It might be hard to discern amid all the shouting, but the political and racial hysteria engulfing our college campuses is a least in part an outgrowth of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the Great Recession that followed. Observing the near collapse of the financial system was an experience that seared itself in the young minds of Millennials. The bailouts of financial firms struck them as an outrage. Immaculately attuned—as youth often is—to unfairness and injustice, they headed for the barricades. In Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and other impromptu encampments, they compiled an ever-expanding catalog of complaints against the irredeemably racist, classist, and undemocratic American society.
The Occupy movement of 2011 was a mostly white, somewhat undirected kick against capitalism by a generation enamored of social media but unsure how to communicate effectively. Occupy had no official leaders, no clear policy agenda, and no real point other than to provide a channel for its supporters’ inchoate rage at how the world works. Occupy soon withered away from boredom and incoherence, but the millennial generation’s budding leftists learned that they had an appetite for protest. All they needed was another cause.
A series of high-profile police killings in 2014 spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. Where Occupy was largely peaceful and lilywhite, BLM was militant and proudly black. In an all-too-predictable rerun of 1960s radical history, white lefties became infatuated with their black counterparts. Here were protesters willing to do more than just shout and chant—they were ready to throw stones and fight the police, in Baltimore and in Ferguson, Missouri. And unlike Occupy, BLM had several identifiable leaders, a somewhat clear policy agenda, and a driving purpose: to put white America on the back foot.
Now, the two strains of protest have mated. The Maoist Millennials threatening reporters in Missouri and shouting down adult voices outside a Yale residential college are the perfect marriage of inchoate anti-capitalism and racial rage. They represent a generation weaned on cynicism about the prospects for justice in twenty-first-century America. They don’t know who the 1 percent are, or how they got that way—apart from the nefarious, rapacious Koch brothers, of course—but they know that these modern Robber Barons call the shots and always have. They don’t know much about Thomas Jefferson, except that he owned slaves, and thus the mere mention of his name invalidates their identities. They know only outrage. They feel only pain.
A college freshman in 2015 was 11 years old when Barack Obama was elected president. What themes has he absorbed? The United States is an unjust nation in most respects. Capitalism is a rigged system that only benefits the already rich. If you’re a black man in America, you will be railroaded into prison as soon as you leave school.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. The average 18- to 25-year-old remembers the lofty promises of hope and change that he heard from Obama during his presidential campaigns. He looks at the American political system and thinks to himself: “Even the great Obama can’t snap his fingers and bring about the world of perfect justice that I desire.” What does he conclude? That all politics—even Democratic Party politics—are irredeemably broken. It’s time to tear that down, too.
How to placate this angry and organized element that threatens to hold hostage the Democratic Party and its electoral prospects? Does the party establishment stand for free speech and civil discourse, or does it support burning it all down? We hear a lot about the Republicans’ Tea Party problem but almost nothing about the Democrats’ Maoist problem. What’s Bernie Sanders’s take on the goings-on at Missouri? What’s Hillary Clinton’s?
The sparks from the fires being set in Columbia, Missouri, and New Haven, Connecticut will catch flight on the dry wind of social media over the coming days and weeks, igniting copycat conflagrations at other schools. As with the turbulent campus radicalism of the 1960s, this new outbreak will be mainly the liberals’ problem to solve. The typical American college campus is run by cadres of old-fashioned liberals—not revolutionaries, just plain old American liberals who like mom, apple pie, FDR, LBJ, and Obama. At the higher levels of administration and on boards of trustees and overseers, you may even find the odd moderate Republican. What you don’t find many of are radicals such as those that have been videotaped abetting the anti-free-speech temper tantrums in Missouri.
We’ll soon learn whether the old- fashioned liberals have what it takes to stand up to the Maoists. So far, it’s not looking good.