The 2018 midterm elections showed a polling result that should terrify conservatives. It was the breakdown of the youth vote, 18-29-year-olds, which went 67 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican. Not only that, but the kids turned out in record numbers, 31 percent of them casting a vote.
By contrast, 20 years before less than 20 percent of the young pulled the lever. On the partisan issue, two years later Al Gore and George W. Bush nearly split the youth vote. Today, it is unthinkable for Republicans to get close to 50-50.
It isn’t hard to identify one factor in the trend. In the last 20 years, the college campus has grown more aggressively left-wing and openly hostile to conservatism. The record of disruptions and shout downs, classroom takeovers, Black Lives Matters protests, pre-event threats from antifa groups, and disinvitations of conservative speakers is too lengthy and well-known to need any further detail.
At the same time, the ratio of liberal-to-conservative professors has reached nearly 12-to-1, in some areas as high as 33-to-1 (History). The curriculum has followed suit, with requirements in Western Civilization and U.S. History replaced by courses in diversity and globalism.
Here is what it amounts to: Those 18-29-year-olds who went big for Democrats were primed to do so by a college experience that suppresses conservative ideas and shames conservative individuals. The disruptions and intimidations are not a violation of free speech. They are an assault on conservative speakers, books, concepts, values and historical figures. The campus left is not against the First Amendment. They are against conservative exercises of it. And they have done their work well. A PEW survey found that less than half (49 percent) of millennials consider themselves “a patriotic person.” And why should they when all they have heard about their country is racism, sexism, genocide, imperialism, Islamophobia ?
Republican leaders must make the connection. The survival of conservative opinion on campus is essential to the survival of conservative opinion in our country. The preservation of free speech on campus is essential to the preservation of the Republican Party.
And yet, at this very moment, Republicans in Congress are preparing to re-authorize the Higher Education Act without any language about free speech. Led by Lamar Alexander, they are doing what Republican leaders always do — running away from hard cultural issues and letting the left have its way with them. In this case, they show prudence and respect for academic freedom, and they worry about federal intrusion into campus affairs. Sen. Alexander responded to President Trump’s executive order that threatens universities with loss of research funding if they don’t respect First Amendment rights as if it were the creation a whole new “speech code” to be imposed on higher learning. The fear is baseless, but it’s just the kind of feeble caution we’ve heard again and again from Establishment Republicans.
Meanwhile, the academic left grows emboldened and heedless. The more Republicans keep away from the campus, the more progressives and identity politicians thrive. Hiring committees now ask job candidates in the hard sciences loaded questions such as, “How will you enhance diversity at State U if you are hired?” Professors who try to start a Western Civ program on one tiny spot on the grounds are ritually accused of “white supremacism.” (Christian student groups are denied recognition simply because they ask members to observe the doctrines of Christianity. (Those just a few of dozens of litmus tests campus denizens must pass.)
The tightening grip of the left in higher education makes Republican neutrality on free speech sound feckless and irresponsible. Mr. Alexander, who is retiring, wants a “legacy,” we are told. If the re-authorization passes without any free speech language, the legacy will be a more vigorously censored college environment and a fading Republican Party.
• Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University.