Riots, Chicago convention: Deja Vu all over again?

Michael Barone, syndicated columnist

As the philosopher and baseball player Yogi Berra once (supposedly) said, it’s deja vu all over again. Student protesters are occupying campuses of famed universities across the country. In New York, Columbia University protesters occupied administrative offices in Hamilton Hall and were cleared out by police, exactly 56 years to the day after student protesters occupied and were thrown out of that building in 1968.

Back then, it was famously reported that protester Mark Rudd sat at university President Grayson Kirk’s desk smoking his cigars. It’s not clear whether protesters reached current President Manouche Shafik’s office, but it seems unlikely that any humidor there contains tobacco.

One thing that has changed in the last three generations is the place of universities in American life. In 1940, only 6% of men and 4% of women in America had undergraduate degrees. Thanks to the GI Bill of Rights, that percentage rose sharply after World War II due to the expansion of old schools and the rollout of state and community colleges.

Higher education also earned huge prestige. Brilliant scientists, many of them Jews, arrived from Hitler’s Europe, created the atomic bomb that ended World War II, and spared the lives of the hundreds of thousands of GIs who would have died in an invasion of Japan. Lavishing more money on education, especially on gifted children and universities, was politically popular and justified as defense spending.

Fast-forward two generations. Policymakers of both parties, in states as well as Washington, D.C., concluded that if people with college degrees earned more money than others, enabling more people to get college degrees would mean more money for them, too. State legislators expanded universities, and federal policy encouraged and, during the Obama administration, administered loans for college and graduate school.

Meanwhile, the 1968 student rebels and their intellectual progeny started their long march through the institutions. Faculties that once included conservatives as well as liberals, and even some Republicans, became bastions of the political Left. Politically correct, tenured faculty imposed ideological tests on new hires as their elders retired.

Students’ politically incorrect speech was punished with expulsion and opprobrium. Schools that had arguably America’s freest speech zones in the 1940s and ’50s became the most restrictive and censorious institutions by the ’90s and 2000s.

Government subsidies of institutions and students pumped huge sums of money into colleges and universities, which responded by raising tuition and hiring even more bureaucrats, to the point that postsecondary schools today employ more administrators than teachers. Over the last generation, there has been a particular increase in diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucrats, whose Orwellian function is to impose uniformity of opinions, divergent treatment according to ethnic status, and exclusion of those who disagree.

In the process, colleges and universities have squandered much of the prestige they once enjoyed. It’s not clear any longer that college degrees, particularly in politically correct fields, produce higher incomes. Imposition of feminist-backed behavior codes, just reiterated by Biden administration Title IX proposals, has seen college gender ratios change from two-thirds male in the ’60s to three-fifths female in the 2020s.

Ominously, enrollment in higher education peaked in 2010, declined by 10% even before COVID-19 and has continued to decline since. And the long-term trend seems almost certain to be downward from there, for the number of births per year in the nation has plunged since the 2007-08 financial collapse and recession from 4.3 million in 2007 to just under 3.6 million in 2023. With smaller percentages embarking on postsecondary education, the number of college and university students seems headed downward. What looked like a growth sector back in 1968 looks like a shrinking one today.

And it’s a sector, unlike the mass of American society, riddled with repellent antisemitism. The pro-Palestinian student protesters say they are anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish, but their frequent attacks on Jewish students are redolent of the antisemitism of German universities in the Weimar Republic. This flows from the view, widely taught on campuses, dividing the world into oppressors and virtuous victims, in which Israel and Jews, in general, are dismissed as oppressors and Hamas terrorists are celebrated as heroes.

This view, of course, is not shared by most of the public. There has probably never been such a large population so respectful of the rights and contributions of Jews and so repelled by anti-Jewish bigotry. Which is, as political scientist Charles Lipson writes at RealClearPolitics, “bad news for Democrats” since “their party is closely tied to education at all levels” and the pro-Palestinian “squad” of congressional Democrats is aligned with the protesters. All the more so since the day the police cleared Hamilton Hall, President Joe Biden announced student debt cancellation for 317,000 adults who attended art institutes.

Disorder tends to hurt incumbents and, as political scientist Omar Wasow and leftish consultant David Shor have pointed out, to the dismay of young leftists, anger at student riots helped elect Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966 and Richard Nixon as president in 1968. The Democratic National Convention this year will be in Chicago, as it was in 1968, and some are threatening protests there. Will it be deja vu all over again?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, “Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders,” is now available.


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