Student idealism: Truth or urban myth?
Winston Churchill once said if you’re not a socialist at the age of 20 then you have no heart, but if you’re not a capitalist by the age of 40 then you have no brain. In other words, young adults teem with humanitarian ideals until the realities of adult life set in with age, forcing one-time idealists to surrender their leftist principles in order to engage in humankind’s fight for one’s bit.
Then again, Winston Churchill was a womanising alcoholic who said other things like, “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly,” and, “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals”. Salient feature writer Robert Addison speaks with former liberal activist and current Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt and political psychologist Marc Wilson on why, sooner or later, you’re going to need to get a haircut and a real job.
New Zealand hosts numerous examples of high-profile people with pasts that pay testament to Churchill’s rather condescending, pro-Tory, anti-Labour statement. One such example is former National Party Leader and sex fanatic Don Brash. In an interview with The Listener in February 2004, Brash, who led a notably conservative National Party between 2003 and 2006, revealed having socialist beliefs as a young student at the University of Canterbury. “Most of my young adult life I voted Labour,” Brash says. “And I took a Fabian socialist type of view, that the government had an obligation to help disadvantaged people, and the only way to do this was by writing out cheques, redistributing wealth, the whole socialist thing”. Brash says his views dramatically changed while studying international investment in Australia where he set out to prove “just how evil foreign investment was”.
Brash claims he discovered that foreign investment was a good thing and identifies his personal realisation as a “… turning point, because I discovered the highly simplistic views I’d had at Canterbury were just totally wrong … both empirically and theoretically”. And so for Brash, the rest is history.
Deborah Coddington has also experienced a dramatic paradigm shift to a right-wing rationale. When James K. Baxter’s commune of Jerusalem was a great orgy of cult vigour, unkempt hippies and sexually transmitted diseases, Coddington practised and preached the radical Catholic doctrine in full flare. Yet by 1996, Coddington was serving second and third to the free, decentralised thrown of the Libertarian Party. In 2002, Coddington became an ACT Party MP for a while.
Political psychologist Marc Wilson says that research into the relationship between age and ideology supports the common existence of an age-related paradigm shift as experienced by Brash and Coddington. Through his research, Wilson is able to map the probable life-path of a politically-aware individual starting from young-liberal beginnings, arguing that the university environment has a lot to answer for. “Universities are not known as hotbeds of conservatism so [young students are] entering into a situation where the expectation and stereotype is to be radical and lefty.” But while student leftism is partly an issue of conformity, it’s also an issue of rebellion.
“It depends on the general social system, so [the question of] ‘what is the dominant group?’” University students are much more likely to become lefties if the dominant social situation is conservative.”
Wilson uses Victoria University’s grossly expensive, student-funded, corporate-like catch-slogan ‘It Makes You Think’ to illustrate his point, saying “if there’s anything to that [slogan] and if people think about the way the world is, then they should be questioning whatever the dominant ideology is”. So because mainstream society is largely conservative, and because the university environment is designed to challenge the status-quo, then students become the by-product of a counter-culture.
Thus, the lefty is born.
Once people leave the university environment, their perspectives are likely to change. Wilson says that in New Zealand’s case, generally speaking, “the older people are, the more ‘National-like’ voters they become”. What’s more, any shift in political outlook is most probably going to be gradual, not instantaneous. This is shown in Wilson’s research on the association between age and party preference, in which he found that it “was the parties at the extremes which had that strongest relationship [with age] because age is most strongly related to likening for Greens and Alliance type parties and ACT at the other end [of the political spectrum]. So the older you are the more hatred you have for Greens and the Alliance and the more likening you have for ACT”.
While there are a number of explanations for this trend, Wilson says that the foremost reason is the intimate relationship between right-wing ideology and introspective fear. “People who tend to the more right-wing [or] conservative end [of the political spectrum] are very threat motivated. So they perceive the world as more dangerous [than others do] and when bad things happen they react to it much more strongly and they see it much more personally.” To Wilson, fear includes the threat of burglary or rape to the stress of job insecurity to the pending apprehension of death – issues that predominate as realities for homeowners, parents and the employed, many of whom are middle-aged to elderly. Wilson says the correlation between age and right-wing thinking is directly borne out in his research. “I’ve done the sort of thing [where] I’ve reminded people about September 11 or reminded them about dying, then ask[ed] them who they vote for and people’s preferences for National increase after you remind them of bad things. And that’s intimately associated with age – the older we get, the closer we get to that final curtain.”
So Wilson is able to depict a statistically-typical life path for the average politically-aware New Zealander. As a crude generalisation, young adults in New Zealand may begin their voting lives supporting the Green Party or the Alliance, followed by a shift to the centrist policies of Labour and National during their middle-age, capped off by a move as elderly adults to the conservative agendas of United Future, New Zealand First or ACT.
