Why conservatives hate college

Apr 2, 2013 by

The right’s decades-long war on academia and “liberal professors” is about defining an elite “populists” can oppose

By Neil Gross

If you want to understand the origins of the 21st century campaign against the liberal professoriate, you have to understand why conservatives like William Buckley were engaged in a similar campaign in their day. Some of the anger that National Review authors directed at left-leaning academics reflected the same impulses and strategic calculations that sustained McCarthyism: the sense that the nation was under threat during the Cold War; the view that the ranks of the American left were filled with communists or former communists who were either outright traitors or simply not to be trusted, especially with the impressionable minds of youth; and the awareness that even if there was a meaningful difference between communists and liberals, the distinction could be blurred to good political effect. Buckley, after all, was one of McCarthy’s most vigorous defenders, coauthoring in 1954 (with Brent Bozell, his brother-in-law) “McCarthy and His Enemies,” which a reviewer for the New York Times appropriately described as “the most extraordinary book yet to come forth in the harsh bibliography … of ‘McCarthyism,’” given its point-by-point defense of some of McCarthy’s most outlandish claims. However, most of the criticisms of academia that appeared in National Review did not allege subversion by professors per se, and this was particularly the case from the 1960s onward. What lay behind the alternative lines of critique that Buckley and his collaborators pursued?

First, as someone intensely committed to invigorating the conservative movement, Buckley took seriously the notion that he had to engage the American left in a war of ideas. Intellectuals, he believed, play vital roles in politics by articulating conceptions of “the good” and theories of the world that may filter down to average people and shape their political predilections, through their direct educative functions, and as advisors who sometimes have the ears of policy makers and politicians. As Kirk put it in 1962 in a regular column he wrote called “From the Academy”: “Today’s lectures in the classroom become tomorrow’s slogans in the street.” The American professoriate, Buckley and his colleagues felt, had in recent decades strongly backed the cause of liberalism not simply in terms of professors’ personal political commitments but also in their behavior in the public sphere. Given these beliefs, going after liberal academics was an entirely natural thing for them to do.

Indeed Buckley’s assumptions about the importance of the intelligentsia to the American left were not without some basis in fact. On the one hand, the 1950s and 1960s were decades of major expansion in the American college and university sector. Expansion of the nonacademic intellectual class was almost as large, fueled by the growth of government bureaucracies and the cultural consumption needs of an increasing number of educated, white-collar workers, which created new markets for journalists, writers and others. As creators and disseminators of ideas, intellectuals were playing a more significant role in American life than ever before.

On the other hand, many intellectuals at the time really were on the left and lent their services to liberal causes. To give one example, academics and intellectuals had been key supporters of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for the presidency in 1948. Academic Wallacites included Rexford Tugwell, the “brains trust” economist who had taken a position at the University of Chicago after a term serving as the appointed governor of Puerto Rico; Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley; and Harvard literature professor F.O. Matthiessen. Support for Wallace, it is true, was a minority position within academe, despite an article he wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science making a case for his campaign. Lazarsfeld and Thielens’s survey data make this clear. More anecdotally, many influential professors came out against Wallace, including Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., charging that his calls for peace with the Soviets meant that he was doing their bidding. But these critiques, issued in conjunction with the work that scholars like Galbraith and Schlesinger were doing for the recently formed liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action, were as much about the need for unity among liberals as anything else: Academic critics of Wallace were every bit as enthusiastic as he was about continuing the program of New Deal liberalism and ensuring civil rights for blacks.

When civil rights issues gained even more prominence a few years later, academics and intellectuals once again stepped forward to act on behalf of liberal ideals. Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma,” written with the support of the Carnegie Foundation, had come out in 1944, helping to convince academics (as well as many others) who might have been on the fence that civil rights was an essential national goal. Later, academics like Horace Mann Bond, Kenneth Clark, John A. Davis, John Hope Franklin, Mabel Smythe and C. Vann Woodward were tapped by the NAACP to support its efforts in Brown v. Board of Education by writing briefs and providing expert testimony, including testimony about the psychological effects of segregation on black children. In the early 1960s, the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a more radical organization, saw the value in recruiting both college students and scholars for their efforts. Historian Staughton Lynd, the son of sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd, became coordinator of SNCC’s “freedom schools,” working closely with Howard Zinn. And in 1965 professors such as Richard Hofstadter, Walter Johnson and C. Vann Woodward were among those who marched with Martin Luther King (whose activism was greatly influenced by his academic experiences as a graduate student at Boston University) to Montgomery. While these efforts placed academic activists on the right side of history, to conservatives who opposed the civil rights movement they represented an abomination. The fact is, as David A. Horowitz (the historian) concludes, there were a great many intellectuals in the postwar period throwing their weight behind progressive efforts at social change, a group whose collective ideological work was helping to sustain and deepen American liberalism and keep conservatism from gaining ground. There is nothing all that surprising about Buckley’s going after them: Nefarious elite conspiracies or not, when academics seek to make their mark in the political arena, either directly or indirectly, they can expect to be attacked by some of their opponents. Such is politics, although it is also inevitable that Buckley’s depictions of them would be overblown — partisan writers are not given to balance, nuance and restraint.

