By Paul A. Djupe
The 2016 election was the first in which a majority of educated voters chose the Democratic candidate for President. And many of the educated Republicans I know have expressed frustration with the direction of the party that observers are openly calling authoritarian. The rejection of science, the support for the January 6th Insurrection, the attack on voting and reproductive rights combine to make support for the Republican Party tough sledding among younger voters.
And this shows up in the partisan makeup of Denison. From its zenith (at least in these data), Republicans were about a third of the student body (the 2013 sample was weird, I think), but that number has fallen steadily ever since. As of October 2021, only TWELVE PERCENT of students identify as some kind of Republican (including independent leaning Republican, Republican, and strong Republican). Their dropoff has meant an increase in Democratic (10 percent) and, especially, independent (or other; 5 percent) identifications.
Given the overwhelming Democratic presence and the frankly embarrassing state of the Republican Party, perhaps students hide or even shed their partisanship and instead stake their claim on an ideological label. At least in October 2021 (see below), there is a smidge of evidence for this. Fifteen percent claim a conservative-ish label (alt-right, conservative, and libertarian) and 18 percent are moderates, so there probably are a few who eschew a party label and stick with a conservative ideological position. Just about 60 percent are liberal or progressive.
Perhaps it’s just a trend seen on college campuses. They are so-called “liberal bastions” after all. Why? Some blame liberal professors, however, there’s just no evidence that students become more liberal in college. Studies drawing on random assignment of students to first year roommates find that partisan changes have more to do with social interaction patterns among students, results consistent with a very wide range of behaviors roommates affect. Nathaniel Nakon reached the same conclusion with Denison data tracking cohorts across their 4 years – college does not eat conservative brains at Denison.
The more pernicious answers may be that conservatives are either choosing not to attend college or they are being steered away from seeking higher education by conservative elites. On the latter front, conservative talking heads are regularly beating the drums making a case against college: how leftist/PC campuses are, how unfair they are to conservatives, how spoiled and entitled students are, how wasteful campuses are, and how worthless a liberal arts degree is today. We know that these claims are way off base, but as with much of our society too few conversations are guided by facts. In a 2017 Pew survey, 58% of Republicans said that colleges and universities were having a negative effect “on the way things are going in the country.” Anyway, the upshot is that colleges and society are self-segregating on education along ideological lines through some push and a lot of pull.
But there’s another way to look at this – to see if the trend is affecting young adults in the same way we see at Denison. And the answer, according to Pew Research, is yes, sort of. A fifteen point gap between Democrats and Republicans in 2003 has grown to a 27 point gap in 2017 among Millenials (yes, I know you are Gen Z now – these data are a few years old). That’s quite a bit less than the 56 point gap at Denison, but they’re clearly headed in the same direction. That is, this dynamic is not unique to Denison.
There’s still a lot of diversity at Denison, if not a ton by partisanship. But these trends are dangerous to higher education as one party continues to campaign against colleges and universities and encourage young adults not to attend them. That means surely continued attempts in state legislatures to cut funding for higher ed. But it also is doing highly Republican areas, which tend to be more rural, no favors either, capping the success of generations.
Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist who runs the Data for Political Research minor. He started onetwentyseven.blog a few years ago in a bid to subsidize collective action. He’s on Twitter and you should be too, along with your president.