Why conservatives hate college

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


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Neil Gross
April 1, 2013 2:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?"

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.

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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 Student 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.

Part of what is so remarkable about this is that elsewhere in National Review could be found articles that championed elitism, that sung the praises not just of the rich but of the conservative cultural elite. Buckley, like his wealthy oilman father, had been influenced by the writings of Albert Jay Nock, who described all those educated conservatives who defended individualism through the lonely night of New Deal statism as constituting a “remnant”; eventually they would be the ones to lead the country out of darkness. National Review was written for just this group, in a sophisticated and urbane style. In the end, though, that the magazine spoke out of both sides of its mouth on the populism question is perhaps not mysterious. The idea of a remnant might be useful for rallying a small and privileged cadre, but in its unadulterated form it could hardly provide the basis for a mass political movement. Populist elitist bashing could, and National Review gave voice to both rhetorics.

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Savvy and strategic though Buckley and others in his circle were, it is doubtful that they consciously decided to target intellectuals in order to score populist points. After all, Buckley had started doing so during his days writing for the Yale Daily News, before he sensed the wind of national political change. More likely is that the tactic, which built on established anti-intellectual tropes and on conservative populist themes that were bubbling up elsewhere, emerged from what amounted to experimental efforts by those in the National Review network at finding a collective identity for conservatism that would gain traction. In other writing, Jansen has argued that populist mobilization should be viewed in terms of practices that political actors develop as they work through the practical problems and challenges that political life throws at them under particular social and historical conditions; these are practices that may not be carefully planned in advance by the social actors who enact them but that tend to be hammered out over time through experimentation and that may then become routinized if they prove successful. This is an apt way of thinking about the language used by Buckley and those around him. Going on about the depravity of the liberal elite worked in the sense that it seemed to resonate for many readers of the magazine and segments of the broader public and helped to position conservatism — despite its origins in the remnant — as a democratic alternative to the liberal status quo.

One aspect of this resonance demands particular attention. Amy Binder and Kate Wood’s research found that opposition to the liberal professoriate is a common thread that helps unite many conservative collegians. It is not clear that this is any more the case now than it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. National Review’s attacks on the professoriate may have rung especially true for college-educated conservatives at that time because they provided a language and a coherent narrative for understanding experiences they themselves could have had as students. During this buttoned-down period, scholars in the social sciences and the humanities were hardly preaching radicalism. But they may have been doing something that conservatives found every bit as insidious. Historian Andrew Jewett has argued that midcentury liberal social scientists and humanists, writing when overt partisanship in scholarship was very much frowned upon by the academic community, sometimes endeavored to “naturalize” their politics, smuggling their political commitments into their academic writing by arguing in one way or another that a left-leaning, pluralistic society and a left-leaning, pluralistic worldview were objectively good and healthy — as in the claims of Hofstadter, Adorno and others — and that deviations from these ideals represented forms of degeneracy or abnormality. This was not lost on smart conservative students who took social sciences and humanities courses only to find that on some occasions the material they were asked to read simply took for granted that their views were wrong, while implicitly characterizing them — and their families and friends — as immoral or psychologically flawed. "God and Man at Yale" was Buckley’s first sustained attempt at expressing the grievances of young conservatives who felt mistreated during their college days. National Review critiques extended this effort, and the same themes and concerns were important in the early days of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).

Buckley’s critiques of higher education, and those of his National Review colleagues, soon became staples of American conservative discourse. One way to think about this is with a concept developed by the historical sociologist Charles Tilly: “repertoires of contention.” In his book "Popular Contention in Great Britain" (1995), Tilly argued that between 1758 and 1834, the manner in which British citizens went about making claims on those who held power — claims for more rights, for higher wages — underwent a fundamental shift. In the 18th century, Tilly discovered, “vengeance against moral and political offenders occupied a prominent place in the contention of ordinary people,” while “local people and local issues, rather than nationally organized programs and parties, entered repeatedly into ... collective confrontations.” By the early 19th century things were different. There was no less political agitation, but it now took a different form. More of it centered around pubs and coffeehouses, public meetings, rallies and marches. Political associations that could register citizen complaints and petition Parliament grew in size and influence. More claims were national in scope. More or less spontaneous and isolated attacks on employers thought guilty of worker mistreatment gave way to coordinated turnouts and strikes. Violence was not uncommon, but it did not accompany contentious politics as often as before.

