Sunday, December 09, 2007

Are Conservatives the Equivalent of Child Molesters

One of the persistent complaints of the right-wing is the bias against conservatives in academia. In an op-ed piece for the increasingly right-wing Washington Post, Villanova political scientist and registered Republican Robert Maranto claims that Republicans are disadvantaged on several levels. Maranto believes that he himself lost a job at a "prestigious research university" because he had mentioned that he was planning on voting Republican. He also reports on research which indicates that "conservatives and libertarians are outnumbered by liberals and Marxists by roughly two to one in economics, more than five to one in political science, and by 20 to one or more in anthropology and sociology."

Sympathy for conservatives is not a regular feature of Red State Impressions. But Maranto could have had a case if he had framed it differently. For example, I agree with Maranto that "a leftist ideological monoculture is bad for universities, rendering them intellectually dull places imbued with careerism rather than the energy of contending ideas." There are times when I've had a liberal/left ideological monoculture in my classes and I've been bored to death by it. Likewise, I organized several forums on the war in Iraq and often wished that there were more conservative professors on campus who could make the pro-war case. Once I even had to state the evangelical case myself on a church/state panel because nobody else in the group had any sympathy for the evangelical point of view.

But conservatives are largely to blame for the problem themselves.

When I started graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1976, graduate students thought that half of the political science faculty were Republicans. All of the Republican faculty I knew were pretty moderate and they seemed to be Republican primarily because of their misgivings about the welfare state, support for the Cold War, and doubts about feminism, and race policy. Most of the Democrats on the faculty seemed fairly moderate as well. There were a few people on the left and I studied with all of them because I was on the left myself. I still am. But on the whole the UNC political science faculty was a moderate group.

Since 1976, the left has been strengthened in many humanities fields. The advent of African-American studies, feminism, gay-friendly perspectives, and interest in global studies brought a number of bright young leftists into academics. So did excitement over new methodologies and points of view that were emerging on the academic left including Frankfurt School Marxism, the new social history, deconstruction, Foucauldian genealogy, structuralism, post-structuralism, and post-modernism. Most important of all, left-wing scholars wrote a continuous stream of compelling books and articles that resulted in a general shift of the humanities to the left.

That's not the case with political science where the bulk of professors are still moderates who are suspicious of people on the left, dismissive of new methodologies like Foucaudian genealogy or deconstruction, and generally ignorant of the pervasive focus on "race, class, and gender" in other fields (although political scientists do write effectively about African-American politics).

The issue with political science is that conservativism has moved so far to the right that the moderate professors who might have considered the Republican Party in the past now identify themselves both as Democrats and liberals. We have three junior political scientists in our department who are very moderate in their beliefs (conservative compared to me), but see themselves as "liberals" and vote Democratic or for Nader because they are now repelled by the right-wing which they identify with the Republican Party.

There are other problems with conservatives. Conservatives don't bother to learn any of the new critical methodologies in their fields but haven't worked out compelling alternatives either. Consequently, conservative scholarship has little appeal to anyone who is not already a committed conservative. As a result, the work of conservatives often has a dated quality to it that makes conservatives unappealing as students, job candidates, tenure candidates. In my senior seminar on African-American Thought last semester, one conservative student was uncomfortable with the whole idea of African-American Thought despite the tremendous writing of Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and others. However, the poor student could only write a research paper comparing Martin Luther King to conservative icon Leo Strauss under the assumption that King was a generic thinker rather than African-American per se. I felt bad for the poor guy by the time he had gone through three drafts even though the work on King was pretty good. Unable to make Leo Strauss either more interesting or less rigid, he had a difficult time making the comparison interesting either.

Conservatives also have severe problems with being outside the moral mainstream of academia. Although the claims of the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and gay rights have become part of the conventional moral wisdom of our society, the political right-wing is still trying to roll back the clock to the 1920's and Calvin Coolidge. As a result, moderates and liberals both inside and outside academia view conservatives as reactionary and bigoted. That's probably why one of Maranto's friends reported that people at his university treated him "as if I had become a child molester" after he became a Republican. Given that the Republicans have identified with the right-wing and that the right-wing holds many moral views that are repugnant to most non-conservatives, it follows that people in academics would treat him as though he were fundamentally immoral.

The knee-jerk moral hostility to conservatives in academics is reinforced by the right-wing's warmongering, defense of torture, and increasingly by their rejection of science. Like a lot of Americans, academics are looking on conservatives as fundamentally immoral people.

