Last month, the members of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society found Edward Snowden guilty of treason. On other campuses—even Princeton’s aristocratic, Northeastern peers—Edward Snowden is a kind of geek-dissident hero who harnessed his hacking powers for good to reveal the excesses of the National Security Agency. But at Princeton, Snowden appeared as a villain. Consecutive speakers denounced him vigorously. He broke the law, they complained. He betrayed the country, they decried. He fled to Russia! They exclaimed apoplectically, as if Joseph McCarthy was still raking suspected Soviet sympathizers over the coals of his demagogic paranoia. For the self-styled Burkeans of Princeton’s political union, the only thing worse than the U.S. government spying on its own citizens was a U.S. citizen revealing to the public that it did so.
If only one could write this off as merely reactionary exuberance, or young Rumsfelds flexing their institutionalist muscles. But more than the rank and file of Whig-Clio’s William F. Buckley fan club, who expend much of their political energies lamenting the prospect of greater access to affordable healthcare, attended the debate. And there are members, contrary to popular belief, whose views are not restricted to the narrow swath of political terrain between Ezra Klein and Paul Ryan. Still, sitting on the side in favor of convicting Mr. Snowden were more than twice the number of students that defended him.
By convicting Snowden of treason, students showed fealty to the state that consistently violates their privacy and disregard their civil liberties. Despite growing up during the days of the Iraq War and coming of age in the Great Recession (to name just a few of the past decade’s institutional failures), Princeton students mostly trust the country’s edifices of power. This faith in formal authority undergirded students’ willingness to portray Snowden as a traitor and not a whistleblower.
The belief in the beneficence of power – state and corporate – is created and constantly reaffirmed by the school’s official proclamations. Members of the administration never hesitate to remind students that they are destined to be the future helmsmen of the nation’s (currently failing) institutions. Students almost begin to see themselves as parts of those institutions. The sense that they will inevitably be the leaders of tomorrow creates an atmosphere of conservatism. After all, if tomorrow’s leaders aren’t “standing athwart” whatever they perceive as history “yelling stop” at any possibility of change, then who knows if there will be anything left for them to lead.
The promise of power does not just make students identify with the institutions they hope to one day lead. It also makes them hostile to the notion that anyone other than the designated elite might be capable of leading. In The Reactionary Mind, political theorist Corey Robin names this hostility. “Conservatism,” he writes, is “the theoretical voice of [the] animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.” That animus is what formal speeches, like the one President gave at this year’s opening exercises impart to students, regardless of other themes and content. Each time students are reminded that they will “one day become leaders” is reinforcement of students’ expectations that, as members of the elite, they will deservedly wield power over the non-elite. Rarely, if ever, are students encouraged to challenge power, or even suspect it.
The natural corollary of wielding power is that one wields power over others who cannot access it. Princeton’s political climate habituates students to the managerial mindset or the executive ethos, preparing them for a professional life in which they will have subordinates. The familiar refrain, heard at every school-wide gathering, that Princeton students are “the best of the best” cements antipathy to the idea that those left outside the halls of Old Nassau might have an equal right to the promise of future power.
Exceptionalism is a pillar in the meritocratic temple of Princeton. This, too, Robin shows, is part of the conservative mindset. “The conservative future envisions a world where power is demonstrated and privileged earned…genuine excellence is revealed and rewarded, true nobility is secured.” Those who have won entrance did so because of their merits. Those who are not here, therefore, must lack those merits. The consequence of the belief that those who can access authority do so rightfully is that those who cannot access authority lack the ability to do so.
“The conservative position,” Robin writes, “stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” Princeton positions itself as the training ground for better man—the place where he learns to command. Without constant assessments of ability and social ladders to climb, better men would have no means of distinguishing themselves and displaying their excellence. Perhaps this explains why so many extracurricular activities at Princeton require some kind of litmus test, or why the school’s social life centers on a set of clubs that are, by definition, selective. If not for auditions and bicker—gasp! There would be no guarantee that the perfect visage of Princeton’s social scene would remain unblemished. The fair guardians of selectivity shudder at such a threat of mediocrity.
For the believers in untrammeled meritocracy, the notion of equality presents a challenge. “What equality ultimately means,” writes Robin, “is a rotation in the seat of power. But that also means the unqualified could one day win a turn in that seat. Princeton, by emphasizing merit, teaches a fundamental suspicion of equality and a preference for less egalitarian modes of life. In reality, Chris Hayes reminds us in Twilight of the Elites, “whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.”
If monolithically conservative does not best characterize Princeton’s political character, oligarchically-inclined might be more apt. Princeton students largely embrace the idea that anyone not part of the Ivy League elect should not be given a shot at running the show. They identify with figures of authority and institutions because they expect to eventually be those figures and run those institutions. They defend the existing order – with its inequalities, excesses, and imperfections – the way a monarchist defends the crown – with near-religious zeal and a strong distaste for the perceived Jacobins at the gates. But fortunately for them, any alteration to the status quo, however dreaded, is unlikely. Wishing for something like that could very well get you convicted of treason.