Senate’s antics are a reminder of why colleges need to step up

Senate’s antics are a reminder of why colleges need to step up
© Greg Nash

Shouting. Costumed protesters. Audience members interjecting and interrupting. A heavy police presence. This was a Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, but it could easily have been many a college campus.

There’s been a lot of talk about the erosion of civil discourse on campus, and with good reason. Colleges are supposed to be redoubts of free inquiry, scholarly discretion, and respectful dialogue. They’re places where ideas mingle, and world views collide in healthy and informative ways.

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College is the place where a 21-year-old Hillary Rodham received a 34-second standing ovation for a 1969 reply to Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke’s Wellesley commencement address. Rodham’s speech, a reflection on the state of political debate and campus politics in the Vietnam era, was articulate, thoughtful, and impassioned — so impassioned, in fact, that it moved Wellesley’s president to apologize to Sen. Brooke while wondering how student enthusiasm could be harnessed “without destroying the basic fabric of our democratic society.”

How, indeed.

Something about Rodham’s protest seems old-timey, even quaint today. It was a campus rebuke to Sen. Brooke, but it was also civil, respectful, and measured. It eschewed the vainglorious interruptions and profane interjections so familiar today. This, in Miss Rodham’s words, was “constructive protest” — delivered at a time of deep division and smoldering anger.

Today’s campus protesters rarely strive to be constructive. Instead, shouting down speakers, or even barring them from campus altogether, has become the new normal. Look no farther than Middlebury College, where Charles Murray was shouted down and a professor was assaulted; or Rutgers, where Condoleezza Rice withdrew as a commencement speaker following organized faculty and student opposition; or Claremont McKenna College, where Heather Mac Donald’s speech was shut down by protesters chanting “shut it down.”

Which brings us to the U.S. Senate.

One would have hoped that the world’s greatest deliberative body would be above such spectacle. But, alas, at Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing last Tuesday it was pandemonium mere moments after the meeting was gaveled-in. Yes, the usual suspects were there — the costumed protesters and the shout artists in the audience. But many of the interruptions came, surprisingly, from the dais itself. There were dozens of out-of-order senatorial interruptions in the first hour alone. By the end of the day’s hearing, 70 audience protesters were arrested for unlawfully demonstrating.

There are many parallels between what happened in the Senate last Tuesday and what’s happened on college campuses over the last few years: Like on-campus protests, senators’ interruptions and spectators’ outbursts were strategic and planned well in advance. And like on-campus protests, the protesters flouted rules of decorum, decency, and — yes — the norms we hear about so often.

Of course, these displays, like college demonstrations, weren’t invented out of thin air. And it’s hard to dispute that both sides have legitimate complaints, which only goes to fuel the cycle of civil distrust and polarization that has so thoroughly gripped the nation. It’s not at all clear that anything can be done to change Washington in the short-term, but this whole phenomenon does make us ask what might be done that can start to nudge the nation onto a healthier course.

There’s a lot of talk about institutions and civility today. This talk is welcome. Watching the U.S. Senate struggle to perform a two-century-old duty with a modicum of decorum is a reminder of the deep-seated resentment and mutual contempt that drives our politics today. Here, it’s worth remembering the words of a former senator: “[Democracy demands we] get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they'll change ours.” That former senator was Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGetting politics out of the pit To cure Congress, elect more former military members Democrats should end their hypocrisy when it comes to Kavanaugh and the judiciary MORE.

In 1969, Miss Rodham, the future senator from New York, observed, “Every protest, every dissent . . . is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.” That is as true today as it was a half century ago. It’s facile and misleading to suggest that colleges are responsible for what we’ve seen in the U.S. Senate last week. But it’s clear that campuses and Capitol Hill are suffering from the same national maladies — and that colleges, as training grounds for future leaders, bear a particular responsibility when it comes to cultivating and strengthening the nation’s civic spine.

Campus leaders should take a page from Miss Rodham’s long-ago advice and seek to ensure that debate and protest are forging a politics that is civil, constructive, and interested in reclaiming the things that unite us. As last week should remind us, it’s past time that campuses stopped being part of the problem, and decided to be part of the solution.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @rickhess99. Connor J. Kurtz is a research assistant at AEI. Follow him on Twittter @conkurtz.