If conservatives want to re-establish themselves in academics, they will either have to rejoin the moral mainstream of the United States or produce compelling new work that shifts the consensus of various academic fields back to the right.

I don't see either of those things happening anytime soon.


CBL said...

Most political science departments that I've encountered in my academic journey since leaving MSU have a token conservative or two. However, like you, I don't see academia overrun by the Left, paranoid right-wing fantasies notwithstanding (ie David Horowitz and Anne Coulter). I once heard a fairly liberal IR person characterize deconstruction and Foucauldian geneaology as "exotic" theories; I had to keep from laughing aloud in class.

I think anybody who pays any sort of serious attention to political life is going to have more nuanced views of how people interact and isn't going to cling to a dogma, right or left.

d said...

Nicely put. We've been having quite a bit of fun at Maranto's expense over at Lawyers, Guns and Money. I'm particularly amazed that a piece so thin could get published in a major newspaper. The statistical evidence is unpersuasive (having been commissioned by the AEI), and even the anecdotes are unbelievably lame.

As someone pointed out in our comments, you really have to wonder why someone would disclose their voting preferences at a candidate dinner....

Ric Caric said...

Thanks to d for the kind words. We have to deal with this at Morehead State U because we have a right-wing pod on campus. The anecdotes at Lawyers, Guns, and Money really capture the dilemna of right-wing academics here as well as in California. What the right-wingers are looking for is to be "comfortable" in the sense of having their own little ideological bubbles where they aren't challenged by colleagues, disagreeable students, or the last forty years of intellectual life. They want their bubbles at elite universities and they want it all handed to them rather than have to fight. In a way, it's all pretty odd. But that's what right-wing academics are--pretty odd.

To CBL--While acknowledging the moderate to liberal tilt of political science myself, I have to admit that I'm still very much on the left side of politics myself. My teaching actually gets more leftist even though I'm scheduling people like William Bennett and Phyllis Schlafly in an "even-handed" way.

Dan Collins said...

This is silly, Ric. Hewing to the establishment tradition in academe is simply a matter of absorbing the attitudes and jargon of the hipsters in the field. The people who are intellectually ill-equipped for the voyage are not those who do traditional scholarship, because that takes some actual chops. They are those who mimic the patois who have nothing to offer.

You know, before he did all of those melting clocks and so forth, Salvador Dali could paint a horse or a dove. That is the portion of excellence that people whom you laud, and whom you resemble, do not accomplish. I'm sorry, but lasting academics are not "performance art" first, and you're really not very bright.

Ric Caric said...

Dan, you just don't know what you're talking about. Sure, there's a lot of mediocre work done in the current methodologies. There was tons of mediocre work done in the traditional genres as well. But the best of contemporary critical scholarship far outstrips its traditionalist competition. One comparison you might try is Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight and Harvey Mansfield's Manliness. They're both about gender, both very critical of contemporary constructions of gender, and both written by well-known authors. But Bordo runs circles around Mansfield in terms of intellectual sophistication, interpretive skills, and the thoroughness with which she argues her position. Compared to Bordo, Mansfield can't do the theoretical equivalent of painting a bowl of fruit. It's the same all the way around. As I indicated in my posts, conservatives have many limitations as academics. One of those limitations is the quality of their work. People on the left raised their game substantially during the 70's and 80's. Traditionalists have never responded.

Michael said...

"As I indicated in my posts, conservatives have many limitations as academics."

Facts being the primary limitation, it is so much easier to just believe. Free your mind, etc., etc...

Ric Caric said...

Yes, a lot of conservatives are research averse. I knew some conservative history graduate students who were very turned off by the "professionalization" of the history field in the seventies and eighties.

Michael said...

Well to be quite honest, the professionalism movement bothered me, also. I love the purity that amateurism nurtures. The big sponsorship money just leads to cheating and performance enhancing drugs.

Anonymous said...

I am sure that I would be classified as a "dated" person by you, however, I really couldn't care what society's moral compass is at this point. I have my own. It is the Holy Bible. It has all I need to know about what is right and what is wrong. I don't agree with all Conservative policies, but I am sure I will be lumped right in there with them, simply for having what you seem to consider old fashioned values. Sadly, I have to work even harder to instill those values into my children before I pay thousands of dollars for them to be "educated" by people who will look down on them for their idiology...the only belief system that seems taboo the way...the nice piece about strangers helping you when your car broke down here in KY...Those folks were more than likely raised by parents and grandparents with the "dated" morals you do not approve of.