Reading Marc Stears’ Demanding Democracy yesterday, I realized that I didn’t know what had happened at Columbia in 1968 (as opposed to Berkeley and Cornell) and decided to chase down one of his footnotes: Allen H. Barton, “The Columbia Crisis” (Public Opinion Quarterly 32 : 333-51; academic paywall). Three things about it struck me.
1. An article like this would never be published in an academic social science journal today (except maybe PS: Political Science and Politics). Right after the Columbia sit-in and violent police response, Barton designed and sent out a survey on it (funded by a research institute at Columbia, which also probably wouldn’t fund such a thing nowadays); wrote it up and got it published in record time—the events happened in the Spring of ’68 and the article appeared in the Fall—and reported the results as a contribution to a real-life political debate, not a theoretical debate within political science or sociology (Barton’s field). We’ve gained a lot as social science fields have become more professionalized, but we’ve also lost something.
2. Barton was eerily prescient about what might happen if, as seemed likely when he wrote, the parties nominated Nixon and Humphrey in 1968 and left antiwar voters with no outlet for their anger: alienation and mass protest, met by calls for “law and order” on the other side, with the prospect of even-greater polarization and a widening generation gap (full quotation at the bottom of this post). When I was in graduate school, it was common for professors to lament the demise of the old politics in which party elites were able to focus on economic issues and keep “distracting” questions off the agenda. That was wrong, and Garry Wills after the fact, like Barton before it, was right: our politics suffered permanent harm when opponents of the Vietnam War, having become a near-majority of the public, were unable to vote for a candidate who clearly represented that position (as opposed to Humphrey’s late and, it seems, unconvincing evolution).
3. Barton said something about small minorities and large numbers that really matters and that I’ve never seen expressed so well. Slightly misreading one of his own tables showing that only 17 percent of Columbia students thought it was all right for protestors to have broken into President Kirk’s office and copied many of his files, Barton wrote (on p. 337):
“Here the importance of absolute numbers as compared with proportions must be considered. In a referendum or an election, 19 per cent of the vote does not amount to much. On the other hand, 19 per cent of 17,000 students amounts to 3,250 people—a formidable picket line, sit-in group, or crowd. If the remaining 81 per cent are motivated to take counter-action, the result might be a smashing victory for the majority in a pushing match or a fight. But, as long as the majority remain passive, a minority of 19 per cent can completely tie up a campus; while if part of the majority is activated, or the police are called, the minority can turn the campus into a battleground” (emphasis in original).
Faculty prone to feel intimidated by student protests should note this: if there were Bartons around to survey things and institutes to fund them, we would almost always find that what seem like large numbers of students in favor of some outrageous action, like shouting down a visiting speaker or vandalizing signs, represent small percentages. (This realization might well motivate a certain contempt towards extreme self-styled student leaders, but greater respect towards students as a whole.)
This also explains why notable political “events” typically occur in places that are populous in absolute terms: for better or worse, a small minority can make a lot of noise in New York, but not so much in Needles. The average New Yorker need not be particularly committed in order for New York to be the center of all sorts of activism. And the same is true of UCLA vis-à-vis Colby College.
In both instances of populous locales, by the way, the chance to have a dramatic impact out of proportion to one’s percentage support might motivate a taste for protest politics—as opposed to the kind based on voting, where those percentages would tell. The problem of collective action may be reversed for this limited purpose: the larger the number of people present in a place, the more sense it makes to stage a confrontational protest rather than running a candidate.
No doubt this insight is familiar to many. It probably even has a name. But it was new to me. And one of the many joys of academe is the constant chance of finding an idea you’ll remember forever in a past work that might seem destined for little influence beyond its own moment.
Here’s the Barton quotation mentioned in point 2 (from p. 351):
“What will happen if the anti-war majority of students and faculty are confronted with a Humphrey-Nixon campaign this fall? … [T]he great majority of Columbia students and faculty, and others like them throughout the country, will be extremely alienated from normal politics.
“Some may withdraw in disgust, but the war and the draft of students make it almost impossible for students or professors to retire into their ivory towers. There is a distinct possibility that the massive civil disobedience practiced by a campus minority this spring may be transferred to the national political arena this fall, with widespread support from students and faculty. Massive confrontations and illegal demonstrations against the candidates, the draft, and the war would in turn bring demands for stern enforcement of ‘law and order,’ which would carry the process of alienation further in a vicious circle, widening the ‘generation gap’ and the political divisions in the country. The effect of alienation a generation of students and a large section of the intellectuals from normal political channels can be very serious both for universities and for nations, as demonstrated in other countries as well as the United States.”