In a post for Prospect, Christopher Fear asks why academic political theory is so remote from political practice. He concludes that it’s because political theorists devote themselves to eternal riddles that he dubs “Wonderland questions” rather than today’s problems. Consider justice, perhaps the original topic of political theorizing:
One of the central questions of academic political philosophy, the supposedly universal question “What is justice?” is a Wonderland question. That is why only academics answer it. Its counterpart outside the rabbit-hole is something like “Which of the injustices among us can we no longer tolerate, and what shall we now do to rectify them?” A political thinker must decide whether to take the supposedly academic question, and have his answers ignored by politicians, or to answer the practically pressing question and win an extramural audience.
Fear is right about the choice that political theorists face between philosophical abstraction and making an impact on public affairs. But he doesn’t understand why they usually pick the former. The reason is simple. Academic political theorists ask academic questions because…they’re academics.
In other words, political theorists are members of a closed guild in which professional success depends on analytic ingenuity, methodological refinement, and payment of one’s intellectual debts through copious footnoting. They devote their attention to questions that reward these qualities. Winning an extramural audience for political argument requires different talents, including a lively writing style, an ear for the public discourse, and the ability to make concrete policy suggestions. But few professors have ever won tenure on the basis of those accomplishments.
Another reason academic political theorists avoid the kind of engagement Fear counsels is that they have little experience of practical politics. Most have spent their lives in and around universities, where they’ve learned much about writing a syllabus, giving a lecture, or editing a manuscript—but virtually nothing about governing or convincing lay readers. How does expertise on theories of distributive justice, say, prepare one to make useful suggestions about improving the healthcare system? Better to stick with matters that can be contemplated from the comfort of one’s desk.
In this respect, political theorists are at a considerable disadvantage compared to professors of law or economics. Even when their main work is academic, lawyers and economists have regular chances to practice in the fields in the fields they study. Within political science, many scholars of international relations pass through a smoothly revolving door that connects the university with the policy community. Political theorists have few such opportunities.
Fear points out that it wasn’t always this way. Before the 20th century, many great political theorists enjoyed extensive political influence. But Fear forgets the main difference between figures like Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu, Madison, Burke, Hume, Mill, or Marx and their modern epigones. The former were not professors. Although all devoted to the philosophical truth as they understood it, they were also men of affairs with long experience of practical politics.
The “brilliant and surreal tragedy of academic political theory,” then, is not that political theorists have been diverted into the wrong questions. It’s that political theory is an uncomfortable fit with the university. Academic political theorists gravitate toward the kind of questions that career scholars are in a position to answer.