But what explains the tenor of the attacks, specifically the fact that they were couched in a language of anti-elitism? A second factor is the rhetorical function that opposition to liberal professors, cast as representatives of the knowledge elite, played for the emerging conservative movement.

Historians of conservatism have noted that a key condition for the movement’s getting off the ground was the formation of a collective identity capable of binding its various strands. In the post–World War II era, when the ideological foundations were being laid for later advances, different groups of conservatives could often be found at one another’s throats, with the biggest debates breaking out between traditionalists and libertarians. Histories commonly observe that National Review, through the efforts of Buckley and editor Frank Meyer, was instrumental in articulating a conception of conservatism capable of bridging some of these divides and enabling coalition building. The “fusionist” philosophy developed by the magazine focused on what all American conservatives ostensibly had in common, including patriotism, opposition to collectivism, and a strong belief in the principles of federalism and local self-determination, as well as recognition of the value of Western, Christian civilization and an objective moral order. All this is right: Had National Review with its fusionism not come along, the conservative movement would have been slower to coalesce.

But missing in these historical discussions is recognition of another point. The sociologist Jeffrey Alexander has argued that while much of politics revolves around material concerns, American politicians and other political actors are constrained at every turn by culture, by a deep code at the heart of American political discourse that identifies certain themes, values and narratives as sacred and to be cherished, and others as profane and immoral. Drawing on contemporary and historical materials, Alexander argues that this code centers around democracy. Whether they are on the left or the right, American political figures must find a way to wrap their beliefs, claims and proposals around democratic ideals of freedom, self-governance and equality if they are to gain traction with voters. In fact, argues Alexander, in a book about the 2008 presidential race, a significant part of any political campaign involves the effort by politicians to paint themselves in democratic hues and depict their opponents as somehow undemocratic.

Cultural constraints of this sort posed a major challenge for the emerging conservative movement, particularly in a historical context where many Americans habitually associated democratic values with liberalism or at least with the center-left. How could a movement that explicitly sought to defend the rich and to preserve long-standing social hierarchies against the ideals of egalitarianism avoid the charge that it was undemocratic? Buckley and other conservative intellectuals did so by painting restrictions on capitalist activity and attempts at mandating progressive social change in other areas as violations of liberty: the liberty of property holders — a category with which many Americans could identify in the prosperous 1950s — to do as they wanted with their property, including profit from it, and the liberty of local communities to continue with their cherished traditions, not least their religious traditions. This way of framing things gained considerable rhetorical force when it was paired with populist themes. In a recent article, sociologist Robert Jansen attempted to define populism in a manner that is useful to scholars of both the left and the right and who study populism in the United States and abroad. According to Jansen’s definition, a style of political engagement can be considered populist if seeks to “mobilize … ordinarily marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people.” It is unclear whether post-war American conservatism meets Jansen’s first criterion, although the mobilization of evangelicals in the 1960s and beyond would seem to be an example of bringing a previously marginalized group into the political fold. But Buckley and his colleagues did speak frequently in a language that sung the praises of ordinary Americans. It was precisely ordinary Americans who, in their depiction, found their liberty most threatened by collectivism and who would rally under the banner of conservatism to restore their rights and re-create a just social order. Hand in hand with this idea was the identification of an enemy of the people said to be lording power over them, an enemy the people would work to vanquish. Left populism found its enemy in economic elites. As cold war hysteria cooled, conservatives increasingly found theirs in liberal intellectuals and their allies in government, the press and the judiciary said now not to be communists but to be leading the charge toward collectivism in other ways. Intellectual and cultural elites and their bankrupt ideas, claimed National Review authors, posed major threats to freedom.

via Why conservatives hate college – Salon.com.

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