But before you rush out and trade your tie-dyed T-shirts for a pair of slacks and a cab-drivers licence, Wilson is quick to demonstrate that there’s plenty of evidence supporting why people may not follow this path. Wilson argues that issues relating to the individual are hugely important in formulating outlook. “It might come down to where you live, for example. If you get up everyday and you see homeless people living under bridges, that’s going to have an effect on you. In the US, the highest levels of prejudice are found among people who live in areas that have the highest concentration of minorities. What that suggests is that that environment is pushing you to be prejudiced in some way.” Wilson identifies the stark differences in general social outlook between ‘hierarchical’ Aucklanders, ‘liberal’ Wellingtonians and ‘conservative’ Cantabrians as local examples of this.
Wilson says that there are also ways to predict when an individual’s belief system may endure regardless of age. This is dependent on how people prioritise various issues. “There are two basic families of beliefs – there’s the economic and there’s the social – and depending on which one of those is more important to you, in New Zealand at least, you’re more or less likely to stay liberal because the social dimension is less of a differentiator [in New Zealand] because we’re all pretty socially liberal.” In other words, while New Zealand’s social outlook is relatively liberal across the board, the same cannot be said for New Zealand’s economic perspective. So for New Zealanders, economic outlook is the key factor that changes with age. Therefore as a general rule, if a young liberal prioritises social issues over economic issues, they are statistically more likely to remain liberal throughout their lives.
This may explain Tim Shadbolt’s self-described “centre-left” ideology, which he argues he has held since his days as a young liberal activist. Currently Invercargill’s mayor, Shadbolt stuck it to The Man with a number of radical left-wing protest groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the anti-war Committee on Vietnam and the politically demonstrative Auckland University Society for the Active Prevention of Cruelty to Politically Apathetic Humans. Shadbolt also participated in Ngāti Whātua’s 507 day occupation of Bastion Point from 1977 to 1978, as well as the 1975 Māori Land March.
Shadbolt argues that his days as a protestor had him falsely depicted as a radical. “I only ever espoused liberal views … but I did it in a radical manner, I used radical methodology to present liberal causes. A lot of people jump from that to then saying ‘oh well you must be a communist’.” In other words, Shadbolt was seen to be at an extreme end of the political spectrum. Despite still holding the views he held as an activist, Shadbolt argues that his constitutional approach – his mayoralty – has created the perception that he has moderated his views.
Marc Wilson agrees with the possibility of this, saying, “the fact is that when we look at people, what we see is behaviour and we don’t see the attitudes that underlie it”. So people can falsely associate a radical means with a radical cause, yet the two factors can be completely unrelated. So while it’s debatable as to whether or not student activism still stands as a bastion of student politics, it’s agreed that an individual’s move away from activism does not necessarily mean a move away from a radical or liberal perspective. Yet this could exactly be the image that this projects.
Shadbolt says that this isn’t the only way that people’s views can be publicly misrepresented, adding that often the political spectrum changes, rendering one-time liberals as contemporary conservatives, or visa-versa. “A lot of the big protests that I went on in Dunedin with James K. Baxter in the early days were about mixed-flatting [during the days when] you were immediately sacked as a student if you lived in a [mixed] flat – and now issues like that just aren’t issues anymore. But it was a huge issue in the ‘60s.”
So individual views may stand unaltered, while a changing society may force them to be interpreted differently. Shadbolt supports this argument by saying issues that are intrinsically significant to a person generally never lose their significance. Using the example of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests, Shadbolt says activists from the 1960s “came out in surprising numbers [in protest against the tour]. So when the chips were down the old radicals were still there – they were a bit slower and older and probably not as radical-looking as they used to be, but our hearts were still there.”
Shadbolt admits that confronting adult realities has forced him to compromise his views. Shadbolt recalls his time managing a commune and concrete co-operative at Huia during the 1970s as having a sobering impact upon his outlook. “When we were on the commune we adopted the very high principles of James K. Baxter – that you didn’t have to work if you didn’t want to and you should be fed and housed. I remember having 70 or 80 people turn up who didn’t want to work and wanted to be fed and there were only four of us doing the concrete and we just became more conservative and just decided that we’d feed you and house you for a week but after that you had to start working otherwise you’re out, because we just couldn’t cope with … the number of people.” Shadbolt says that having kids also “changes your lifestyle dramatically – you end up on school committees instead of ‘Save the Whales’ committees. Suddenly you’re in the school system so through your kids you have to interface, inter-relate and co-operate with people in the wider community – you can’t just live within your radical core group anymore, you have to live within a broader context.” And of course, there’s the constraint of money. “Suddenly kids demand things and you have to work and that means you interface again with … fairly conservative, mainstream society.” Marc Wilson agrees, saying “the concerns that you face as an adult are different from the ones you face as a student and that means that the types of things that you come to grapple with are different.” Whatever.
So while it’s statistically probable that society will crush your spirit, Tim Shadbolt and Marc Wilson bear positive news, both arguing that students of today are in a good position to influence their future world with the principles they may currently hold. “University students,” says Wilson, “end up in positions of power and they’re recreating the situations that they grew up in and thought about.” Similarly, Shadbolt says, “I like to think you also change the system to a degree because you take a lot of your values with you. I think because of the radicalism of the ‘60s, New Zealand is a more liberal society overall than it would have been if those radical movements hadn’t taken place. Society adapts some of our philosophies as well as us adapting some of society’s philosophies, so it’s a bit of a two-way thing.”