Monday, March 18, 2019

On Political Litmus Tests

An unimaginably long time ago, I was a graduate student in normative political theory, also known as political philosophy.  It wasn’t necessarily one of my better life choices, but I didn’t know that at the time. My small and scrappy group of peers and I tried to blast our way through the canon of Western political thought -- from Plato to NATO, as we said then -- along with the then-current layers of interpretation.  I had to learn to do battle with Benjamin Barber on Rousseau, with Stephen Eric Bronner on Habermas, with Linda Zerilli on Judith Butler, with Jackson Lears on Eugene Debs, and with Carey McWilliams on John Dewey. (Peers included such current stars as Manfred Steger, known for his work on globalization; Cristina Beltran, known for her work on Latino politics and identify; and Patrick Deneen, known for his work on liberalism.)  It was a different time.

I don’t use much of that training in my day job, at least directly.  Some of the habits of mind probably come through in my writing, but only in passing.  I’m much more likely to write about budget cuts than about the relationship between consciousness and being.  That’s probably for the best.

But Florida’s proposal to commission a mandatory state survey on the political leanings of faculty draws on both sides of my background.  And as both a card-carrying political theorist and an experienced academic administrator, I can attest that Florida’s idea is a garbage fire.

It’s silly in a host of ways.  I won’t even address the free speech issues, on the grounds that they’re too obvious to address without seeming condescending.  Nor will I go to the assumption that students uncritically imbibe their professors’ perspectives. Anyone with teaching experience can see the hole in that one.  I won’t even go to legislative intent, other than to note that the folks all worked up about political leanings in universities don’t seem the least bit bothered by political leanings of the police or the military.  And they’re armed.

But never mind all that.  Let’s go instead to the core assumption of the proposal: that there are two clearly identifiable schools of political thought -- liberal and conservative -- that exhaust the universe of possibilities.  Relatedly, the two are assumed to occur in roughly equal proportions.


At a high level, other concepts include monarchism, fascism, socialism, communism, anarchism, libertarianism (known in the trade as “classic” liberalism), social democracy, populism, corporatism, and all manner of utopian separatisms, just for starters.  And within each, the varieties are endless. Does your conservatism worship tradition or the market? As Daniel Bell noted decades ago, and Max Weber decades before that, the market eats tradition for breakfast. (Today’s “disruption” is Polanyi’s “creative destruction” with a California accent.)  Is your conservatism isolationist or interventionist? Does its distrust of “bigness” extend to business, as in trust-busting, or is it confined to social programs? Is your vaunted pragmatism in the Deweyan tradition that assumes historical progress, or in the Nietzschean tradition that prefers power for its own sake?  Is your liberalism more libertarian or more social democratic? Is your socialism “scientific” or democratic?

These aren’t just abstractions.  People have taken bullets for these ideas.  And versions of them make the simple “red or blue” dichotomy ridiculous.

FDR, for instance, noted that the folks who slandered him as a Bolshevik-on-the-Hudson failed to understand that he was bending capitalism so it would not break.  He was saving it. Is that conservative -- saving the tradition -- or liberal, because changing it? (The correct answer is “yes.”) Was George Wallace a populist, a liberal, or a conservative?  (Again, “yes.”) How is it that so many former Leninists became “neoconservatives” without really changing how they thought? For that matter, how is it that someone like Bob Dole supported affirmative action?

Party registration is a terrible guide; people can just switch.  And issue questions can mislead. For example, I was much more open to the Keystone pipeline than many of the people I usually agree with.  My reasoning was that we’re going to import oil anyway, and I’d rather support the Canadian regime than the Saudi regime. Does that make my stand conservative or liberal?  

Support for public higher education used to be a Republican calling card.  Nelson Rockefeller was a great ally of SUNY. The idea was that education was a less threatening avenue of social mobility than forced redistribution or revolution; it was a culturally traditional safety valve for discontent.  Is closing off a safety valve for social mobility truly conservative, in the sense of preserving a system? It’s precisely the sort of thing an accelerationist Marxist would endorse.

On an operational level, of course, any sort of quota system or hiring preference based on ideology would be a train wreck.  People’s views change. Sometimes that happens through research, sometimes through experience, and sometimes through changes in the world.  (I’m thinking here of Brad DeLong’s recent admission that the “centrists” of the Clinton era were snookered by the right, and that today’s centrists should instead lean left.)  If I’m hired to be the local liberal, and my views start to shift, do I get fired? If so, we’ve effectively banned honest inquiry.

Besides, I neither know nor care about the political beliefs of the folks here who teach math, or automotive tech, or music.  I’ve never asked, and it has never come up. There’s no reason it would. And even in the “softer” areas, assuming that someone who subscribes to one school of thought can’t teach another is just plain false.  The folks in the “Plato to NATO” canon didn’t agree with each other -- at all -- yet a single professor can teach them all. Poll faculty in fields like sociology and political science, and I’d bet you’d find that they’ve all given good grades to students with whom they disagree.  It’s called “doing your job.”

Colleges aren’t meant to be propaganda wings of whichever party is in power.  They’re meant to help students develop the ability to figure out their own beliefs, often through confronting worldviews very different from their own.  If your worldview is so brittle and delicate that it can’t survive exposure to someone who disagrees with it, you’ll have a hell of a time participating in a free society.

No, Florida, you shouldn’t subject college faculty -- or any public employees -- to litmus tests, loyalty oaths, or Un-American Activities Committees.  Students of political history know where that leads. It isn’t pretty. As both a student of the history of political thought, and an experienced public college administrator, I implore you: don’t do this.  It will not end well.