What Hillary Clinton Got Wrong About Student Protesters

Appearing last week on “Morning Joe,” Hillary Clinton lamented what she views as the ignorance of students protesting the war in Gaza. The host, Joe Scarborough, asked her about “the sort of radicalism that has mainstream students getting propaganda, whether it’s from their professors or from the Chinese Communist government through TikTok.” Ms. Clinton was happy to oblige. “I have had many conversations, as you have had, with a lot of young people over the last many months,” she said. “They don’t know very much at all about the history of the Middle East or frankly about history in many areas of the world, including in our own country.”

I’ve taught students at the college level for 12 years, most recently at New York University’s journalism school. I’ve also seen and heard the assumptions made about them by some of their elders — administrators, parents and others. So it’s no surprise now to hear protesters described as “spoiled and entitled kids” or delicate “snowflakes” who cower in their safe spaces and don’t believe in free speech. Billionaires like Ken Griffin, Bill Ackman and, of course, Donald Trump — as entitled as anyone — have been particularly vocal in their disdain, calling the students in one instance “whiny” and demanding that they be punished for protesting. Representative Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York, even suggested that TikTok should be banned in part because “you’re seeing how these kids are being manipulated by certain groups or entities or countries to foment hate on their behalf and really create a hostile environment here in the U.S.”

Whether they realize it or not, Ms. Clinton, Mr. Lawler and the rest are engaging in a moral panic about America’s youth that is part of a larger effort to discredit higher education in general. That effort includes fearmongering about diversity programs and critical race theory. But it starts with students.

In the current panic, the protesters are described as somehow both terribly fragile and such a threat to public safety that they need to be confronted by police officers in riot gear. To justify the police department’s excessive response at Columbia University, Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry showed Newsmax viewers a large chain and a book with the title “Terrorism” that had been recovered from one site of protest. The former was a common bike chain Columbia sells to students and the latter was part of Oxford University Press’s lovely “Very Short Introductions” series, which covers topics from animal behavior to Rousseau and black holes.

There are some obvious partisan factors at work here: Staunch support for Israel among Republicans, for instance, and the long-running right-wing insistence that elite universities are liberal indoctrination camps. But recent research reveals a significant generational divide as well. A recent YouGov poll found that 45 percent of people ages 45 to 64 strongly opposed the protests, as did 56 percent of people 65 and older. By comparison, only 12 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds strongly opposed them, and 21 percent of people ages 30 to 44.

It’s not just about Gaza; similar age gaps emerged in response to protests after the murder of George Floyd, too. Eighty-seven percent of adults ages 18 to 34 supported the protests in June 2020, according to Gallup, while only 54 percent of adults 65 and older did. And just 3 percent of the older group had participated in the protests, while 26 percent of the younger group had.

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