WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- From the heady days of the New Deal to the student-led campaigns of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern, the Democratic Party and the campus kept close ties. But college campuses no longer are a central part of the Democratic coalition. Indeed, in many respects, it seems that campuses live in an alternative reality that has left a vast rift between them and the rest of America, liberal or not.
Larry Summers left Harvard a decade ago to join in Washington politics. He returned this year as the president of Harvard. Clearly he has been amazed at the gap between Harvard and Washington. One would have had to go all the way to the mid-19th century to find a time in which the elite campuses were so separated from the ruling groups in Washington.
Look back 10 years. When the vote on the Gulf War came before Congress, the campuses were almost unanimous in their opposition to the war. They shared that position with the great majority of the Democratic Party: Forty-seven senators and 183 representatives voted against going to war.
This year, when Congress voted on the war against terrorism, Barbara Lee of Berkeley was the only no. This year, the campuses have been divided on the war, but just about no one else is.
The counties which contain the campuses remain strongly Democratic -- 86 of the 100 counties containing the 100 best universities and colleges voted for Al Gore.
But the blunt fact is that although attacks on the P.C. campus are a staple of Republican rhetoric, as are attacks on "elite college professors," the reality is more complex.
The campuses themselves are divided, of course, between "hard" and "soft" disciplines. The former, hard, encompasses science, engineering and technology, sprinkled with millionaires with close ties to industry, and well-funded.
The latter includes the humanities and most of the social sciences, still huge, but increasingly isolated and not particularly well-funded.
The former group has rolled along without much attention except for brief struggles over investment policies or the like. It is the latter group which attracts the most attention, and which reflects the politics of the Sixties -- propagated endlessly through the tenure system. This is the one place where "the long march through the institutions" actually succeeded.
Unfortunately, in the course of the march, those making it lost a few things along the way. The Sixties radicals attacked a campus that was overly bureaucratized, did not allow debate and was irrelevant. In power, these same people have created a campus that suffers more from these ills than the worst dreams of '60s radicals.
The multicultural/pomo revolution has by now reached its Brezhnevite stage -- bureaucracy as fossilized ideology. Silencing debate is one of its premier concerns -- the list of things that "may not be said" on campus grows longer each year. And relevance is hardly even on the horizon. Those who actually struggle on the front lines against injustice find most academic work to be unconnected to anything they do.
What are the intellectual origins of this campus alternative reality?
It is both generational and political. Most of the tenured professoriat was born in the 1940s, attended college in the '60s, started teaching in the '70s, and got tenure in the '80s. Their lives have been dominated by the great expectations of the Sixties which led only to the great failures of the following decades.
Explaining this defeat, whether consciously or not, has been the central preoccupation of these intellectuals, and it has led them to a preoccupation with history's other defeated, the marginal and the outcast.
While the '60s rebels were minoritarians who thought that they were the wave of the future, these are minoritarians who have been concerned to explain their defeat.
Increasingly, victory itself has become a sign of moral impurity. As one critic pointed out, there have been more academic studies of Trotskyism than of the Republican Party.
In effect, the campuses are acting like the old joke about that early campus hero -- Adlai Stevenson -- as having "an instinct for the capillaries."
The dominant attitudes on the liberal arts side of the campus are those of three decades past -- in this "land that time forgot," nothing of emotional significance has happened since 1969.
In fact, of course, something that was quite significant to the campus, and to the world, took place in 1991 -- the fall of the Soviet Union. Not that the campus acted as if anything had happened then, but there was a crucial change in behavior.
Marxism, with all its faults, provided a frame of real-world reference for the campus Left. Without it, that Left has drifted away from any moorings at all. Domestically, there have been some alliances with the unions, and even some victories, but unions aren't the central preoccupation of the campus Left any more now than they were when old-line Marxists said they ought to be in 1969.
Ralph Nader's campaign and the anti-globalization movement drew more attention. But the events of 9-11 took the hard core of those movements right into anti-war activities, activities which so far haven't roused a flicker of interest anywhere else in America. The problem with anti-war activities in recent years has been that America has been waging war against people such as Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban, both of whom are pretty close to villains straight from central casting.