According to Tilly, these were not disconnected historical facts but signaled important changes in citizens’ underlying “repertoires” for making claims: the routines, practices and habits they typically employed as they articulated their grievances and went about pursuing redress. What brought about the shift? Tilly’s basic answer is the rise of capitalism and the growing administrative capacity of the British state. As industry and Parliament loomed larger as centers of social power, citizens found that only through coordinated action could they make their demands heard. But repertoire change did not occur automatically in response to these pressures. As Tilly portrays it, in line with Jansen’s account of the emergence of populist practices, it was an instance of collective learning born of struggle and trial and error.

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Buckley and those around him were important in shaping modern American conservatism’s repertoire of contention, including its collective identity, the way it saw itself as a movement. Through the influence of National Review, YAF and allied organizations, opposition to liberal academic elites became part of what it meant for a substantial number of conservatives to be conservative. Built into the conservative repertoire at a foundational moment, this theme would echo in conservative thought and politics for generations to come, though with continual adaptations.

In the late 1960s its salience only increased amid campus unrest. We should not underestimate how troubling conservatives found such unrest to be. Reagan liked to claim he would never have made the disturbances at Berkeley a campaign issue had he not frequently been asked his thoughts about them while on the campaign trail. This may or may not be true, but there is no question that most conservatives regarded the student protests with abhorrence, particularly as their intensity increased near the end of the decade. For example, in his history of YAF, Gregory Schneider notes that

growing radicalism on campus, such as the siege of Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin’s "Dow Days" riots during the spring of 1968, pointed to a need to resist student activism. A breakdown in authority and the fear of revolution gripped the air as classes resumed in the fall of 1968; the campus was more politicized than ever before, and a hardcore active Left was making inroads among formerly apathetic students disenchanted about the war, the draft and the growing oppressiveness of American society and government. For the next several years, YAF would turn to combat the Left on campus.

YAF antiradicalism was particularly strong in California, Schneider reports, given that it had Reagan’s backing and the fact that the New Left had been so active on campuses there. Standing up for law and order, conservative students in California wore buttons in support of S. I. Hayakawa, the “embattled” president of San Francisco State, and at least temporarily overcame their factional differences to denounce leftist students, their faculty supporters and liberal campus administrators who, in their view, had not been as courageous as Hayakawa in trying to stem the tide of dissent.

But it was not only conservative students who felt scandalized. So did a great many conservative professors, according to Ladd and Lipset’s data, who objected to both the goals of student protest and the protestors’ tactics of educational disruption. Some political and economic elites on the right were equally incensed, clearly. The Powell memo discussed earlier provides one indication of this; other evidence is not hard to come by. An article about the Olin Foundation by historian Jennifer de Forest, for instance, notes that the organization’s commitment to higher education reform grew out of the experiences of the 1960s. Founder John Olin, who had inherited his father’s munitions fortune,

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matured into an activist philanthropist in 1969 in response to events at Cornell University, his alma mater, to which both he and his father gave generous donations. That year a group of black student protesters occupied the student union building. Pictures of the student leader holding a shotgun and wearing a bandolier filled with ammunition appeared on the front pages of newspapers nationwide. American conservatives were infuriated when Cornell’s president not only negotiated with the students but also absolved them of individual responsibility for damaged property. In reaction to these events, the 78-year-old Olin decided to focus his giving on promoting conservatism in American higher education. In this way he hoped to leverage his funds, as he put it, to check “the creeping stranglehold that socialism” had gained over America.

The 1960s were also a spur to the philanthropy of the Bradley Foundation. Michael Joyce, its entrepreneurial president during its most active years of giving — the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, after Rockwell International purchased the Allen-Bradley Company in Milwaukee, infusing the organization with cash — had been converted to the right after thinking about what he saw as the failure of 1960s-era social policies. That conservative students, academics, some elites and rank-and-file voters often blamed the left-leaning faculty for encouraging student radicalism — not a logically necessary move, given that, as Ladd and Lipset’s data also showed, a reasonably high percentage of liberal academics also disagreed with student protest tactics — testifies to the influence of National Review’s framing of the situation.

How does all this relate to the most recent period of conservative critique? In one sense, there is nothing more surprising about Horowitz or Pipes or any other conservative commentator going after liberal academics than there is about Buckley going after them. Academia is a strongly left-leaning occupational group, and its members are active politically. What is more, some number of social scientists and humanists today, freed from the constraints of their midcentury predecessors by scientific/intellectual movements that sprang up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, explicitly bring their politics into their academic work and claim strong intellectual justification for doing so. At the same time, some faculty research, while not political in nature, draws factual conclusions with which conservatives disagree. In this context, it would be surprising sociologically if conservative commentators did not go after academics (which is not to condone conservatives’ behavior). Still, the intensity of recent attacks is noteworthy, as is their social organizational basis. How should we explain the drumbeat of criticism coming from the NAS, ACTA, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the Center for the American University and so on?

