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Review: Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives

Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013


One picks up Becoming Right with high expectations. Perhaps we will see the roots of the conservatism, incubating on campus, laid bare. Maybe the larger mechanisms of this wholly misnamed ideology will be exposed. Certainly the authors have done a good deal of work, talking to conservative students on two major campuses — one on the East Coast, one on the West — and getting their candid assessments of why they are what they are and why they do what they do. Yet when all as said and done what we have here is a highly generalized analysis about differences in conservative styles, and the political socializing importance of the college experience, along with the banal assertion that “political actors are made not born.” The larger concerns of where this phenomenon is coming from and will it ever go away – which, given the onerousness of this ideology, are valid questions — are left for others to sort out. True this is a work of sociology with a particular schema and focus, yet given its subject matter the level of disinterest and neutrality (“we are neither condoning nor condemning their perspectives”) is maddening.

The first sign of trouble is right there in the Introduction. Here we learn we will not be told what schools are the subjects of the study. Instead we get a long discourse on the sampled universities, euphemistically called, “Eastern Elite” and “Western Public.” What follows is a confounding attempt to obscure the institutions’ true identities while somehow making them come alive as distinctive experiences. The authors tell us they did this in order to garner the support of the universities while conducting their research. Not surprisingly the ink barely dried on the published book before one conservative website claimed to have outed the two schools as Harvard, and Colorado State. [http://www.nas.org/articles/the_schools_of_becoming_right] That the authors think actual places can or ought to be turned into composites is highly problematic, but it is part of the peculiar methodology here.

In their chapter on “Who are Conservative Students?” we get a detailed look at UCLA’s Higher Eduction Research Institute report on student makeup with the conclusion that conservative students come from ‘all’ types of backgrounds, albeit they are mainly white men – a matter of no small significance. We learn that even though conservative student organization are heavily funded by groups like the Young America Foundation and benefactors like the Koch brothers, conservative students constitute only about 20% of the student body on any given campus.

The authors main interest, however, is in the different styles conservatives utilize. In the West we learn things are quite consciously confrontational, with such activities as “Affirmative Action Bake Sales,” “Catch an Illegal Alien Day,” and “Global Warming Beach Parties.” At such locales they say things like, “I blame the next campus rape on the [university system administration] for not repealing the gun ban,” so as to provoke argument. In the East we learn there is more ‘civilized discourse,” principled debate, and disdain for the coarser method of conservative bomb throwers. As one Eastern student explains, “I can’t be nasty, and they have to respect you because you have done the extra work.”

Overall, there is much emphasis by the authors on culture and mere form: “Style matters, and researchers to date have not adequately addressed the point.” The authors even conduct a thought experiment about what would happen if a student from Western Flagship “transferred to Eastern Elite.” Could they induce civil conservatives to take up the more provocative style? (The authors guess that style would not travel well West to East, but in the opposite direction, maybe). This is not an especially difficult scenario to play out. At New York University in 2007 [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/23/nyregion/23illegal.html] ‘indigenous’ college Republicans sponsored a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day.” The result was that more protestors than attendees showed up. The reason for this is grounded in the fact that New York is a multi-cultural city with a huge immigrant population (Western Public, is 85% white), which has a pronounced effect in how immigrants are viewed and treated. That very physical fact would seem to trump style and culture by miles.

For a satisfactory treatment, the authors needed to undertake a more dynamic examination that better comprehends the larger changing world and its impact on these students along with a deeper examination of the myriad way conservative students are cultivated and funded by some of the most powerful people and organizations in the country. The real question is, how does this relatively marginal view exercise such an outsized influence? Of course that is not the book they wrote. Instead the focus remains tight on the disparate forms of expression of conservativism on just two campuses. This leads to specious analysis. For example, in conclusion we are told that after the 2012 Republican primaries (when the book was being finished). “Tea Party politics have put the style of provocative action practiced by groups like the Western Flagship College Republicans in much higher demand.” This now seems shortsighted, with no substantial argument to support it even at the time. Leaping from there we are told “political style,” instead of ideology and political program “has become perhaps the most important way that candidates, pundits and activists, and others position themselves in political discourse.” This is standard cant, albeit in academic form, one hears in the established media and from much of the political punditry. It is as superficial as it is wrong. At the end of the day all this rests on something else. Further, if one is to talk about conservatism they need to talk about what it mainly promotes, capitalism – a word largely missing from this book.

Therein lay a critical shortcoming, a lack of a truer definition of what this conservatism is. Beyond matters of style — whether boisterousness or enlightened discourse — lay something else. Conservatism at its core is an unapologetic promotion of unbridled capitalism. The array of social issues aligned with it or in contradictory association to it, are there mainly to reinforce this ideological battering ram of naked accumulation (which is not to say they don’t have elements of a life of their own). Of course liberalism has its own way of promoting capitalism and there have been moments when conservatism has been so ‘out there,’ that it seems to exists only to make liberalism look good. Regardless, without that as a stepping off point, one would seem ill equipped to truly understand what it is to become right.

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