by Amy Binder
Not so long ago, you might have been surprised to learn that conservative college students held events specifically designed to provoke, not illuminate, their liberal and moderate peers, faculty, and administrators. During Catch an Illegal Alien Day, students who pose as undocumented immigrants are imprisoned when caught by other students posing as border guards. At the Global Warming Beach Party, students mock the science of climate change with suntan oil and beer. At Affirmative Action Bake Sales, conservative student organizers charge white customers more for their cookies and cupcakes than they do black or Latino students—a fitting analogy, according to event organizers, of the harms visited upon white students by affirmative action policies.
But organize these events conservative students did, with the financial assistance and play-by-play handbooks produced by the Young America’s Foundation, a well-funded conservative organization that supports right-leaning students. The “provocative style” of these events that I and my co-author Kate Wood wrote about in our PUP book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives is not meant to reach out to liberals and moderates or to persuade them of conservative positions on immigration, environmental degradation, or race. Rather, the style is meant to enrage liberals on their campus, prod them into aggresively confronting event organizers, and then accuse the liberals who have been inflamed of being biased and intolerant toward them. We found that the provocative style is much less likely to take hold on campuses where there is a palpable sense of closeness and community (such as at a private elite university) and much more likely to be used at larger institutions where students are more anonymous to one another and their professors.
While you might have been surprised to learn about this campus style in years past, the only surprising thing about the provocative style today is that eight years ago it was students who were engaging in it, not the Republican party’s rank and file and torch bearers. In the time since we collected our data, this coarsening style has come to dominate the GOP. Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, members of the Tea Party ridiculed the president as a jungle bunny, witch doctor, and Muslim Marxist. In 2013, Congressional Republicans shut down the government trying to defund the president’s Affordable Care Act and, in 2016, most Senate Republicans refuse to even meet with Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.
This year’s election cycle is the apotheosis of provocation. Donald Trump calls Mexican immigrants “rapists,” Syrian refugees “terrorists,” and has successfully drawn his opponents into slugfests about everything from penis size to the attractiveness of their wives. Even while Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers, and other establishment leaders and funders bemoan the fallen state of their party, voters turn out in droves to hear Trump rail on his opponents and their “stupid,” “loser” policies. Today, we are witnessing the ability of the provocative style—sometimes merely obstructionist, sometimes purely aggressive—to drown out deliberative policy discourse. This has been happening for years—not just this election season, as the Romneys of the world would have us believe—and it begs us to see what lessons we can learn from college campuses.
First, we can see that style, not substance, is mainly what is at issue here. In this primary season, unprecedented provocation is driving huge numbers of die-hard Trump supporters to back him no matter what he says, substantively. They love how he says what he says, not what he says which, after all, can change from speech to speech. Many observers have also noted that when you strip away variances in style, the stated policy differences between Trump and his Republican detractors are not so vast—such as on abortion, climate change, and immigration. But Trump’s voters prefer Trump’s style over Cruz’s and the other competitors who have since left the race. All of this is to say that we have under-estimated the power of style vs. substance in politics for far too long. We saw this on college campuses 8 years ago.
Second, it’s important to think about the links between college-age politics and the way people will participate in electoral and institutional politics later in life. I don’t have the longitudinal data to make causal claims about the students we interviewed in our book, but if campuses are incubators for political action, as our study shows, university leaders would do well to minimize provocation today to save politics tomorrow. Creating organizational structures that help students feel connected to the campus, and part of a community, would be a smart move, no matter how large the institution. If colleges and universities can create campus cultures that attempt to strengthen a sense of civic community among students, faculty, and administrators; and which foster a tolerance for ideological pluralism, then perhaps we have at least one means for crafting a more respectful national political discourse in the future.
Amy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton). She is also the author of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.