Meanwhile, the same fall of the Soviet Union which left the campus Left adrift liberated the Democrats from their own minoritarian strategies into a new search for majorities.
Consider 1988 candidate Michael Dukakis's self-identification with the ACLU, perhaps the most deliberately minoritarian of American institutions.
Bill Clinton, by contrast, made a point of aligning himself with the point of view of the electorate -- and at least he got close to a popular majority.
Of course, the Washington Democrats' search for victory in the last decade has not had very impressive results. It could be argued that the D.C. Democrats are, at the same time, realistic and corrupt. They have their own think tanks now, of course, and they have reached out to the big corporations.
But perhaps the most telling aspect of Clinton, who aspired to be a new John Kennedy, was where he went for glamour. For Kennedy, glamour was in the campus and intellectuals, but Clinton went to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street when he wanted to be glamorous. The campus's attitude toward Bill Clinton was the same as that of 19th century reformers toward another conservative adulterous draft-dodging president, Grover Cleveland -- "we love him most for the enemies he has made."
If the campus was the center of the action in the Sixties, it is now rather a huge backwater, held by boomers in retreat, hiding out from the "real world."
Their oppositional attitudes remain, and they have been beneficiaries of the huge burst of wealth in the Nineties. The "humanist" part of the campus is so large as to be self-referential, but in the playground atmosphere of the 90's, its attitudes have gone unexamined.
While the liberal arts at most colleges have been suffering from the economistic challenges of courses designed explicitly for future employment, in the elite colleges they have taken on a different function.
The traditional aristocratic style of these courses remain, but there is no common canon any more. Instead the liberal arts/social science student is just about as likely to be studying Madonna or Homer Simpson as Rousseau or Aristotle.
The main effect of these schools is that of credentialing, but it is a process largely completed through selective admissions, not through anything that is learned at a college.
The meritocratic campus isn't all that meritocratic any more.
A dirty little secret of modern undergraduate schools is that they have drifted in the direction of being Japanese universities -- very hard to get into but easy to stay in. There is a general conspiracy between professors and students that neither one has to work very hard.
The costs of the top schools has inflated because living standards and facilities are closer to those of resorts than the rather grim accomodations typical of four decades ago. When my younger son stood at the highest spot in Amherst, he commented that he had never seen so many tennis courts in his life. Mount Holyoke is building a horse track.
Ironically, except for the freedom to have sex and to curse, in many ways these schools are more restrictive than the colleges which aroused protests in that era -- student-run institutions such as fraternities have been replaced, drinking is frowned upon, there is hawkish attention to what is permitted and not permitted in student dialogue.
College students at these schools are part of the process by which adolescence has been extended to almost 30. But as colleges have become part of an extended adolescence, its professors have less prestige than once they had.
As Mark Bauerlein pointed out in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, the "tilt against objectivity" in the humanities goes very deep. He didn't point out, however, that one consequence is that whole departments, such as English at Columbia, and sometimes, it seems, whole disciplines, have vanished into solipsism.
As "left-wing" as professors may be, there is nothing in particular that many of their students are supposed to have learned from their college experience, other than a negative attitude toward the larger society. There is little evidence that this lasts very far past the hallowed halls.
Politely, it can be said that the humanist campus is a backwater, a large one, but not an important one. This backwater suffers from the corruption of its own lack of consequence, which might explain the popularity of so many theories which explained why little mattered, but also the failure of these theories to have serious effect on the student body. Theories of why "nothing can be done" are emotionally useful to people who need to explain their own failure to themselves, but less so to new young people who want to make their own world.
In the post 9-11 world, the existence of this campus "reality," at the same time strangely divisive but ineffective, has become one of the luxuries of the past decade that has come under question.
But, whatever happens there, it won't affect the Democrats very much. The last few months have been a demonstration of just how far apart the party of
Daschle and Gephardt is from the politics of their own state universities, let alone those of the elite institutions.