In a classic case of “heads I win, tails you lose,” conservative provocateur Ann Coulter emerged from last week’s events at the University of California at Berkeley as a free-speech martyr. Although Coulter and her sponsors — the Berkeley chapter of the College Republicans, local donors and a national organization called Young America’s Foundation — complained about the unfairness of the situation, they actually won by gaining attention from the fallout.
Political provocation designed to agitate and attract the attention of the media is one long-standing style for well-funded conservative collegians, as my co-author Kate Wood and I showed in our 2013 book, “Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.” Some conservative campus organizations and actors favor a more erudite style of political discussion and are mildly horrified by events that are intended to cause shock and disagreement. However, others — which are often very well funded — thrive on confrontation.
There’s a lot of organization behind events like those last week
For decades, a handful of organizations has been working in the trenches with conservative college students to stage events such as Coulter’s. With their emphasis on conservative victimhood and liberal indoctrination, these organizations have fostered right-leaning student activism and suspicion about higher education, which have created fertile soil in which larger-scale political attacks on higher education germinate and grow.
Young America’s Foundation (YAF) is the largest and most prominent of these organizations. A tax-exempt organization founded in the late 1960s, YAF boasted more than $59 million in assets in 2014, according to the latest available tax forms on the Media Matters website, and had expenditures of $23 million that same year. YAF’s annual expenditures include organizing campus speaking tours for conservative celebrities such as Ted Nugent, Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz and Coulter. When not sending speakers to the nation’s campuses, YAF brings conservative students to it, at regional and national conferences every year.
YAF fuels a provocative style for what one of our interviewees called “Average Joe” college students. Enticed by slogans depicting faculty as “tree-hugging, gun-taking, wealth-hating, and leftist-loving,” students are taught in “boot camps” to fight “persecution” on campus with an “activist mentality,” confronting their liberal peers and professors head-to-head with “aggressive” tactics. Students take up the combative charge by staging showy events like “Affirmative Action Bake Sales” and “Catch an Illegal Alien Day.” This provocative style of right-wing activism is designed to poke fun at liberals, get them angry, protest their events and, when chaos ensues, attract media attention.
Another organization we studied, the Leadership Institute, had $21 million in assets in 2014 and spent nearly $15 million that year supporting conservative students online, on campus, and in their training facilities in Arlington, Va. The organization has trained tens of thousands of college students over the past four decades to enter politics and use advanced technology to get the conservative message out. One former Leadership Institute employee is James O’Keefe, the videographer who produced heavily edited undercover audio and video recordings with workers at ACORN, NPR and Planned Parenthood, all of which went viral years ago on Breitbart.com. While at the Leadership Institute, O’Keefe traveled to campuses to consult with students on starting clubs and conservative newspapers.
A newcomer to the scene is Turning Point USA, founded in 2012 by 20-year-old Charlie Kirk. Billing itself as a “24/7-365 activist organization,” its goal is to identify, train and organize students to promote conservative principles. With the motto, “Late to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize,” Turning Point USA is the organization responsible for a newfound Professor Watchlist, a database of so-called liberal and leftist professors.
Not all conservative campus organizations agree
Right-leaning students who do not fit the “Average Joe” profile of these three organizations find support elsewhere for their speakers and activities. Disdaining confrontational actions such as “Global Warming BBQs” or hosting bomb-throwers such as Coulter, some College Republican clubs gravitate toward more intellectual events, such as bipartisan political conferences on campus or writing for arch, highbrow conservative newspapers.
The best known organization nurturing a more civil disposition is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley. With assets totaling $11 million in 2014, ISI advertises itself as the premiere organization for the “best and the brightest” among conservative students. It offers seminars on moral and political philosophy, which ISI’s leaders argue are lacking on today’s college campuses. ISI also provides networking and internship opportunities at the National Review and other old-world right-leaning media. Ross Douthat, an op-ed writer for the New York Times, was a member of the 2002 class at ISI while attending Harvard and is now a speaker for the organization.
Events like last week’s help groups raise money and attention
All of these organizations rely on substantial amounts of funding from outside donors. They are not self-supporting. Given the large amounts that many luminaries charge to give speeches on campus — Coulter, for example, charges between $20,000 and $50,000 a speech — they could not be.
The amount of money pouring into conservative student groups from outside organizations has always outpaced the amount flowing to left-leaning students. Conservatives argue that makes sense because they feel as if they are outgunned on campuses that many of them think of as liberal indoctrination mills.
In recent years, the amount of money supporting the provocative style has outstripped support for the civil style. As a result of the altercation at Berkeley, it is likely that organizations supporting provocation will grow even richer, if donors on the right like what they see. And what they seem to like in the age of Trump is Coulter vs. Berkeley.
Amy Binder is a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. She is co-author of “Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives,” published in 2013.