A colleague of mine (a poli sci prof) and I were chatting in the hallway yesterday, talking about last week's election. She and I are both solid liberals, and we expressed our satisfaction and relief at the national and local results. And then she said something interesting: "You know, as much as it pains me to admit it, some of my best and brightest students are the most politically conservative. They often seem more articulate and passionate than the others." I agreed that all things considered, my experience in recent years had been the same.
No, I'm not going to make the argument that the most intelligent and insightful of students are natural conservatives. Rather, I'm convinced that most young people are, at heart, naturally rebellious against authority. Though Pasadena was once a reliably Republican town, it is so no longer. And I know full well that with a few exceptions, my colleagues on this campus are reliably and nearly uniformly left-wing. Oh, there's the odd Libertarian or two, and I have one colleague who still hasn't outgrown his fascination with Ayn Rand. (This is a sign, mind you, of developmental disability. When you're 19, you are permitted to find the Fountainhead inspiring and brilliant. If you still find it so when you're 39, instead of seeing it correctly as turgid, overwrought garbage, then you are experiencing some form of mild intellectual retardation.) Many of my senior colleagues are veterans of the civil rights or "brown power" movements. We sit around sometimes and swap stories of various protests we've been involved in over the years. I know of only one tenured member of my department who voted for Bush in '04; he was not only outnumbered by the Kerry voters but by the Nader voters as well.
Bottom line: it's tough to rebel on this campus by moving to the left. On the other hand, "coming out" as a young conservative allows you the wonderful thrill of tweaking the noses of your elders, a temptation that many of the young find difficult to exist. In my childhood, lefties drove around with bumper stickers that said "Question Authority." Well, their children and grandchildren are doing just that -- except that in order to do so in a truly satisfying way, they've got to challenge their mostly left-wing teachers and professors. Not for one second will I concede the intellectual superiority of conservative ideas or values; I merely acknowledge that on campuses like my own, it's "more fun" to be a young Republican thanks to the cachet of counter-cultural rebelliousness that it carries. Trust me, I'm not going to spoil the fun for these lil' right-wing whipper-snappers; if they like, I'll happily play the liberal foil for them.
Of course, there's another kind of student whom I often see drawn to conservatism. Often, these are kids who come from turbulent and impoverished backgrounds. Stereotypically, they "ought" to be reliable Democrats (if they have any politics at all.) But many of these kids become infatuated with the Republican gospel of stern self-reliance and the "up by your bootstraps" mentality. They see family members and friends who seem stuck in poverty, and they have come to believe that that poverty is less a result of racism or social structures and more a consequence of poor personal choices. Filled with ambition and eager to transcend their class, these boys and girls see themselves as "exceptions to the rule." Many of them, frankly, are also filled with a strange mix of hunger and anger: the hunger is to succeed, the anger is at those around them who have not taken advantage of what these kids believe are myriad opportunities for self-improvement.
These young conservatives aren't just rebelling. Rather, what appeals to them about conservatism is the notion that people ought not to be insulated from the consequences of poor behavior. (Pace, my fellow liberals, we all know damn well organized Republicanism inoculates the wealthy from that very thing.) While conventional liberal ideas encourage them to see culture through the lens of race and class, conservative thinking encourages them to see themselves as bold individuals bravely pursuing their private destinies. Thus, in an odd way, conservatism can become an expression of hostility towards their own race and class. Sometimes, I'm convinced these young folks are saying to their families:
We're not poor because we're black/Latino/what-have-you, we're poor because you (mom, dad, etc.) made bad decisions. Well, I'm going to show you! I'm going to make something of myself, not merely to make you proud but also to show you that I am different from you and not defined by the same things that you allowed yourself to be defined by!
Seeing poverty and despair as the result of individual decisions rather than as the result of massive social forces allows the young conservative from a poor background to create an immensely flattering personal narrative: in his or her own mind, he or she becomes the "special one", clever and brave and ambitious enough to transcend the self-created, self-reinforced adversity that grips everyone else in the family and culture. While there may be some small grains of truth in this worldview, the insistence that most suffering is self-imposed and the consequence of bad decision-making is a convenient excuse to avoid the obligation to be profoundly compassionate.
Do I think we pick our politics primarily for psychological reasons? For the most part, yes, though I'm not enough of a reductionist to insist that's the only reason. My liberalism comes partly from my mother, partly from my own life experience. On one level, it comes from a reflexive desire not to have my private behavior scrutinized and judged. On another level, it may indeed be rooted in a sense of "white guilt". Those who have ought to share with those who don't, and I still believe that government is best prepared to serve as the primary instrument through which that sharing takes place. And of course, I'm desperately eager to protect the environment and to protect animal life, but those are not high priorities in either of the major parties.
Bottom line: I love me my young conservatives. One of my best students this semester wore a "Tommy Girl" t-shirt to class on election day; she loves ultra-right-wing politician Tom McClintock, who narrowly lost the Lt. Governor's battle last week. For her, conservatism is about creating the ideal mix of freedom and responsibility; she sees it as the best vehicle for achieving her dreams. And she loves tweaking her fellow students (generally either apathetic or left-wing) and her liberal professors. She comes to argue with me a lot. I'm an indulgent old guy; rather than quarrel or allow myself to be provoked, I listen to her seriously, challenge her from time to time, but in the end, I always finish with a warm "Bless your heart. You're right where you oughta be." And that's what I generally say to my earnest, passionate, young right-wingers.
Just get your papers in on time, kids.