State of the Union

Was Ziggy Stardust an Ayn Rand Hero?

In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand describes the heroic architect Howard Roark as possessing a “body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes.” Unlike the athlete’s graceful physique, his body is taut, standing rigid like the monumental buildings he designs. No matinee idol, Roark’s “hard, forbidding” face is striking but not exactly handsome. His narrow mouth inclines toward a contemptuous smirk; his hair is “neither blond nor red, but the exact color of a ripe orange rind.”

That doesn’t sound much like Gary Cooper, who played Roark in the 1949 film version of Rand’s novel. But it bears a striking resemblance to Ziggy Stardust, the most iconic of the characters whom the late David Bowie portrayed in the idiosyncratic combination of sound and vision that defined his career. According to Robert Dean Lurie, this similarity not coincidental. In his e-book We Can Be Heroes, Lurie argues that Bowie was a champion of “radical individualism” inspired not just by Rand but also by Nietzsche, Kerouac, and perhaps even Edmund Burke.

Lurie is not the first writer to find a deeper significance in Bowie’s penchant for unorthodox chord structures and weird looks. Like Bob Dylan, Bowie is a perennial subject of critical interpretation because he was so much smarter and more deliberate in his artistic choices than other rock stars. Lurie acknowledges that it is unclear what Bowie really knew about the sources to which he alluded in songs and interviews. Nevertheless he was a serious reader who treated his music and performances as experiments with ideas rather than expressions of his ostensibly true self.

Bowie has also attracted interest as one of relatively few pop culture figures to express sympathy for the authoritarian right. Diamond Dogs, an album inspired by Orwell’s 1984, begins with an announcement to a cheering crowd that “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, it’s genocide.” Bowie’s flirtation with dark politics received its peak in the mid-1970s, when he assumed the persona of the “Thin White Duke”. This dissolute aristocrat combined a look evocative of the Weimar Republic with occasional gestures of outright fascism.

Bowie eventually renounced these gestures, which he blamed on a bout of truly prodigious drug consumption. But he never lived down his reputation as an avatar of reactionary modernism. According to Lurie, Station to Station—the classic record Bowie released around this time—reflects the existence of “a number of ‘stations’ across the continuum of the philosophical right: radical liberty, or freedom, positioned at one end; Burke’s careful balancing of forward movement against the lessons of history and tradition inhabiting the middle; and at the other extreme an impulse toward authoritarianism that can devolve into fascism.” As the Thin White Duke, Bowie suggested that the unbound individual stands and unlimited state are closely related: both reject the networks of custom and tradition that distinguish moral and political responsibility from the mere absence of restraint.

Bowie seems to have recovered a more salutary balance in his later years. He stopped using drugs, established a stable domestic life, and even became something of a small-c conservative. The biographer Christopher Sandford recently wrote in TAC that the mature Bowie cultivated the image of a benevolent country gentleman. Contrary to all expectations, Thin White Duke turned into Lord Grantham.

Although its basic outlines are familiar, Lurie tells the story of Bowie’s transformation clearly and engagingly. The question is whether Bowie’s performance art should really be characterized as a kind of philosophical argument.

I am skeptical that this is a useful way of understanding Bowie’s significance. His “changes”, as he called them, have received lavish attention from critics and obituarists. As Rod Liddle has pointed out in The Spectator, however, these tributes ignore the fact that Bowie was far from the only rock star to play around with costume, aesthetics, and musical styles. Outside of the most grimly sincere subgenres, musicians change their images about as often as ordinary people change their shirts. The reason isn’t radical individualism so much as Rand’s other great obsession: the pursuit of wealth.

It’s true that Bowie portrayed his characters with a sort of crazed seriousness. But that isn’t really what made them memorable. Taken on their own terms, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke are laughable. They lived—and continue to live—because they were the vehicles for some of the most memorable pop music of the last 50 years. What distinguished Bowie from imitators like Slade, in other words, is that he was a brilliant songwriter and arranger who had the good sense to employ some of the best players and producers in the business.

Take one of Bowie’s most famous songs, “Life on Mars” from 1971’s Hunky Dory. Although they express a quasi-aristocratic contempt for “the mice in their million hordes”, the lyrics are essentially doggerel. What makes the song work is the chorus, in which Bowie’s vocal goes up nearly an octave, creating an unexpected and nearly intolerable tension. That kind of technique is what made Bowie a genius—not half-digested references to Nietzsche.

In fact, Bowie was at his most eloquent when he was saying virtually nothing. Two of his strongest records, Low and Heroes, are heavily influenced by ambient music and contains long stretches of electronic drones or Bowie chanting in a nameless gibberish. It sounds better than it reads. On Hunky Dory, Bowie asked his audience to consider whether there might be life on Mars. Low and Heroes actually took them there.

Bowie’s later work includes some interesting material. Even so, his reputation rests almost entirely on music made between 1971 and 1977. Ziggy Stardust warned, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” Although he continued to record until soon before his death in January of this year, this prophecy nearly describes to his own career.

It doesn’t diminish Bowie’s achievement to doubt that he was a prophet of radical individualism. Rather, it is to place that achievement in its appropriate field—music—while leaving philosophy and literature to the philosophers and writers. The real question, it seems to me, is how Bowie was to transcend the inevitable banality of pop lyricism, making his listeners feel that they too can be heroes in a way that words alone would be unable to do. Answering it would honor not only Bowie, but also Nietzsche, who wrote that “life without music is simply an error, exhausting, an exile.” Rather than driving a wedge between individuals, Bowie brought us home to ourselves. 