Schrecker is not wrong to highlight the relevance of a greatly expanded infrastructure for conservatism in the 1980s and beyond. But there is a better way of explaining its role: the sociological approach to the study of organizations known as organizational ecology. Just as that approach can be used to make sense of higher education, so too has it been used to leverage an understanding of politics. For example, sociologists who study movements for social change have noted the common tendency for successful movements to transform themselves over time into nonprofit advocacy organizations, or what are sometimes called “social movement organizations” (SMOs). Scholars have used the organizational ecology framework to identify the social conditions that make it possible for SMOs to arise and acquire the resources needed to survive, and have considered such issues as how the appearance of multiple SMOs -- sometimes competing with one another for supporters, financial resources and influence -- can constrain the activity of any one of them, with implications for success and organizational longevity. The framework also provides a fruitful way of thinking about American conservatism.

The best way to understand the conservative movement as it took shape in the last third of the 20th century — and as it continues to exist today — is to see it as comprising a complex ecological field of political organizational activity consisting of the Republican Party at the state and national levels, politicians and political operatives, conservative donors and philanthropies, political action committees, lobbyists, conservative media organizations, religious organizations and educational institutions, and a wide variety of think tanks, advocacy groups, and voluntary associations. Different elements of the movement sometimes act in a coordinated fashion, but this is a contingent outcome that must be achieved, as there are a great many centers of activity, with different interests, commitments, ideologies and beliefs lying behind each.

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There was indeed a growth of conservative war-of-ideas-type institutions during this period. But this was not simply because, in response to the Powell memo and to the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, conservative elites worked to create new institutions of ideology production to better serve their cause. After all, while conservative think tanks and advocacy groups multiplied then, so too did liberal and nonideological ones (although not at the same rate as their conservative counterparts). Another important factor in their expansion, as political scientists Theda Skocpol and Paul Pierson have argued, was the dramatic growth of the American state, whose increasing size and power after World War II — a function of exigencies of governance as much as ideology — made it a more important stake than ever in political struggles, leading to a proliferation of all manner of organizations concerned to steer it in one way or another. This was a key structural change providing a historical backdrop to Powell’s call and to the rise of conservatism generally.

Specialized conservative advocacy organizations that took on the liberal professoriate arose as the conservative field became reconfigured in this context not because, at least in the cases I have examined, their founding was directed from above, but because the midlevel moral entrepreneurs behind them — each of whom connected in a deep personal way to the line of critique Buckley pioneered — sensed that they could carve out niches for themselves on the conservative landscape by becoming specialists in the rhetoric of professorial attack that had already become a well-established part of the conservative repertoire. They were able to get the funding and support and airtime that they needed to operate because a distinct subset of conservative philanthropic leaders, donors and media figures were as wedded to the identity Buckley had helped forge for the movement, and as keen to take on liberal professors, as they were. Strategy and interests no doubt mattered here, but so too, we may theorize, did beliefs, personal experiences (such as being a loyal Cornell alumnus), social relationships and moral commitments. An additional reason support may have been forthcoming from some, though not all, quarters is that the organizations these entrepreneurs started performed important latent functions for the conservative movement (i.e., functions that are sociologically identifiable but not generally obvious to the social actors involved). In conjunction with other conservative groups attacking the “liberal” judiciary and the press, they continued to shore up the movement’s populist credentials by identifying an elite to which conservatives could stand opposed — a task that grew in importance as populist elements within the Republican Party gained even more prominence. They continued to provide a vocabulary for conservative college students (and their parents) to express frustration with their higher education experiences. And they helped to call into question the credibility of academic knowledge, which made the growing number of conservative intellectuals in think tanks working on topics like taxes or energy policy or financial deregulation seem more reliable and trustworthy by comparison. Inasmuch as the conservative movement has been able to accommodate and support rhetorical efforts that have these latent effects, it can be considered not merely a field of action but also an emergent complex system — capable, on occasion, of functioning in a more or less spontaneous fashion to ensure its own survival and prosperity.

Excerpted from "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?" by Neil Gross, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Neil Gross

Neil Gross is the author of "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?" He is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge and professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.

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