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Natural Selection and The Strength of College Conservatives

Over at TPM Cafe, "Cold Cardinal" does some moaning about the weakness of college Democrats. I'll have to say, I've never noticed a lot of weakness, but apparently Mr. Cardinal thinks otherwise:

In short, the College Democrats Iíve observed are little league. Year after year, they get their clocks cleaned in the campus debates. Republicans are charismatic and articulate, while the Dems stammer and fumble their way through hastily assembled factoids and lame talking points. The liberal professors are reduced to cringing in the corner as we wonder what the heck happened to the insights we thought we were imparting in class.

Now, first let me say that I certainly can't say that my anecdotal experience would fit with Mr. Cardinal's in any but the weakest of forms. Columbia has a great and active Federalist Society, I suppose, but the ACS--other than having a weaker website--has never seemed too much out of its league by comparison. (Cardinal is, of course, talking about undergraduate education, so I may be comparing apples and oranges.)

Mr. Cardinal goes through a laundry list of reasons for why the conservatives are so much better off, some of them sounding like the standard conspiracy theories. We're awash in Scaife/Horowitz money, for instance. (One would think that this is outweighed by the vast institutional advantage that lefties get from the institution itself. For instance, one might make some kind of argument that the Public Interest Law Foundation or the Center for Public Interest Law are non-ideological. You can excuse me while I laugh.) He also mentions that while the left has a multitude of activist groups that dilute the talent pool, Republicans are more concentrated. As a conservative in higher education, however, I think I can point to two factors that present even greater advantage--if such advantage exists--to conservatives.

Just Because Some of the Party Doesn't Believe in Natural Selection Doesn't Mean We Can't Benefit From It: For an extreme starter, let's take an issue often espoused by conservatives that I do disagree with, intelligent design. Imagine sitting in a small student gathering at Columbia and trying to argue that evolution should be taught in schools. Even if your argument is pretty weak, you're going to get a pass, because few if any people are around to disagree with you. Now imagine trying to uphold an idea like intelligent design: whatever the merits, you'll not be short of those to cross rhetorical swords with. Many of those folks will be skilled with data, have relevant expertise, or just be good debaters. You'll get good fast, or you'll be dead.

At most campuses--at least at places like Harvard or Columbia--conservatives are in that position on almost every issue. The exercise of having to constantly justify your position makes one used to the necessity. Indeed, it becomes second nature. I was at a largish lunch recently where I was seated with two fellow conservatives, and we started talking about some of the events at Columbia and the Solomon Amendment. Almost without thinking, I was taking issue with the conservative, trying to tone down what we were saying, because, after all, it's what I've been doing for three years. The idea--all of a sudden--that it wasn't a necessity, that I was in the real world where there are a multitude of allies, hit me like the proverbial lemon wrapped around a gold brick.

Conservatives Who Don't Like to Argue Shut the Hell Up: If Mr. Cardinal thinks that Republicans at most universities are on average better debaters, he might be surprised by how much that's because the less eloquent have left the field.

Since I was overseas for university, this might not be the norm, but during my undergrad experience there were a lot of very quiet conservatives. I was not one of them, but I was surprised the number of parties or dinners after which, as denoument, ended with some otherwise quiet member of the table approaching me and confessing that, "Well, yes, I pretty much agree with you, but I just didn't feel like having the fight." Look, in most social settings in college, supporting redistributive taxation, affirmative action, or homosexual marriage doesn't take much courage: bad arguments for these positions will be accepted by most colleagues because one's heart is in the right place.

These Two Principles in Action: I remember particularly a conversation at Columbia just before the last election. One young lady--a rather passionate woman of the type I imagine Mr. Cardinal speaks--said to me, "Well, you can't argue that we [the Democrats] are the party with a greater diversity of ideas, and that gives us the advantage." (This was back when at least some New Yorkers thought Kerry was a winner.) I should have let that pass, but it was the phrase--"you can't argue"--that goaded me on. And sure enough, I did precisely that. Actually, I first asked her for her support for the position. It amounted, basically, to, "You know what I mean."

"Well, yes, I know what you mean. You mean that the Democrats are more racially diverse, which is probably true. That's not the same as diversity of ideas. Republicans have both pro-life and pro-choice candidates on the stage at their convention. In the meantime, Democrats like Gov. Casey only get their fame in Democratic circles through case names. We've got differences in just about every aspect of the party, and there's not a lockstep march even within the pages of National Review. My guess is that both parties are pretty diverse but find it more difficult to see the diversity in their opponents--a heuristic bias that's understandable--but I'd not want to put that forward as more than a guess until I had some evidence to back it up. Meanwhile, I'd really like to see the evidence of intellectual diversity--not diversity that is purely racial--that makes your position unarguable, as it doesn't fit my experience."

Believe it or not, asking for justification was taken with offense. The young lady belonged to Dean's 'They're all white, upper-class Christians' part of the Democratic Party, and I'd offended the orthodoxy. Let me suggest that a conservative whose orthodoxy is so easily offended in law school should be prepared for a very lonely existence. More likely, they'll just go turtle until they graduate. When faced with "unarguable" propositions, they'll just not argue.

I don't think that American universities are so hostile to the right that they're uninhabitable, but there is an adversity to be faced as a conservative that sharpens one's skills. What is amusing is how transparently Mr. Cardinal avoids these rather obvious explanations. If Republicans can be said to be better organized, better prepared, better debaters, the answer would seem to be clear: in a hostile environment, you're either good, or you're not there.


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As a left-winger myself, I must say that I often find my allies to be far worse debaters than my adversaries (though there are a few notable exceptions). As I see it, this is mostly caused by the fact that a higher proportion of left wingers become interested in politics via a system of moral ideals. Unfortunately, this often means their starting point in any given debate is an emotional one. That doesn't lend itself to technical argument. The right has its own corresponding groups, but they tend to be found in the countryside, far from academia. The academic right (as I see them) are all about industry, money and private control. All they need to do to win a debate is just walk away, because at the end of the day they live in a world remarkably similar to the one they're advocating. If you examine the details of fierce political arguments at the student level, there really is no cleverness. It's all about two things: morality and facts. The two sides involved disagree about both and that's pretty much as far as it goes.
you "suppose" we have a great federalist society?
It's all about two things: morality and facts. People don't disagree about facts -- especially in this day of Google, how could you? -- so much as they disagree about probabilities due to the 'known unknowns,' as Rumsfeld might put it. For example, someone at the National Review blog recently said that her 'bad conservative' thing was enjoying the benefits of the smoking ban in NYC. She then hastened to say that of course we could have gotten much the same result through the market. I don't agree, but this isn't exactly a disagreement on facts because there is no fact; in the real world of public policy, one rarely gets to run two experiments. We'll never really know whether NYC would have developed a large market in voluntarily smoke-free establishments, or if we would have all died still going home with stinky hair and clothes after spending the night in a bar or club or a restaurant with very half-hearted divisions between smoking and non. Conservatives' and liberals' policy preferences tend to play out in their assessments of probabilities. A conservative assumes that the market will achieve the desired result without government interference; the liberal assumes that it often won't. A liberal assumes that when the government isn't telling us something, it's done something wrong; a conservative assumes that it's for good national security reasons.
Blaine: I wouldn't have said anything stronger for fear of offending your modesty.

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