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 — 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 — 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.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. carpeicthus says:

    Well, they’re being loose with the term libertarian, too, since the pro-life position is far more conservative and libertarian, and of course the last two “left” issues would support the libertarian thesis, not work against it.

  2. Bithead says:

    well, this isn’t so much an agument of exact position as much as it is one of momentum. I agree with the preception that Mr. Bush is to the left of Mr. Reagan; Bush has never been more than a centerist. On that basis, one can understand why hey would find more of an icon in Reagan, than in Bush.

    The students you mention likely see Mr. Bush a step backwards in that regard.

    But it strikes me that such a position calls into serious question the oft-mumbled leftist mantra about how Bush is the reincarnation of Hitler.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’d wager the shift in college student’s politics toward libertarianism correlates nicely with the rise in Internet access and web publishing. The WWW tends to skew libertarian for various reasons — consider Glenn Reynolds — and students are getting more information from those sources than ever.

    Attributing the trend to Reagan seems unlikely, since the ideological legacy of any president after eight years of compromise is mixed at best.

  4. Joseph Marshall says:

    The surprise is only the extent to which it has grown. Libertarianism is definitely a philosophy for the young: the vision of freedom as an absolute, unchecked by anything but the most tenuous version of the social contract, can be wholly sustained, I think, only as long as you are young and strong and possessed of the illusion that you need no one.

    The libertarian persuasion flourishes on the internet for much the same reasons. In a virtual world, who really needs anyone?

    “oft-mumbled leftist mantra”

    Some of us on the left have a more sophisiticated view. In my view at least, Bush, and those who surround him, are rather quickly attempting to transform our country into what is, in essence, an authoritarian democracy, closer actually to Israel than to any authoritarian state of the past. A state where there is considerable licence, particularly to do profitable business, and broad political participation, but minimal liberty and privacy.

    What is required for this is a permanent, open-ended, state of war against an enemy amorphous enough and weak enough that any attack against them can be celebrated as a “victory”, but no strike against them ever reduces the potential danger that they represent.

    If this seems extreme, try to define for yourself under what conceivable circumstances we could say that we have totally defeated “terrorism”.

    This trend alone may someday bend our political spectrum of left and right into an endless circle.

  5. Starchild says:

    Time Magazine all but admitted its own left-wing bias in the August 22, 2004 article “The Right’s New Wing,” noting that employees of parent company Time-Warner were the 5th highest source of John Kerry’s donations.

    Despite this admission, however, the article tellingly mislabeled libertarians as conservatives. Of course libertarians will appear conservative — to someone on the left! They will likewise appear liberal from the perspective of someone on the right. By calling libertarians conservatives, the magazine showed its own colors.

    In reality, libertarian is neither left nor right. It is anti-authoritarian — in favor of individual liberty as opposed to government power. (For a graphic depiction of this difference, see the political map at

    Individual liberty is favored in some areas by both the right (lower taxes, right to keep and bear arms, fewer restrictions on job creation, etc.) and the left (limits on police power, sexual freedom, substance use, etc.).

    But unfortunately, more government control is also frequently advocated by both left (higher taxes, gun control, more job-killing regulations, etc.), and right (expanded police powers, restrictions on sexual behavior, the “war on drugs,” etc.)

    Because libertarianism proposes to replace government control with individual liberty and personal responsibility across the board, it is a distinct philosophy that cannot be lumped in with either the left or the right. It would be more accurately called the radical center.

    Time should be embarrassed for making such a dumb mistake. They should also be embarrased for only writing about the lack of “intellectual diversity” as it applies to universities when that elephant is sitting right in their own living room.