Trump’s election dealt America’s highly educated liberal elites their greatest shock in a generation. For decades, these elites seemed to forget the very existence of class, overlooking America’s increasingly vast income inequality – and ignoring those Americans who didn’t have access to the Harvard Club. Trump single handedly changed this. Although inexcusably racist and xenophobic, his success rested, in large part, on his ability to speak to the deep resentments of a right-wing white working class.
However, while Trump’s victory has forced to reckon with class, elite universities such as Stanford have undergone no such transformation. Stanford is utterly silent when it comes to class – and this does more than just fail low-income students and degrade intellectual discourse. The inability to understand class makes the Stanford left a uniquely vulnerable target to attacks from this burgeoning Trumpist right.
While public and lower-prestige universities are absorbing America’s lower classes, elite universities such as Stanford do little more than perpetuate an upper class status quo. A startling 66 percent of Stanford’s 2013 student population comes from the top 20 percent income bracket, 17 percent from the top 1 percent alone. Stanford, like other elite universities, maintains this ratio by skimming students from the top of competitive applicant pools: namely those from wealthy and highly-educated backgrounds who have received extensive financial and educational support. Most tellingly, for all the rhetoric about equal opportunity that elite universities espouse, these proportions haven’t budged in the past two decades. It is, fundamentally, this class makeup that defines these elite universities – how they function and who gets access to them.
Class, however, is met with silence at universities like Stanford. For evidence of this, we need look no further than Stanford’s publications. The (needlessly) prolific Daily publishes an essay on class at most once or twice a year, while the Review published its last article on class two years ago. Even the Sphere – which proclaims itself The Left Today – took a full year to publish an article even contemplating class. Beyond publications, FLIP (First-Generation and Low Income Partnership) provides spaces to discuss issues facing low-income students. Its reach, however, is minimal, and most spaces on campus feel little pressure to engage with class to any extent.
The fault for this silence lies not with the administration or with the uber-wealthy but with the comfortable left-leaning majority on campus. The campus political climate is largely in the hands of this majority – and this class silence is accomplished, paradoxically, through the very discourses it champions. The first is the campus left’s uncritical preoccupation with identity.
Often it seems that identity is all that elite universities are concerned with, from debates around inclusion in the Asian American Theater Project to the pervasive campus-wide commitment to intersectionality. This is certainly not negative. Identity movements over the past half-century have spoken to the sufferings of African Americans, women, and queer communities, and made concrete gains in dismantling racism and sexism.
Too many of these movements which originated in the New Left, however, lacked a sufficient awareness of class. The university campuses which were so shaped by this New Left, as a result, have inherited this class deficiency.
Speaking more directly to elite universities, the primacy of identity precludes any substantive comprehension of class. Identity politics is based on the notion that lived experience gives marginalized communities a unique knowledge of American oppression, a knowledge that should then inform their politics. In the first place, however, these universities have very few lower-class students who could share their class-based ‘lived experience.’ More significantly, class is fundamentally an economic relation. That is to say, without getting too theoretical, class must foremost be understood as an economic position tied to economic realities. Class simply cannot be understood merely as a ‘lived experience,’ reduced to the cultural artefacts that surround it. Thus, when the dominant political instinct on elite university campuses is to understand the world through the prism of identity, class is all but erased.
Beyond the predominance of identity, the campus left excuses itself from ever having to talk about class through shallow and performative condemnations of capitalism – condemnations, you would imagine, that would have class at their core. Instead, these critiques at Stanford have devolved into foppish displays of left-wing dogma. Anti-capitalist memes proliferate on Stanford Memes for Edgy Trees, and while perhaps fun, they are indicative of a larger, more damaging pattern of thinking. Rather than channeling its energy into the difficult questions posed by present economic inequality, the left deems it necessary to make masturbatory arguments like the Sphere’s argument that The Problem with Infinity War is Capitalism or, on the national scale, Jacobin’s socialist case for Santa Clause. Through memeing – and transforming into shallow buzzwords – anti-capitalist critique, we’ve shorn this most powerful left-wing tool of its key component: class.
