Student Politics 1980s Style

August 22, 1986

Report Outline
A Fictitious Move to Political Right
Sixties' Activism Went to Extremes
Eighties' Focus is on Security
Special Focus

A Fictitious Move to Political Right

The times, they have a-changed. And today's college students, it is widely assumed, are exceedingly different from yesterday's. In the 1960s and early 70s, rebellious collegians massively demonstrated against the war in Vietnam; they marched and rallied, took over buildings and “sat-in,” protested and resisted. In contrast, supposedly, stand the passive students of the 1980s: politically conservative and preoccupied with material wealth and private gain. Most college students, according to neoconservative Irving Kristol, “have edged right-ward,” along with the rest of the American people. And liberal columnist Mary McGrory, writing about Nicaragua's potential as another Vietnam, complains: “With the draft gone, middle-class white parents would not bedevil politicians, and the campuses would not flame. Today's youth, conditioned by the ‘We're No. 1’ Reagan mentality, don't burn with indignation over the fate of small, uppity countries that engage the attention of U.S. presidents who believe peasants are ‘better dead than red.’”

The contrast, however, is too sharply drawn. The popular images are too simple. Most college students in the '60s and '70s were not left-wing activists, and most college students in the '80s are not Reaganesque conservatives. There has been no extensive turn to the right. And there continue to be student activists today, as well as demonstrations, sitins and building takeovers. While the campuses are not “aflame,” some observers think they could be, if the winds shifted and events provided a spark. Still, there is no denying that today's college students—of whom there are more than 11 million at more than 3,000 campuses —are somewhat different from yesterday's, for they bear their mythic political inheritance from the '60s in very different circumstances.

Students Today are Political Moderates

“Students turning to the right?” said Kenneth C. Green. “Our data show very clearly that has not been the case.” Green is associate director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which has surveyed college freshmen annually for 20 years. “Our data,” he said, “very clearly show that students are as, if not more, supportive of liberal issues than they have been at any time in the 20-year history of the survey. And the movement in terms of self-assessment of political attitudes has not been from left to right, but rather it's been from liberal to [a] middle-of-the-road or moderate position.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Protest Movements and Counter Culture
Jun. 05, 2020  Corporate Activism
May 01, 2020  Global Protest Movements
Jan. 05, 2018  Citizen Protests
Aug. 28, 1998  Student Activism
Jan. 04, 1991  The Growing Influence of Boycotts
Aug. 22, 1986  Student Politics 1980s Style
May 13, 1983  Christian Peace Movement
Apr. 08, 1970  Politics and Youth
Nov. 19, 1969  Challenges for The 1970s
Aug. 21, 1968  Reorganization of the Universities
Jan. 10, 1968  Universities and the Government
Jan. 03, 1968  Peace Movements in American Politics
Oct. 12, 1966  Alienated Youth
Feb. 24, 1966  Protest Movements in Time of War
May 19, 1965  Campus Unrest
Aug. 14, 1963  Mass Demonstrations
Dec. 11, 1957  Student Movements
Aug. 17, 1939  Conscientious Objection to War
Conservatism and Liberalism
Student Movements