Can University Populism Fix American Politics?

Source: Debating Europe

The university has played an important role in shaping American norms and policy over the past hundred years. Many influential civil rights and anti-war activists have been students. Just this month, there were student-organized protests against Trump, boycotting businesses they claim have inappropriate ties to his campaign.

Yet it’s worth asking if college students really are a reliable voice for social change. A recent Stanford study, covered by News Editor Sam Danley in our last issue, found that young people have significant difficulties discerning what internet sources are credible. Participants in the study often overlooked authorship and sponsorship, things that are integral to understanding whether or not a piece of information is fair. Of course, we’re all guilty of this. Looking at the average person’s Facebook feed would likely reveal a number of articles and posts that may or may not be true. The question then, is why do older people get the bad rap while student activism is praised, even if it may often be misinformed?

Herein we find the dissonance. American universities are tremendously powerful. They are, excluding private schools, funded by the state and wealthy donors. UMKC’s Bloch school is named after famed businessman Henry W. Block, founder of one of the largest tax preparation companies in America. At the same time, university is presented as a subversive environment, where students can openly oppose political and economic structures they deem unfair. Students do, in fact, have some say in campus policy. We do shape our culture and society, but it’s worth asking, who exactly is funding student populism? If students have difficulty seeing through propaganda, then it seems a logical conclusion that campus-born populism is just as dangerous as rural, working class populism. Here’s why.

I’ll take the French and Bolshevik revolutions as prime examples. In Russia, the rise of totalitarianism was a populist movement, motivated by the consolidation of power by the ruling members of society. The revolutionaries had legitimate complaints. What followed, however, wasn’t a blooming of freedom or an exultation of the working class. It was the rise of a murderous and dictatorial regime. The same thing happened in the French revolution, though the French were better able to move out of a dictatorship than Russia, who arguably still hasn’t.

The mistake of both of these movements, Russia in particular, was an attempt to completely break from the past. This sort of thinking is common in young adults. Rebellion permeates youth culture, from political anthems to YA dystopian fiction. All generations think they know better than the previous generations. All generations are also very wrong in their assessment of their own abilities. Human nature sees the faults in others while ignoring the faults in ourselves, especially when it comes to politics. What I think is evident on many campuses is a sort of activism that rails against a system that in some ways is legitimately unjust, but in other ways provides them the platform and funding to speak. It’s a disturbing amalgamation of power and overthrow, perhaps a convoluted system of checks and balances in and of itself. The main problem with student activism is that it is binary. All activism is binary in some senses. In a political system that is purposely complex, binary political movements are dangerous, especially when paired with ignorance.

This political season is a perfect example of this sort of problem. Many are characterizing Trump’s rise to power as a political reaction of white America. To be fair, members of the Alt-Right have a greater platform through social media than they used to. They have influenced the political discourse of the conservative movement. Members of Trump’s cabinet are being accused of having Alt-Right ties, yet I think those of us at university have to be extremely careful not to form a reactionary movement. There are a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump or for Hilary Clinton and did not endorse much or even most of their platforms. We at the university are not more insulated from misinformed political movements than rural America. We need to be aware of the immense amount of money and politics surrounding American higher education. Protest is still legitimate and still necessary.

Progress is still possible, but not if activists get lazy. Progress won’t happen if we ignore the complexities of our society and try to define broad swaths of people by political stereotypes. That is already being done in certain sections of our society. We need to be especially vigilant against those impulses in our own lives. The views found in the American university system are not the only legitimate political positions. Student populism can’t fix the multi-faceted problems our nation faces. We only represent a subsection of American life, and our nation doesn’t exist to represent us alone. It will take more than one side or the other, as cliché as it sounds, to make working policy decisions.

If we aren’t willing to work with Trump or Hilary supporters, or whoever else, we will just add to the noise, or worse.

1 Comment

  1. wesley fortney

    December 16, 2016 at 8:15 AM

    so all revolutions have been acts of incompetent persons who were just wrong in their assessments of freedom and liberty? this is big gov trash if there ever was any; what a flock mentality this article pushes. crap

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