Sam's Thoughts on Student Activism at Berkeley

My friend Sam Hyde sent me a very thoughtful response to my earlier post on civic-mindedness at UC Berkeley. Here it is:

I've read less than one chapter of that book, and not the chapter in question, but Hedges's lament about American universities is entirely unsurprising.  However, as someone who majored in political science at Berkeley, and is thus probably above the median in terms of political awareness, I definitely have some thoughts on his critique of higher education.

I should probably begin by stating that, in the broadest possible sense, Hedges is absolutely correct: political activism at Berkeley is nowhere near what it was during the Free Speech Movement, and most likely never will be again.  I have a few guesses as to why this is the case, which I'll get to in a bit, but they're only guesses; I've never studied student activism, so I'm not particularly qualified to pontificate on the subject.

I also agree with your contention that Hedges doesn't really have any firm targets in mind when he refers to "globalization" or "corporatization" as possible topics for student protest.  Or, at the very least, I can't see any reason why students should be upset about these rather amorphous terms.

This brings me to why political activism at Berkeley (and other universities, of course) currently doesn't come close to rivaling the campus activism of 50 years ago.  My first theory is that Hedges's bugbears of globalization and corporate intrusion aren't really issues that intellectually curious young adults would be predisposed to caring about.  Speaking for myself, globalization was probably a net positive for my college experience: I very much doubt I could have met as many foreign students and learned about their backgrounds had I attended Berkeley 50 years ago.  As to corporatization and the commercialization of Berkeley...hey, I like Chipotle just as much as they next guy, even if they are owned by McDonald's.  So sue me.

By contrast, the hot-button issues of the 1960s were always going to draw the attention of college students.  Free speech on university campuses is an obvious target, but for me, the more significant political protest centered around the Vietnam War.  Vietnam was an entirely different animal from today's wars, which are fought with an all-volunteer army that has suffered relatively few casualties.  If it's any consolation to Hedges, I can assure him that if we had 50,000 dead soldiers in Iraq, most of whom had been drafted, we would see a furious protest movement on our nation's campuses.  I am curious to know which of these alternatives he would prefer.

Secondly, I think that political awareness is determined by economic conditions.  This is quite similar to Clinton's "it's the economy, stupid" theory of voting patterns, a theory which is actually supported by a lot of political science research.  Basically, people care about how well they're doing economically; more specifically, it appears that the best measure of satisfaction with government is whether a person's income has increased year-on-year.  If it has, they're usually fine with the status quo; if not, they're not.

When applied to political activism, we have to look at it slightly differently, but I think the economic basis still stands.  With regards to activism, the question is no longer "Who should I vote for?".  Instead, it is "Should I do something beyond voting?".  As I said, when voting, most people (consciously or not) vote with their pocketbooks.  If their income hasn't increased, or has actually decreased, they tend to obsess over that issue and not care too much about anything else.  Jon Stewart was driving at this in his interview with Terry Gross when he mocked the Democrats for mocking Christine O'Donnell's views on masturbation.  If people don't have a job, they really, really don't care about that.

But what if they do have a job?  What if they're making a lot more money than they were last year?  If that's the case, then (and only then) will they start to really care about other issues.  Issues like war, the environment or death panels are important only for those who don't have to worry about making end's meet.  And these are your activists.

This means that we can expect to see the highest periods of political activism during periods of increased prosperity.  The data that I've found on this isn't as good as I'd like, but I think it gets at the general picture.  The following data points are measures of the median income for white males in the past 5 decades, measured in 2004 dollars:

1950: $18,001
1960: $23,219
1970: $30,536
1980: $28,939
1990: $29,668
2000: $32,684

I know correlation isn't causation, but it seems at least plausible to me that the rise and fall of political activism can be attributed in large part to the economic fortunes of the middle class.  As you can see, white males haven't made any substantive gains since around 1970 (I chose white males partially because I was limited by the data set I found, and partially because including minorities and women would factor in the civil rights and woman's rights movements, which aren't really germane to our analysis), which I think would fit Hedges's observations.

(I know this needs a grand finish, but I'm tired.)