The result is a pervasive class silence at Stanford. Whether through blind ignorance in favor of identity or through active avoidance in distorted economic critiques, the campus left simply doesn’t talk about class. More damaging, this blindness has left the campus left unable to deal with the challenges presented by the Trumpist right embodied by the Stanford College Republicans (SCR).
* * *
Over the past two years, SCR, as representatives of the broader Trumpist movement, have dominated the campus news cycle by inviting aggressive and contrarian speakers to campus. The campus left, in response, has correctly condemned SCR as purveyors of the racism, sexism and xenophobia that so define the Trumpist movement writ large.
But the campus Trumpists are more complicated than this common sense perspective allows.
Looking first to national politics, the Trump phenomenon is more complicated than simple white supremacy and resurgent patriarchy. As a growing number of commentators acknowledge, Trump’s success depended on speaking to the economic grievances of his core voter base: the white working class. This was certainly a bastardized class politics, wedded to deep-seated racial resentments – a matter not of race or class, but both. While the role of class on the national scale has been widely acknowledged, the role of class in the Trumpist right on university campuses has been entirely overlooked.
SCR’s project can be seen, in some ways, as a frontal assault on elitism. SCR does this, partly, through its attacks on academic discourse. As Justin Wilck argued in a Daily op-ed, SCR aims to debase academic discourse. However, Wilck doesn’t ask the critical question: to what end? This right-wing populist attack on academic discourse is an attack on the elitist nature of these universities themselves, institutions which seem to speak a language foreign to that of ‘ordinary Americans’ – i.e. white working folk.
And at the core of their project is tying this attack on elitism with an attack on liberals. By inviting far-right anti-intellectual hacks such as Robert Spencer to campus and documenting the inevitable left-wing backlash, SCR seeks to demonstrate the utter elitist – and liberal – disdain for the principles held by these ‘ordinary Americans.’
Crucially, this message is not meant for anyone on campus, but for the Trumpist right nationally. Through stoking these controversies, SCR gains access to key right-wing outlets such as Fox and Breitbart, thereby tapping into the broader Trumpist movement. The Trumpist right is already eager to attack anything smelling of liberalism; better yet if this liberalism is tied to elitism. This is the core of their ‘activism’; broadcasting the narrative that liberalism is synonymous with elitism to an audience only too willing to lap this narrative up – and thereby igniting the white working class resentment which got Trump elected.
This is certainly not overt class rhetoric, but it is veiled class language nevertheless. These simultaneous and consonant attacks on multiculturalism, liberalism and elitism have proved highly successful in speaking to the discontents of Trump’s key support base: a shocking 58 percent of Republicans believe that universities are harmful to America.
Moreover, the campus left, due to its inability to comprehend class, is fundamentally ill-equipped to confront or even understand this challenge. It is only able to perceive this attack in terms of white supremacy and patriarchy. Based on this interpretation, throughout last year, the left’s only political tactic in response to SCR’s provocations was excessive and loud condemnation. This is, certainly, morally commendable.
The campus left, however, entirely misses the bastardized class politics of SCR, leaving it unable to respond intelligently to this Trumpist challenge. SCR’s mission, in fact, depends on this repetitive and impulsive reaction, which reinforces to Trump’s base that these liberal universities are populated by out-of-touch elitists who speak a language and live in a world fundamentally foreign to their own. As long as the campus left continues to reduce SCR to a simple caricature and ignore its powerful appeal, through Breitbart and Fox, to the class resentment that powers the Trumpist movement, this cycle will continue.
Class silence, therefore, isn’t merely an intellectual problem for elite liberal campuses; it’s a profound political vulnerability. This isn’t a call for the campus left to forget identity or to excuse the racism and xenophobia of the Trumpist right as merely derivative of economic disadvantage. Rather, this is a call for the campus left to overcome its class illiteracy.
The left must remember the importance of class in order to understand, then confront the deep class inequalities that are at the core of these elite universities – as the Sphere’s Justin Braun recently argued. But more importantly, we must talk about class, because if we don’t, they will. And their vision – Trump’s deeply unequal white nationalism – is unacceptable. Class politics, which have historically been the strength of the left, can not become our fatal blindspot.
Photo courtesy of Wallpaper Maven