How do American campus protests show changes in US political ecology
Published: May 25, 2024 10:11 PM
Photo: CFP

Photo: CFP

Last October, I came to the University of California, Berkeley, as a visiting scholar, and had a chance to closely observe the US democratic political ecology evolve through protests over the Israel-Palestine conflict which spread across US university and college campuses, leading to disruptions and arrests. 

Most of the universities where these conflicts escalated were located in the northeastern US, a politically active center. The protests revealed an undercurrent of political forces at play, especially as the presidential election approaches, further exposed American ideological fault lines.

Campus protests have been staged in phases. In the early stages, the main focus of student protests was to express sympathy and support for Palestine while advocating for an easing for tensions in Gaza. However, as the police intervene, the situation was further ignited, gradually evolving into a confrontation between students and school administrators or police. At this point, more people began to question whether American values of freedom of speech and democracy were being violated.

In fact, over the past two to three years, Americans, especially those in the elite, have shown a clear concern for the defense of the traditional values. The events at Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, sparked deep concern over the erosion of long held societal values. 

In the minds of many Americans I have encountered, the Capitol Hill incident is viewed as a national disgrace, a blatant violation of democracy and freedom, leading to a sense of disillusionment with the "beacon of democracy." The Capitol Hill incident further catalyzed social and political division within the US, giving rise to concern about the future direction of the country, which also fueled the unusually strong wave of campus protests.

Protest actions are often labeled as "anti-Semitic" by pro-Israel politicians, interest groups, or media outlets, often leading to resentment and controversy among teachers and students. 

I believe that the "anti-Semitic" tag is being abused. It undermines the sympathy the global public feels for the historical suffering of the Jewish people. When students are labeled with this tag, they are instead further motivated to express their strong desire to fight against the misuse of this term.

This wave of student protests can be seen as renewed recognition of the suffering of the Palestinian people since the start of the war in Gaza. 
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February, US adults under 30 hold more favorable views of the Palestinian people than of the Israeli people (60 percent vs. 46 percent). Outside of this age group, however, the numbers are reversed. This is why college campuses have become a major battleground for pro-Palestinian sentiment. It can be said that the new generation of young Americans has a stronger connection with Palestine than their forebears.

These new generations of young people are relatively more compassionate and have a stronger sense of justice. Growing up in an age of social media, they resonate more with the brutal scenes of war. This group have also not witnessed the suffering and struggles faced by the people of Israel in history. However, at the same time, more decision-makers in the US stand on the side of Israel. Whether in the executive branch, Congress, or the media, pro-Israel voices still dominate at the mainstream narrative.

The above-mentioned survey by Pew Research Center shows that Americans aged 50 and older are about 30 points more likely to report favorable views of the Israeli people than of the Palestinian people.

Another poll conducted by Gallup this year showed that 58 percent of US respondents, down from 68 percent last year, have a "very" or "mostly favorable" view of Israel. This is the lowest favorable rating for Israel recorded in over two decades. While at the same time, only 18 percent have a favorable view of the Palestinian authority.

Despite the US' increasingly harsh criticism of Israel from the political class, it has not changed the strong support for Israel. The current policies toward Israel in the US are controversial even among the American Jewish community. So, obviously, the strong bond between the US and Israel will continue to be tested and challenged. This relationship will only transition from a close historical bond to that of a more normalized diplomatic relationship as new generations Americans take over political power.

In fact, the debate on whether the US should adjust its relationship and policies with Israel has become increasingly intense throughout mainstream US public opinion. Although this process is long and slow, I am confident that there are signs of adjustment emerging.

Overall, this wave of student protests will play a clear but limited role in the evolution of the US politics. For example, it highlights the expectations of peace among a younger generation of Americans, calling for adjustments in America's policy toward Israel, and reflects the emerging power of Arab and Muslim voices. That's why in the universities such as University of California, Berkeley, many people are still pleased to see American youth bravely stepping up to express their hope for the future of the country and world peace.

Currently, it is graduation season at American universities, and campus protests have gradually subsided. Many protesters have left temporary camps, and the attention of the American mainstream is gradually decreasing. Some students feel pressure and compromise as a result of fearing punishment in the power struggle with the school authorities. 

Another interesting point is that many American politicians are taking advantage of the situation to blame outside forces, and even falsely accusing China of "funding" these protest organizations.

This statement is partly to pave the way for the US presidential elections, and also shows the decline of America's self-confidence. The US has long held the view that it is powerful and unconcerned about foreign influence. However, in recent years, we have seen an increasing concern in the US about external political influence. Personally, whether dealing with American scholars or observing the statements of American politicians, it is evident that American confidence has declined compared to before.

The act of "blaming China" also highlights the increasingly serious social and political divisions within the US, and the need to establish a "biggest competitor" to shift internal conflicts. This has been more common in the politics of the US.

I predict that as long as Israel continues with its military actions in Gaza, the support for Palestinian protest activities in the US, including on university campuses, will not abate. Nevertheless, concerns about challenges and violations to democracy and freedom will remain a prominent issue in American society for a long time.

The author is professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, also a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley