The Right’s New Wing
John Cloud has a piece in TIME announcing the arrival of what the headline writer terms “The Right’s New Wing.” It revolves around a burgeoning libertarianism among college students:
But while professors may lean left, many students are tilting right Ã¢€” especially toward that brand of conservatism known as libertarianism. According to a well-regarded annual survey sponsored for the past 38 years by the American Council on Education, only 17% of last year’s college freshmen thought it was important to be involved in an environmental program, half the percentage of 1992. A majority of 2003 freshmen–53%–wanted affirmative action abolished, compared with only 43% of all adults. Two-thirds of frosh favored abortion rights in 1992; only 55% did so in last year’s survey. Support for gun control has slipped in recent years among the young, and last year 53% of students believed that “wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now,” compared with 72% 11 years earlier.
You might think that a general trend toward conservatism after 9/11 explains young people’s rightward shift, but according to the Council on Education numbers, students actually began reconsidering liberal positions in the ’90s. (Support for gun control didn’t weaken until after 9/11, though.) Despite all those Girls Gone Wild (and now Guys Gone Wild) videos, young Americans are repositioning themselves not only on political but also on cultural matters. More than one-fifth of last year’s freshmen said they never party, twice the percentage of 1987. More kids today say they want a military career, and more hope to be “very well off.” We usually think of college students as more liberal than their parents, but on many political issues, today’s kids share the views of their parents’ generation Ã¢€” and on matters such as affirmative action and taxes, they are actually further right.
It’s important to note the liberal exceptions to this trend: kids are turning left on marijuana and gay marriage. Nearly 40% of first-year students now support legalizing pot (the most since the ’70s), and an astonishing 59% of 18-year-olds think same-sex couples should be able to legally wed. (Only about 30% of all Americans do.) But in the context of the other numbers, those positions may indicate a libertarian rather than leftist orientation. The Libertarian Party, which advocates minimal government interference in people’s lives, has members on 306 campuses, twice the figure of 1997-98, according to James Lark III, a campus organizer and former party chairman.
Libertarianism doesn’t work very well on the left-right axis as it’s been defined for the last thirty odd years. Indeed, these positions are hardly inconsistent.
What’s odd about the piece is that it attributes this trend to Ronald Reagan, noting that these kids all grew up in the post-Reagan era and that they seem more enamored of Reagan than Bush. While Reagan was certainly a major proponent of liberty, he was hardly libertarian by most standards. And one suspects the relative affection for Reagan over Bush 43 has more to do with nostalgic reflection and the former’s oratorical skills rather than substantive policy issues.