Anecdotes from the Archives 50 years later: Has Occidental become more liberal?

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Students today know Occidental as a “liberal bubble,” where left-wing students go to thrive and the Young Republican club has been defunct for years. Historically, however, this has not always been the case.

In the Oct. 8, 1965 issue of The Occidental Weekly, to the left of an article titled “He’s a Bitchin’ Guy” and above “The Sanest Thing a Negro Did,” is the headline “Frosh Back Viet Nam War, 14-B.”

Despite the utter ridiculousness of the first two headlines, the Vietnam article was what caught my eye. When this article was written, the United States had just increased the use of “conventional” military operations in Vietnam without formally declaring war. With my understanding of the time period colored by Hollywood depictions of anti-war protests and hippies handing out flower crowns, I assumed that at this point Occidental students would have been actively opposed to the war.

In the article, reporter Rod McAulay covered the results of a survey given to first-years to gauge their political opinions. The survey was conducted by the now-obsolete Occidental College Young Republicans club. Since the political survey was conducted by a student group with a particular political affiliation, the results may contain a strong bias. Yet it can still offer insight into the political opinions on campus in the 1960s.

The opening question on the survey asked, “Do you support the present role of the U.S. in Vietnam?”

Shockingly, 90.4 percent of first-year respondents supported the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. While these responses were given before the implementation of the draft, highly critical media attention and nation-wide protests, I found this landslide support of U.S. involvement in Vietnam unexpected.

“Such a response is viewed with mixed emotions,” McAulay said. “It is heartwarming to those who have long supported this country’s economic and military efforts to protect a potential free society in Vietnam. Such unanimity, however, is most surprising in view of impending draft increases and the constant heckling of a vociferous pacifist element within the nation.”

Inspired by the results of the poll, I repeated the experiment in an attempt to compare the political opinions of first-year Occidental students in 1965 versus those of first-years today. In an online survey, 66 members of the class of 2018 volunteered to answer four simple questions about current political affairs.

The first question in the survey focused on the international level, asking, “Do you support the present role of the United States in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?”

This time, the majority of the first-year respondents were skeptical of the United States’ overseas military involvement. Just over 65 percent of the respondents said they did not agree with the current stance of the United States against ISIS.

In many ways, one could argue that the current circumstances regarding ISIS are similar to those in Southeast Asia in 1965. The situation involves a perceived enemy of the United States, which in 1965 was communism and today is terrorism. It involves human rights, which in 1965 was the civil liberties of the Vietnamese people and in 2014 is the lives of Iraqi and Syrian civilians. And it also involves strategic interest, which in 1965 was the Cold War domino theory and today is stability in the Middle East. In both instances, the United States was in an early state of formal military involvement.

The political situations of both time periods were very similar, but the results from the past and present student surveys could not have been more different. Over 90 percent of students in 1965 were in favor of military action, versus under 35 percent in the 2014 survey. According to the surveys—which admittedly contain methodological flaws and possible biases—Occidental first-years have become less patriotic and more pacifistic. It seems Occidental first-years have become more liberal.

The next question brought up in the 1965 article was on national labor policy. It asked students if they supported the repeal of Section 14b of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, a bill which restricted the power of labor unions. Section 14b, also known as the “right-to-work” law, allowed state governments to ban union-shop contracts, which required all employees to become union members. In 1965, 81.7 percent of first-year respondents said they did not support the repeal of Section 14b. Again, it was surprising that the vast majority of students chose the conservative response.

For the current-day survey on national policy, I asked students if they supported the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The overwhelming majority, 81.8 percent of respondents, said they did not. Again, the 2014 first-year respondents took a much more liberal stance, while those 50 years ago leaned to the right.

Finally, the Young Republicans survey asked about state politics. It asked respondents to “number from one to four [their] preference for the Republican gubernatorial candidate for California.”

“The freshman class evidently has collectively about as good an idea of who they would like to see run as do the Republicans of California,” McAulay said.

Out of the four candidates in the survey, Thomas Kuchel came in first and Ronald Reagan in second. Reagan went on to win the Republican bid, become the 33rd Governor of California and eventually the 40th President of the United States.

The 2014 survey included questions about state and city politics. “Do you support California Proposition 47—which will reduce common non-violent criminal charges from felonies to misdemeanors?” received 81.8 percent affirmative responses. “Do you support the campaign to raise the minimum wage in the city of Los Angeles to $15/hour?” received 71.2 percent affirmative responses. In both cases, the current first-years followed the trend of choosing the liberal response.

Occidental has had its share of progressive political movements between 1965 and today. Arguably, the progressive nature of the college began in 1970 when students sent thousands of letters to Washington, D.C., as part of an anti-Vietnam War campaign. A decade later, beginning in the late ’70s, Occidental students along with Professors Roger Boesche and Eric Newhall began a campaign to divest from the South African apartheid regime. In 1981, as part of the campaign, Barack “Barry” Obama gave his first political speech.

In 2011 more recently, The Huffington Post declared Occidental the most radical college in the country and the college also sits high on a number of lists of the most liberal student bodies in the country. Obama’s trajectory from Occidental student activist to U.S. President also undoubtedly influenced the kind of student that was attracted to Occidental after 2008.

All of this history is what makes the student responses in 1965 so fascinating. Looking back on the opinions of our predecessors, we may criticize their support of a war, a bill and a candidate which many today despise. Only time will tell whether 50 years from now, Occidental students will look back at today’s more liberal survey results and feel the same way.