New book — Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, Amy J. Binder & Kate Wood


Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood.


Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

For more than half a century, critics located in right-leaning think tanks, foundations, and the media have championed the cause of conservative undergraduates who, they say, suffer on college campuses. In books with such titles as Freefall of the American University and The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, conservative critics charge that American higher education has become the playpen of radical faculty who seek to spread their anti-religious, big government, liberal ideas to their young undergraduate charges. In this portrait of the politicized university, middle-of-the road students complacently consume their professors’ calculated misinformation, liberal students smugly revel in feeling that they are on the righteous side of the political divide, and conservative students must decide whether to endure their professors’ tirades quietly or give voice to their outrage, running the risk of sacrificing their grades. Administrators, according to the critics, do little to stop the madness.

To mitigate the effects of what they perceive to be an overwhelmingly liberal environment, conservative organizations such as the Young America’s Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have sprung up to help right-leaning students. Yet over the period of time that these organizations have flourished, scholars have taken little systematic notice. In Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, we fill this gap. Our book—a comparative case study of “Eastern Elite Univerity” and “Western Public University”—covers several themes, including the demographic background characteristics of today’s conservative college students, the organizations that have worked for the past 50 years to mobilize and fund conservative students’ activities, an account of how young women on different campuses vary in their “conservative femininity,” and an analysis of students’ own thoughts about liberal bias.

Our main focus, however, is on the development of students’ political styles. One might expect that conservative college students would be relatively alike in the ways they choose to enact their conservatism (or at least that they would vary in the same ways from campus to campus) since, at the national level, there are numerous formal and informal templates for conservatism. Yet, while we found that conservative students’ ideological beliefs are more or less shared across our Eastern and Western campuses (nearly all students we interviewed expressed commitments to small government, low taxes, and conservative social issues), these students’ political styles were radically different.

On the Western Public campuses, a “provocative style” prevails, as students stage controversial public events like Affirmative Action Bake Sales or Catch an Illegal Alien Days, which are designed to attract media attention and goad their peers and professors. Believing themselves to be on a campus with unbridled liberal tendencies that verge on indoctrination, Western students “go big” making their points.

This is not so at Eastern Elite. On this private, rarified campus, a style we call “civilized discourse” predominates, with students placing high currency on level-headed debate, meant to invite others on campus to examine conservative points of view. Believing they have exceptional classmates and world-class professors, conservative students at Eastern enjoy the “luxury” of having more reasonable conversations with others on campus—while also feeling obligated by campus culture to refrain from what they see as a more populist confrontational style. While there are subordinate styles on these campuses (what we call “campaigning” at both universities, and a style of “highbrow provocation” at Eastern Elite), the two dominant styles of civilized discourse and provocation are almost mutually exclusive.

What are the causes of these stark differences across campuses? Of course students’ pre-college experiences play a considerable role here, and we account for selection effects throughout Becoming Right. But our research shows that such background characteristics are hardly the whole story. Campuses matter tremendously for crafting stylistic differences. As students interact with one another in a variety of college-level organizational structures, they learn how to be active and creative members of their university, and to display appropriate styles of discourse and performance (a point that builds on work by Paul Lichterman and Nina Eliasoph, among others).

At Western Flagship University, students are socialized in the relative anonymity of being a Western student (off-campus housing, impersonal class registration procedures, some 30,000+ students on campus) and an institutional ethos of fun and recreation. These institutional features favor “gotcha” politics and attention-grabbing tactics.

Eastern Elite students, who view their student status as making them part of an exalted community of fellow Easterners (both past and present), develop an understanding of privilege and obligation that leads them away from such actions. Of course universities are not monoliths, and they do not generate singular norms of political appropriateness, but the point here is that ideas about one’s political expression are based on culture in interaction on campus. Students’ conservative styles emerge out of distinctive combinations of the ideas, beliefs, symbols, discourses, practices, and opportunities that are contained in the cultural and organizational repertoires on particular campuses. Despite a national-level tendency for conservatism to sound the same note (polarization if not outright provocation in the current Republican party), certain campuses mitigate those tendencies.

What we have shown is novel and important: University campuses—home to specific organizational and cultural features—have a major influence on conservative political styles. At the broadest level, Becoming Right provides a model for understanding the impact of local organizational arrangements on individual actors. This framework, which combines elements of cultural and organizational sociology, can be applied not only to other aspects of student life, but also to other populations. Second, given right-leaning critics’ constant accusations of liberal indoctrination on American campuses, Becoming Right provides a picture of what conservative students experience as undergraduates. Though students did perceive themselves as in the minority and did at times feel persecuted, one of our most robust findings across campuses was that students felt this status helped them to receive a better education and get more out of college than their liberal peers. Finally, studying these styles gives us insights into the roots of U.S. politics today.


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