During his ill-fated run for the GOP nomination in 2012 Rick Santorum, holder of multiple degrees from Pitt and Penn State, famously attacked American universities as being indoctrination centers used by the left for the purpose of “holding and maintaining power.” He went on to claim that “62 percent of kids who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.” From where he got those numbers he didn’t say, but if they are even close to being accurate it is indeed unfortunate–I would hope for a much higher success rate. Santorum implored his supporters to stop giving money to universities.
To some observers Santorum’s brand of anti-intellectual rhetoric seemed to have been conjured out of the ether, a desperate act of a failing campaign. In actuality, the political record of American conservative politics is littered with these types firebrand attacks on the academy. In the fifties for example, during the Red Scare (aka McCarthyism), hundreds of educators, from high schools and colleges, were dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee for espousing “liberal” ideas in their writings and teaching. Many had their careers and lifelong friendships ruined.
In the sixties, as recounted by Rick Perlstein in his excellent book Nixonland, it was Richard Nixon’s hostility to intellectual elitism, manifested in the shrewd manipulation of targeted messaging aimed at a growing conservative backlash, that laid many of the foundations for the political and social divisions of the present day. Perlstein’s thesis goes like this– the divisions of the 1960s that Nixon so craftily exploited were equated in his mind with the “Franklins” and the “Orthogonians.” These were two social clubs at Nixon’s alma mater of Whittier College; the Franklins were the privileged elite, and the Orthogonians the social strivers, primarily from working class families.
Forced to turn down a scholarship to Harvard in order to stay home and work the family store while his brother was dying of tuberculosis, Nixon fancied himself as the ultimate Orthogonian. He carried a chip on his shoulder, always fighting a personal grudge match with the snobbish Franklins. He went after them relentlessly by playing up the growing resentments of “regular Joes” (Orthogonians) across the country. He defined this target audience as a great “silent majority,” and rallied them to his cause by railing against the elites, not the least of which were anti-war college students and professors with draft deferments. Nixon cheered in 1970 when construction workers brutally attacked peace protesters in New York. “Thank God for the hard hats!” he said. He was so successful that he rode his silent majority to electoral victories in 1968 and again in 1972.
Nixon’s political and social maneuvering was masterful, Machiavelli would have been impressed. His scheming led to wins in two presidential elections but in so doing he created a deep polarizing rift in American society that persists to this day. But Nixon didn’t dream all of these tactics up on his own. He didn’t have to look far to find the prototype for his winning strategy. It was right there in front of him, devised by another California Republican, a lesser known personality to the nation at the time, but that would change.
At the 1964 GOP Convention held in San Francisco, Nixon gave the nominating speech for GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. But a bright new political star was ready to flash across the TV screens of America. His face was not new, people had known him as a Hollywood actor for years, but now he was appearing in a new and less familiar context. His name was Ronald Reagan, and he had been campaigning hard for Goldwater. A few days before the election Reagan made his “A Time For Choosing” speech. Goldwater would lose badly to LBJ and with that it was posited by the Democrats that the liberal consensus touted by John Kennedy had become a political reality. But all was not what it seemed. The Civil Rights bill had splintered the South, the US Maddox had been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin, and riots had already begun in Black neighborhoods in the North (Harlem). Watts was not far in the future and the Vietcong was being fortified for the long haul via the Ho Chi Minh trail. Goldwater’s campaign slogan in 1964 was “A choice not an echo.” Goldwater did lose, but Ronald Reagan would be his echo. He would take the divisions instigated by Nixon and blow them wide open. But that was off in the future. In 1964 Reagan was still a fledgling politician, but a tempest was brewing across the bay in Berkeley.
In a sad twist of fate (if you’re from the same political camp as me) the very people who would end up despising Ronald Reagan were in large measure responsible for his rise. They unwittingly created a Frankenstein, one that would make Nixon seem nostalgic. It began in the Fall of 1964 in a dispute over some tables at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft….