If you believe even half of the shrieks coming from right-wing media outlets, American college campuses are dangerous places to be. Apparently, the moment you set foot on your average state university campus, you’ll be brainwashed by the crazy liberal establishment that rules all colleges, everywhere. You’ll start hating white people, you’ll join a group to brainstorm ways to overthrow the government and – as if that weren’t enough – you’ll give up meat for nonsense like artichokes, soy milk and some substance they call “tofurky.”

Sure, all of that is crazy talk, but it’s crazy in more ways than you’d think. Not only does the average college student not hate white people or American capitalism, but the average student isn’t really liberal either. As hard as this idea may be to accept, true ideological liberalism is rare in our society and at the University.

A statement like that requires an explanation, so here it goes: I do believe that most University students support certain progressive causes, like gay rights and universal health care. But I think they do so out of circumstance as opposed to ideology, and that is a very important distinction. Liberalism isn’t characterized by stances on issues, because issues change. Rather, liberalism is a way of thinking.

Basic political science characterizes conservatives as those who favor the status quo and liberals as those who seek progress that they believe will make the world a better place. Thanks to their support for certain political causes, average college students empirically would appear to fall into the latter category, but that isn’t so. Most college students and people in our nation at large, whether calling themselves liberals or conservatives, believe they know what is right. College students support a higher minimum wage and a flagrantly progressive income tax system because they know that there can be no other correct way. No ifs, ands or buts about it; there is only a wrong way and a right way. Leftist or rightist, we think we know the right way.

But such rigidity in judgment undermines ideological liberalism. The (progressive) policy stances we take are ingrained into us rather being a product of our own struggle over the best course. Sure, we’re often on the right side of the issue and end up supporting progressive sociopolitical causes, but that isn’t enough to make us progressive or liberal. We may vote to support gay marriage or amnesty for immigrants, but our liberalism is limited to the issue and doesn’t extend into ideology.

So what would a truly liberal person look like? To be honest, he would be a troubled person, constantly questioning and struggling with his stances on the issues. He’d feel uncomfortable among both Republicans and Democrats; their carved-in-stone party platforms would result in restlessness and an unquenchable desire to poke holes into both sides of the argument. A liberal would, by definition, have to be open-minded and willing to change his position should a convincing enough argument come along.

So the ideological liberal is basically a flip-flopper? Not exactly. Constantly debating and questioning the merits of one’s policy positions doesn’t necessarily mean changing stances every time. In fact, the effort that has gone into formulating the position of a true liberal would generally make that position tough to defeat. But an ideological liberal will never be 100-percent convinced he is right, and in every debate he will listen to challenges to his position and change his stance if necessary.

How many of the supposed liberals on campus are willing to do that? Very few, and that’s not unusual. Historically speaking, ideological liberals are rare. They’re the leaders of progressive movements, and those who follow them do so only for the issues. That should explain why older generations have always tended to be more conservative than younger ones: They were issue-liberals in their youth, but their liberalism faded as the issues changed. That happens to every generation as new issues come along.

We gave blacks the right to vote in the 1860s, but that generation of issue-liberals wasn’t ready to do so for women. Subsequent generations granted women the vote and defended the civil rights of blacks, but not until our generation were they ready to defend the constitutional rights of gays. Our generation will accomplish that feat, but as we age, the liberal agenda will pass most of us by. Accounting for the differences in issues and times, in old age we’ll be as conservative as our parents and grandparents.

The progressive causes of tomorrow will always seem insane today. The stances that are liberal today will be conservative tomorrow, and most of us won’t evolve with the issues. Ideological liberalism never dominates, and that’s why the struggle for progress can never end.

Imran Syed is a Daily associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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