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So, <i>Are</i> The Kids Alright?

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This column was written by Sam Graham-Felson.
Are college students solidly left, leaning right, or what? It depends on who you ask.

The right loves to claim campuses as "increasingly conservative" but also loves to perpetuate the belief that campuses are "liberal strongholds." Many on the left proudly claim that the "kids are alright" (or rather, "all left"), while the more cynical set (me among them) thinks that the right — which has taken over all three branches of government, not to mention a substantial portion of the media — is making serious headway on campuses.

Much of my thinking on this topic is informed by Harvard's Institute of Politics, which puts out the most comprehensive poll on student politics twice a year. This year's findings, while more hopeful than any other in recent years, are still a mixed bag.

The Good News:

  • Only 33 percent of college students approve of President Bush's performance, down from 61 percent in the spring of '03 and 47 percent last spring.
  • 72 percent of students support withdrawing some or all of our troops from Iraq; last Fall, only 40 percent supported withdrawing some of our troops.
  • Students are opposed to unilateral action. 72 percent believe the U.N., not the U.S., should take a leading role in solving international conflicts.
  • Students refuse to give up their privacy rights. While 68 percent of Americans say they "would allow the government to monitor Americans under suspicion to reduce the threat of terrorism," only 41 percent of college students agreed.

    The Strange News:

  • 25 percent of students say they have become more spiritual since entering college, while only 7 percent said they have become less spiritual. Huh?

    The Not So Good News:

  • Students were evenly split on Hillary Clinton (40 percent) versus John McCain (40 percent) for 2008. 20 percent are unsure.
  • The IOP's whopping conclusion: "Religious Centrists" (which make up 25 percent of the student population) will be the "critical swing vote" in the 2008 elections.

    For the most part, at least according to these numbers, the kids appear to be alright. Sorta. Obviously students, like the rest of the country, are steadily turning against Bush and the Iraq war. But distrust of Bush doesn't equal progressive. The IOP's findings, to me, reflect something that is perhaps equally as troubling as a "rise of the right" on campuses: the increasing appeal of centrism. Youth are supposed to have ideals and principles; the last thing the world needs is a rising generation of equivocators.

    Of course, it's also sensible to take this poll with a grain of salt. The IOP is an incredibly establishment institution and its director is DLC-darling Jeanne Shaheen.

    By Sam Graham-Felson
    Reprinted with permission from The Nation