Politics and Academics

Since I went to bed before the big decision last night, my celebration, such that it is, consists of the glass of Macallan 12 I’m currently sipping. I say "such that it is," because though I did vote for the winning Presidential candidate and for the first time since 1992 cast a vote for president and didn’t feel soiled by it, everything is still in the same mess it was yesterday, and being somewhat cynical (friends reading this will probably say "only somewhat?") I’m not sure how much one person, no matter how extraordinary, can really accomplish with the Presidency. It seems to me that presidents can much more easily do a lot of damage than cause a lot of improvement. However, just having a president who will avoid doing more damage will be an improvement. I’m trying to feel hopeful, but my political awareness began in the mid-1980s, and my experience of politics hasn’t exactly fostered hopefulness. The thing I find most hopeful in some ways is what the fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency says about America and how some things have undeniably changed for the better in the past forty years. As for the job itself, considering the mess he’s inheriting, I can’t help but think there’s a bit of truth in this article.

For higher education, elections seem to bring a fresh resurgence of the criticism that college faculty are too "liberal." My university newspaper has published a list of Princeton professors who gave maximum contributions to presidential candidates. The only surprising thing is that there was actually a professor who gave the maximum to McCain. However, he also gave the maximum in both the primary and the general election to Obama, and in this article explained that he donated to McCain in the primary because he was the least disliked Republican candidate. Some students complained about how this shows how overwhelmingly "liberal" Princeton is. If the research reported in this article is right, at least no one can complain about being indoctrinated with liberal dogma, whatever that is. I know the students don’t care what the librarians think, since librarians aren’t teaching them, but the Republican students at Princeton and elsewhere might be surprised that there might be even fewer Republicans among librarians than among professors. If we’re not careful, David Horowitz will be coming at us with an Academic Collection Development Bill of Rights, or something like that, arguing that for every scholarly book we buy written by a Democrat, we have to buy a book written by a Republican. Imagine how that would change the scope of library collections!

The Republican students who arrive on campus probably do feel alienated, as I’m sure do the Republican professors and librarians. The students, and indeed most critics, think it has something to to with liberal and conservative, but I’m not so sure. You might have noticed that I’ve been putting scare quotes around liberal. It’s not because I don’t think most professors and librarians are liberals of some sort. It’s just that I’m not sure the issue is just about liberal or conservative politics, but has a lot to do with Democratic or Republican politics. Liberal and conservative are shifty terms and most people don’t seem to use them in any consistent way. People seem to pick one they like for themselves, then use the other term to abuse whatever they don’t like. The paucity of political discourse in America means we don’t have many other choices.

One can argue that, for example, George W. Bush isn’t a conservative at all, and that Obama is in many ways a conservative candidate, as former long-time National Review editor Jeffrey Hart recently argued. Conservatives schooled on Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, or a number of other conservative intellectuals from an earlier generation would be horrified that a president started an aggressive war to promote democracy. People who admire the virtues of caution, tradition, and skepticism about grand rational plans one finds in Edmund Burke’s work have little use for the current Republican Party, and for a lot of traditionalist conservatives, Burke’s work formed the foundation of the conservative intellectual tradition. They would argue that the Republicans have become the radical party wanting to make the most drastic changes, sometimes against the will of the people.

There was a time when conservatives wanted to discover and develop an intellectual tradition, so they could rebel against John Stuart Mill’s description of conservatives as the "stupid party." Conservatives were alienated, but they cared about ideas and culture. That’s changed, though. In his article "The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism," Claes Ryn argues that the conservative movement’s disdain for philosophy and the arts and a pseudo-pragmatism that led to the decline of any intellectual content in conservatism.

But had it not been for the misguided pragmatism and the related problems of conservatism here described, the chronic weaknesses of human nature would not so easily have broken through the defenses of civilization. American conservatism would have been better prepared to resist intellectual shoddiness, corrupt imagination, and a false moral virtue. It would not have had to accept so much of the blame for damage inflicted upon America and the world by self-described conservatives. (Modern Age, Fall 2007, p549)

It might be conservatism, but it might just be the Republican Party, so long considered the conservative party that anyone who votes Republican is seen as a conservative and anyone who votes against it is seen as a liberal. As Jeffrey Hart, Christopher Buckley, and others have shown this year, though, that’s just not the case. It’s the Republican Party that has changed.

