One of the main findings of this year's American Freshman Survey is the drift of first-year college students toward the political center. The report collects results from 2008 and 2012 and finds that "in one significant point of comparison, students moved toward the center in self-perceived political orientation, with the 'middle-of-the-road' category growing from 43.3% in 2008 to 47.5% in 2012."
The shift comes entirely from the left, too. In 2008, 25.5 percent of males and 20 percent of females identified as "conservative" or "far right," while in 2012 males who so self-identified increased slightly to 25.6 percent, and females more so to 20.7 percent. On the other hand, self-identified liberal males shrank from 30.3 percent in 2008 to 26.4 percent in 2012, while like-minded females dropped 5 percentage points from 37.4 percent to 32.3 percent.
At first glance, one might think that this finding should embolden conservatives. Not so fast.
The general categorization worked through self-identification, with 18-year-olds doing the labeling themselves. The survey then asked respondents about particular social and political issues. The discrepancy between students' self-identification as "middle-of-the-road" and their decidedly liberal tilt on some of those issues suggests an even worse situation for conservatives.
When asked about a national health care plan, support among respondents decreased from 2008 to 2012 by nearly 8 points (70.3 percent to 62.7 percent). A similar trend comes in the assertion that "racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America," where the percentage of students who agreed increased by nearly 3 percentage points (20.1 to 23 percent). But look at those numbers: More than three-fifths back national health care and more than three-quarters of them still regard racism as a "major problem."
And liberal attitudes actually went up on other issues. Support for legalized abortion climbed from 58.2 percent in 2008 to 61.1 percent in 2012, while support for socioeconomic affirmative action inched up from 39.5 percent in 2008 to 41.9 percent in 2012. Also, 64.6 percent still believe that "wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now," Seventy-five percent support same-sex marriage, and 67.8 percent agree that "college should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus." Nothing in these findings suggests that the youth vote will be any less Democratic in 2016 than it was in 2008 or 2012.
So why do we see a significant shift to "middle-of-the-road" identification? For a reason that should deeply concern conservatives. The young haven't moved away from liberalism; rather, liberal ideas are now considered centrist. Same-sex marriage isn't a left-wing position -- it's a moderate one, as is support for affirmative action, national health coverage, speech codes and abortion rights. Those who oppose them appear further right by comparison, whereas those who favor them appear ever more at the center and less ideological.
This puts conservatism at an initial and permanent disadvantage among the young. Liberalism is the natural way to be, and conservatism is an insertion of politics into an otherwise normal situation. Of course, most 18-year-olds don't care much about politics -- only 34.5 percent of them agreed that "keeping up to date with political affairs" is important -- and they have acquired their opinions mainly by sociocultural osmosis, heeding the implicit values of primetime television, not the explicit positions in op-ed pages and Senate hearings.
Perhaps that gives conservatives an opening, as it has in the past. However, the respondents in the American Freshman Survey are just starting college, and in the following four years they are will hear little conservative thought amid the tsunami of diversity talk and race-class-gender readings.
If there's any consolation in the 2012 American Freshman Survey, it is that students generally intend to avoid the most politicized departments. When the questionnaire asked what students planned to major in, nursing drew 5.9 percent, engineering more than 10 percent, biology 6.9 percent, math and computer science 3.1 percent. Thankfully, ethnic/cultural studies pulled in 0.1 percent; women's studies, 0.0.
Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University. He contributes to Minding the Campus, the Manhattan Institute's Web magazine on higher education.