewhere uniformly on the left. It could be a distortion on my side because I tend to notice these newspieces more often than others but it seems to me Ron Paul has made quite a following among young people with his, let's say, moderate libertarian ideas. And the internet is full of young libertarians, albeit I expect a lot of them to change their views eventually since a good many give me an impression of just repeating something they read in Rothbard without thinking about it very much and envisioning a perfect society the same way Obama supporters did. Sadly (or hopefully?), there never will be a perfect society and unless they get back on the ground, they can be largely dissapointed as well. Still, the (as it seems to me) growing support of libertarian-ish ideas among the young people is something that I see as a very good thing. And with projects like the Free State or Seasteading, some interesting breakthroughs may even happen.

As I said, my views can be distorted and they can be se also because I don't come in contact with liberal arts majors very much. People in natural sciences or engineering (or economics obviously) tend to be much more sympathetic to the free market ideas and those are also the ones I usually interact with. It is interesting to ask why that is so by the way. Nozick has written an essay about that ( ) which is interesting, but does not strike me as anything near full explanation.

Anonymous said...

I'm in my 60's now but my political views had already been fully formed by the time that I entered college as did most of the people there that I knew. Maybe it was because I was raised by my grandparents who were conservative and fiercely independent that I gravitated more towards libertarian philosophy than conservative, which initially attracted me but I later understood that they were in their own way just as statist. I don't see someone who is a liberal admitting that they were wrong on Obama or the entire liberal philosophy simply because the hardest thing for someone who is absolutely convinced that his or her ideas are correct is wrong and has been wrong. They always find some excuse to justify their errors.

Tibor said...

Anonymous: Well, I'm 25 now and my opinions have changed quite a bit during my college years. I always supported "the right wing", probably since my parents, especially my father does. But in the Czech republic it is kind of the other way around. The young people often support the "right-wing" whereas a lot of older people support social democrats and unfortunately, about 10% still support the communists. However, the hyphenation is on purpose, because most of the right-wing parties are quite far from what I would call right-wing. Essentially, they want to raise taxes a little bit less than the socialists, they use right-wing rhetoric and their foreign politics is more USA oriented. And otherwise they quite often represent the kind of views which you would probably associate with "big city liberals" with the addition to anti-communism (at least in rhetoric). So the (mainstream) right-wingers here want to ban smoking in pubs, whereas the left-wing does not. They also are more into subsidizing "green" energy. And in terms of warfare, they are more keen to send Czech troops to Afghanistan and other NATO warzones. So it is kind of a mixture of democrats and republicans, but generally the (mainstream) left here is more "conservative" than the right, so most big cities and most young people vote the "right-wing" and the rest is closer to the left.

Still, I was mostly supporting those kind of policies...including the views on smoking and warfare (my views of the second Iraqi war changed a couple of times between supporting it, being against it and "undecided"). Ironically, what shifted my views was illegal drugs. I never thought they should be illegal (at first I thought marijuana should not be, then eventually all the others...whereas reasons why I thought so changed and expanded a bit)...which lead me first to a video of Penn and Teller's "bullshit" on youtube that dealt with that issue and then to an article on CATO that dealt with drug prohibition and compared it to alcohol prohibition. That caught my interest and from the website I learned about some interesting people who had some interesting David's father. Then I basically realized I don't have to pick between the "right" and the "left" as they are defined by the mainstream political parties, that there is more than this binary system. And while my views are probably best described as libertarian ever since, I occasionally change the reason why I believe this or that is good. I would like to say I switch to arguments that are closer to reality...for instance from "there is no such thing as market failure" to (convinced by David's arguments) "ok, there is such a thing, but it strikes both ways and both evidence and theory suggest that it strikes the government much more often". And my views on foreign intervention have also changed from "never justifiable" to, well..."it's complicated" :) Again, because of David and because of a friend of mine I like to talk about these things with, because he is clever and while mostly agreeing with me, he is not this "libertarian by faith" and not very much into absolute "right" and "wrong".

Tibor said...

So there. I guess I could have said it more briefly, but my point is that opinions do change and they can change quite a bit while someone is 18-25 or so. It won't happen in a day (when I first learned there was a thing called anarcho-capitalism I laughed about that and saw is as an "obvious" contradiction and saw the usual "obvious" problems with it for example), but it will happen to quite a lot of people I guess.

However, it may happen less often if you live in a sort of a monoculture environment dominated by one set of views and especially if everything else is regarded as "evil" and met with a hostile reaction. Fortunately, I have never experienced anything like that...then again, had I studied sociology or philosophy instead of maths, I might have had different experiences.