Over the last 25 years, Americans have become increasingly partisan. People feel more strongly attached to their own party and express greater animosity toward those who identify with the other party. For example, the Pew Research Center finds a steady increase in the number of people who view the opposing party "very unfavorably" since the early 1990s.
Cold feelings toward the opposition party are not reserved for political leaders or candidates for office. Rather, a fair number of people express negative views toward fellow citizens who have party loyalties that differ from their own.
In this environment, everything and everyone is sorted into the category of friend or foe, depending on ideological agreement. Evidence suggests that this sorting even occurs for political and social institutions. Conservatives tend to distrust the media, for example, because they believe the media has a liberal bias and tends to push a leftist agenda. Not surprisingly, conservatives have higher levels of trust for Fox News and liberals have higher trust in MSNBC. We simply distrust people, organizations and institutions that do not share our values.
Last month, a Pew study drew considerable media attention when it showed that a majority of Republicans now believe colleges have a negative effect on the country. For smug liberals, this is yet another piece of evidence that conservatives are anti-intellectual and don't value logic, reason and learning. But this interpretation lacks a basic understanding of the principles described above — that people simply distrust institutions whose missions openly conflict with their personal values.
The Pew Center poll shows considerable partisan difference in trust for several institutions. While Republicans were more critical of the role of the media and colleges in American life, Democrats were more critical of financial institutions and churches. More than a third of the Democrats surveyed said churches and religious organizations have a negative effect on the country, despite the fact that religious organizations encourage charitable giving. In fact, according to data published by The Nonprofit Almanac, households that contribute to religious organizations tend to donate about twice as much as households that give to secular organizations.
But liberals are often critical of religious organizations simply because they believe them to represent conservative principles and political agendas. Yet, religious organizations are entirely voluntary; liberals would not be forced to attend religious services or give money to churches that espouse values they find to be offensive.
Colleges and universities are much less voluntary. Most Americans, including Republicans, believe a university education is necessary for people to get ahead. If the mission of higher education is political, aimed at social justice and the redistribution of power and wealth in a society, then it is only natural for Republicans to be skeptical. After all, national surveys of college professors consistently show they are disproportionately liberal. Partisans on both sides would question the legitimacy of a powerful institution with a political agenda that runs counter to their own values. Republican distrust of higher education isn't anti-intellectualism. It is simply anti-liberalism.
In fact, Republicans' skepticism over the value of higher education in American society has increased dramatically in the past two years. This directly corresponds with media coverage of several high profile incidents on college campuses, during which students harassed, silenced or even physically assaulted conservative speakers. It is hard to argue that these displays of political intolerance were exhibitions of "intellectualism." Republicans aren't having a negative reaction to intellectualism. They are having a predictable reaction to radical liberalism.
On the one hand, media portrayals of college campuses are misleading. Protests at Middlebury, Yale and Berkeley steal the headlines. Yet there are more than 4,000 colleges in the United States, the vast majority of which have never seen the sort of student protests featured in media reports. On any given day, most students are busy with things other than politics — studying for chemistry tests, writing English papers and taking psychology exams. Yet, no one reports on the dog that doesn't bark, so the media skews our interpretation of what it is that college students and their professors do on a daily basis.
On the other hand, colleges are liberal and many of them have articulated institutional missions that have a clear political slant. If they continue to dismiss conservative complaints about this state of affairs as "anti-intellectualism," they will continue to lose institutional legitimacy. Declining confidence in higher education will likely result in fewer state-allocated resources.