As David Brooks put it recently in the New York Times, "What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole." In Brooks’ reading, it’s the Republican Party and its class warfare that has gone out of its way to alienate whole groups of Americans, including many of the brightest and best educated among them. Students and some other critics complain about the "liberalism" of the American academy, but they usually cite the overwhelming majority of Democrats among professors as evidence of that. If they knew and cared, they’d probably throw in the librarians. However, the explanation of why academics tend to support Democrats or liberals could be that except for a brief flowering of conservative intellectuals from 1955-1975 (or so), so called conservatives have tended to find people who devote their lives to ideas and scholarship contemptible. And the Republican Party in the last twenty years or so has become absolutely hostile to academics and intellectuals of all stripes. People who spend their lives doing intellectual work are unlikely to vote for candidates who publicly malign and mock their social group. Thus, it could be not that academia is overwhelming "liberal" so much as that it’s overwhelmingly populated with intelligent, educated people who resent the populism that considers them lesser Americans because of that intelligence and education. Maybe in the end, we all feel the same way. Regardless of how you might feel about some individual political issues, it’s hard to vote for politicians who show nothing but disrepect for your way of life, whether you’re Joe the Plumber or Jane the Professor.

2 thoughts on “Politics and Academics

  1. “Thus, it could be not that academia is overwhelming “liberal” so much as that it’s overwhelmingly populated with intelligent, educated people who resent the populism that considers them lesser Americans because of that intelligence and education.”
    Interesting. I am more socially conservative and I highly respect conservative academics who can respectfully and deftly match arguments with liberal academics. I get the impression most social conservatives I know feel the same way.

  2. Nathan, you’re probably not in the populist camp, then. There are plenty of academics who are conservative in a lot of ways and plenty of conservatives who are intellectual in some way, which partisan populist rhetoric tends to ignore. But something odd is going on when even self-professed conservative intellectuals are abandoning the Republican Party that they used to support. Also, if you accept Ryn’s argument, there’s little concern among conservatives generally for any systematic political philosophizing or culture and the arts, which further alienates intellectuals. There are no political theorists who have managed to do for conservatism what John Rawls and his followers have done for liberalism. The best two living philosophers I’ve read who philosophize about conservatism – Roger Scruton and John Kekes – have put forward arguments and attempts at definition, but nothing as systematic as what liberal philosophers have been doing for decades. A generation of conservative intellectuals tried to define an intellectual tradition, but most of them are now dead and the Republican Party they helped to defend intellectually has changed radically.
    Russell Kirk defined conservatism as the antithesis of ideology, meaning politics driven by an abstract idea. These days, the abstract idea seems to be liberty, but in the extreme forms of laissez-faire economics and invading countries we don’t agree with and trying to make them liberal democracies. Neither of these tendencies is particularly conservative.
    As for social conservatives, what academics tend to see are religious fundamentalists who want to teach creationism, who ignore modern science in general, and who – if they’re in government – try to suppress scientific studies that don’t support their worldview. Academics value open intellectual inquiry. Religious fundamentalists don’t. The average academic looks at these people and assumes they’re stupid or uneducated or both. They see these particular social conservatives as very intolerant people who want to impose their views on others through legislation. They also see ideologues like David Horowitz who try to make out that there are actually professors who are “dangerous” because they teach ideas Horowitz disagrees with and who indoctrinate all these poor college students into some radical agenda.
    As for higher education, they see the religious universities that won’t let someone work there unless they sign doctrinal statements saying they believe, for example, that there are 66 books in the Bible. Not only does that leave out the Catholics, it enforces explicitly the sort of intellectual conformity that some conservatives claim most universities enforce implicitly with regard to politics.
    The Republican Party has welcomed extremists who believe they are absolutely right and anyone who disagrees with them is evil or stupid, despite the fact they can’t produce convincing arguments based on what Rawls calls public reasons. That’s why I tried to argue that it’s not so much about liberal versus conservative as Republican versus Democrat. I just can’t imagine Kirk or Weaver or T.S. Eliot or other traditionalist conservatives from a previous generation responding in any way but horror to a lot of the Republican platform and to a lot of the populist rhetoric emanating from the party.

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