Decrying the putative leftism of elite colleges has been standard right-wing fare for decades — William F. Buckley’s 1951 “God and Man at Yale” pioneered the genre. By now, we’ve all encountered some version of the argument: Elite universities like Yale are bastions of leftist, “illiberal” ferment, bursting with adherents brainwashed by their radical professors and hell bent on destroying the bedrocks of American society. In recent years, however, carping about leftist orthodoxy on college campuses has become fashionable among self-described “liberals,” especially of the Harper’s Letter variety. At a moment of sustained right-wing assaults on the academy — from legislative attacks on university curricula to professor watchlists to the longer-term defunding of higher education — liberal hand wringing over the supposed radicalism of college students gives conservatives a convenient bipartisan alibi. But these arguments aren’t just dangerous. They’re wrong.
Take, for example, the Economist magazine, which devoted its Sept. 4 cover story and “Briefing” section to what it calls “the threat from the illiberal left.” One article in particular focuses on schools like Yale, its title posed as a question: “How did American ‘wokeness’ jump from elite schools to everyday life?”
The argument — such as it is — is a puzzling one. According to the Economist, a “loose set of once-radical ideas about identity, social justice and self-expression” were “incubated for years in the humanities departments of universities (elite ones in particular)” before they, virus like, spilled over their ivy-garlanded walls and infected the rest of the country. When exactly the spillover occurred, or why it did when it did, is left up to the imagination. To reach such a sweeping conclusion, the article conjures a bizarre, quasi-conspiratorial alchemy: add a dash of helicopter parenting here, a dollop of Herbert Marcuse and Paolo Freire there, top it off with a sprinkling of pliant university administrators and a caffeinated shot of social media frenzy and — presto! — you get a recipe for everything from anodyne corporate DEI trainings to calls for open borders. For a publication so enamored of “reason” and “objectivity,” the Economist sure does indulge in its share of the occult.
Of course, Yale’s student body is not a political monolith. Yale is undoubtedly host to a strong tradition of student organizing on the left, though right-wing hysterics vastly overstate its size and influence over the university. So too is there a non-insignificant mass of conservative students, whose organizations, such as the Buckley Program, boast far deeper pockets than any left-wing equivalent. But the dominant political orientation at Yale is neither “left” nor “right” per se.
Rather, the political zeitgeist at Yale is no different than the common sense that has suffused elite American institutions for the past several decades. That ideology is perhaps best captured by what critical theorist Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism.” A “real and powerful alliance of two unlikely bedfellows,” “progressive neoliberalism” refers to the joining of progressive forces — mainstream movements for feminism, antiracism and multiculturalism — with the forces of cognitive capitalism (Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood). Think: Goldman Sachs diversity initiatives or Nancy Pelosi donning a kente cloth.
That this political sensibility flourishes at an elite school like Yale should be no surprise. Yale accepts more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent income distribution, and finance, consulting and Big Tech behemoths comprise nine of the top ten employers of its graduates (with Yale itself the sole outlier). If the pearl-clutching writers at the Economist really want to see where the real socialization is happening at Yale, they might consider popping into a packed-to-the-gills economics lecture, or better yet, an investment banking recruiting event at The Study.
But the Economist’s argument suffers from a deeper misapprehension. In treating students’ political preferences as a proxy for the tenor of an entire institution, they obfuscate the degree to which the structure of contemporary universities — especially elite ones like Yale — is increasingly right-wing.
As historian Asheesh Kapur Siddique noted last spring, the governance model of the 21st century university vests an enormous amount of power in boards of trustees, which at Yale — like most schools — is a who’s who of business executives, corporate lawyers and financiers. What that means practically is that Yale has come to be governed less like a school and more like a corporation. Any institution that deploys a sprawling and unaccountable private police force across an entire city, that gobbles up land while shirking taxes, that is notorious for union-busting even among the Ivy League and that employs over half of its teaching faculty on short-term, precarious contracts, can hardly be called “leftist” even in the most superficial sense.
The old saw about Yale being a hedge fund with a school attached to it is actually just a half-truth — as the cultural critic Davarian Baldwin argues, it’s more like a full-blown company town, with Harkness Tower a 21st century smokestack.
One sign of the intellectual laziness of the anti-woke crowd is their tendency to reach deep into the past for dubious historical analogies that purport to explain our current moment. The Economist says that “left-wing activists” at universities are reviving the “confessional” practices of the Catholic Inquisition. Yale professor and cancel-culture-scold Nicholas Christakis went back even further in a recent tweet, arguing that college students are party to the resurgence of an “ancient culture of denouncement” (which ancient culture that is, I’d love to know).
To understand the politics of elite universities, we must instead look squarely at the transformations of the past half century of American life: the rise of winner-take-all politics and the ideology of meritocratic individualism, the persistent diversion of substantive demands for racial justice into cosmetic, superficial fixes, the erosion of democracy, the corporatization of the university and of much else. Liberals tilting at “illiberal” windmills are missing the forest for the trees.