Students' attitudes on display in places like UNC-Chapel Hill showcase shifts in American politics. Liam Glen writes on politics on college campuses.
Politically, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a world apart from the rest of the conservative-leaning swing state. I have heard the term “People’s Republic of Chapel Hill” one or two times. Gary the Pit Preacher prefers to call it “Homo Hill.” Ironically, my more radical friends consider the largely white, upper-middle-class campus as unbearably bougie.
In this sense, UNC is not much different from any other institute of higher learning in the United States. It is from places like this that the educated class – the politicians, activists, and voters – of the future will emerge. As a Political Science major, I believe it is worth analyzing what this entails.
Politics on Campus
At UNC, politics is omnipresent. Activist clubs exist for every issue imaginable. Fliers for conferences on current events cover the billboards of academic halls. At least once a month, protests manifest on campus over the former Silent Sam Confederate monument, Wendy’s, or some other topic.
At the same time, attendance for such events tends to be rather sparse for a campus with nearly 20,000 undergraduates. For the average student, politics is little more than a topic of discussion. In the dining halls and libraries, it is easy to overhear conversations about patriarchy, capitalism, and, of course, the impending 2020 election.
But besides devoted activists and social science majors, students are not preoccupied with politics. They talk about it, but no more than they do upcoming exams or the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
At this point, generalizations are difficult to make. Among the general public, significant differences emerge based on levels of knowledge and interest in politics. This is perhaps one of the greatest dividers of students at UNC.
When Donald Trump is president, it is impossible not to pay at least some attention to the news. However, most people are not preoccupied with it. Many people lack strong political identities and opinions, though they almost certainly have attitudes that guide how they see the world.
The attitudes of the majority of UNC students are progressive. I would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not support LGBT and immigrant rights, believe in a stronger social safety net, or hold “politically correct” attitudes on topics of race and gender.
People like this are behind the leftward shift of the Democratic Party. Only a few years ago, the dominant strategy was to win over moderates. It was not until Bernie Sanders that free college and legal cannabis, perhaps the most popular policies among university students, came into the mainstream. Now, the Trump administration has led the party to embrace identity politics that are increasingly popular among liberal voters.
The downside to this that rhetoric is becoming more important than policy. When Beto O’Rourke held a rally on campus on April 15, he captivated the audience by speaking of social justice and immigrant rights When a heckler brought up his opposition to single-payer healthcare, a progressive priority, the audience cheered for O’Rourke’s response on the political and financial difficulties of single-payer. Some of them may have truly opposed single-payer, but I suspect that much of the audience was instead swept up by O’Rourke’s personal charisma rather than carefully considering the issue.
Then again, this is not necessarily unique. There have been few times in history when politics truly centered around substantial policy debate. It is easy to disparage the younger generation’s lack of political activism, but few Americans of any age can truly be considered politically informed.
Politically engaged students have more complex views. I have heard plenty of highly specific opinions on issues like Israel-Palestine and pork barrel spending from them. But based on my anecdotal experience, politically informed students do not have systematically different views than others.
I know some moderates and conservative on one hand, and some socialists on the other, but the majority of these students’ views fall in the progressive mainstream. Overall, they tend to pay more attention to political analysis and notice issues like Beto O’Rourke’s lack of focus on policy. But they do not have a single alternative. I have one friend who was a die-hard Sanders support in 2016, but now thinks that he should step aside. Another voted for Clinton in the 2016 primaries but now sees Sanders as the best of the field.
The Next Generation
The younger generation is different from those that came before it in its emphasis on social justice ahead of the traditional societal order. Conventional wisdom states that younger people start out liberal and become conservative with age. In reality, however, generations’ views tend to stay stable in aggregate. For better or worse, the progressive-leaning nature of Millennials and Generation Z will remain relevant as they take leadership in American society.
Throughout the twentieth century, if politicians wanted to address systematic racism, they had to do it in a way that did not alienate moderate whites. If they wanted to address crime, they knew that they could win votes by being as “tough” as possible. If they wanted to address international issues, they had to posture in a way that showcased American dominance. However, as the public mindset changes, the political culture will have to accommodate it.