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

The Problem With Ideas

Rep. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Paul Ryan gave a speech yesterday on “the state of American politics”. It wasn’t very good, and Daniel Larison ably criticizes it here.

The problem wasn’t just Ryan’s refusal to speak the name of Donald Trump, whose  campaign was the obvious occasion for his remarks. It was the curiously abstract perspective that he offered in alternative to Trump’s vitriolic populism. By my count, Ryan referred to “ideas” more than twenty times in less than fifteen minutes. He never used the word “interest” and offered just one example of an idea with significant consequences for many Americans: the Kemp-Roth tax reform of 1981.

Ryan’s emphasis on ideas–and antique ones at that–reflects the weakness of the conservative movement. Trump, Clinton, and Sanders enthusiastically appeal to citizens’ interests in economic stability, national security, and group representation. Movement conservatives, on the other hand, approach politics as a legal brief or seminar in political philosophy.

Ryan contends that this intellectualized style is consistent with our tradition of government. America, he claims, was founded on an idea. Therefore, polite discussion about principles is the appropriate currency of politics.

That’s not how the Framers saw it. In Federalist 10, Publius argues that conflict between opposed and sometimes irreconciliable interests is the essence of politics:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

Ryan may be reluctant to admit the role of interests because of his Kempist optimism that there’s some set of policies that benefit rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and uncredentialed alike. Philosophical disputes are central, on this view, because everyone’s interests are fundamentally aligned. But what if there is no universal good in which all can hope to share? In that case, we can’t avoid asking who really benefits from any given measure.

Ryan is right to insist that conflicts between interests be resolved institutionally rather than by disorderly means. But our institutions presume that interests are real and that it’s usually impossible to satisfy them all. The Framers, in other words, knew that politics is about choosing winners and losers. In that respect, Trump understands their legacy better than Paul Ryan.

Neoconservatism Died So Trump Could Live

Michael Lind argues that the Trump phenomenon is the result of neoconservatives’ abdication of responsibility. According to Lind, figures like Irving Kristol once defended (white) working class interests. But:

…in the last quarter century many of the blue collar voters who had been integrated into the FDR-to-LBJ Democrats and then became “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s have had no intellectuals or policy wonks of their own, no think tanks and magazines that respected their values and interests. Organized labor, which once represented their interests, is nearly extinct outside of the public sector. The cultural left despises and vilifies working-class white men as privileged bigots, period. Neoliberal “New Democrats” focus on an audience of tech billionaires and Wall Street financiers. Conservatives praise the service of working-class men and women in uniform—but God forbid that the same heroic veterans should ask for a raise or a higher Social Security benefit or try to join a union or vote for paid family leave. Lacking any establishment advocates and sympathetic intellectuals, on left, right or center, many white working class Americans have therefore turned to demagogic outsiders like Trump. Where else are they to go?

Lind is too charitable to his former boss. Rather than a coherent movement, Kristol’s neoconservatism was an alliance of convenience based on the requirements of the Cold War. Neoconservative instincts in domestic and foreign policy were linked by the assumption that a broadly prosperous America would possess the moral resolve and economic resources to defeat Communism. With the Soviet challenge removed, neoconservatives lost the political glue that held them together.

That explains why neoconservatism in its original sense vanished almost overnight. After 1989, neoconservatives who were sincerely concerned about the working class, such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan drifted back toward the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Although they had provided intellectual ammunition to the DLC, these figures ended up on Clinton’s left.

Those whose main interest lay in international hegemony, on other other hand, drifted toward the conservative movement. Like Kristol himself, they were happy to trade their previous enthusiasm for a limited welfare state for the more reliable support of an interventionist foreign policy they found among Republicans.

There were a few exceptions to the bifurcation of neoconservatism. In 1997, David Brooks proposed a national greatness conservatism that would reunify liberals and hawks. But with Communism gone, Brooks was unable to explain the point of greatness. He acknowledged in his famous article that “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.”

The greatness Trump invokes is something very different than this shallow appeal to energy for its own sake. Rather than the moral equivalent of war, it’s about apparently small things: meaningful work, economic stability, ordered communities. Neoconservatives defended these small things when they they could be used as weapons in a great ideological struggle. Trump treats them as desirable in themselves.

To be clear, I don’t think Trump’s signature combination of nasty rhetoric and self-proclaimed genius for negotiation are likely to secure these goods. But I understand why people are excited by the fact that he seems to take them seriously. Lind is right that conservatives who want to succeed in politics and policy need to learn how to talk about small things without stooping to Trump’s level. In doing that, we have to depart from the neoconservative example rather than imitating it.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

The Politics of Magical Thinking

Denis Kuvaev /
Denis Kuvaev /

James K.A. Smith made a valuable point on Twitter yesterday:

The longterm decline in participation in local government and civil associations is an important piece of the “why Trump?” puzzle. The less experience citizens have in the practical work of politics, the more mysterious it becomes to them. Rather than (mostly) honest people trying to do a tough job, politicians are seen as wizards who command dark and incomprehensible powers. If they fail, it is not due to the difficulty of  the task, but because they capriciously refuse to make full use of their abilities.

Social scientists have been debating the cause of declining civic participation for years. Contributing factors include residential mobility, the entry of women to the workforce, the decline of local news coverage.

But the deeper issue is the centralization of power. As Robert Nisbet wrote (quoting José Ortega y Gasset), people “do not come together to be together; they come together to do something together.” When the national government asserts its authority over an ever broader range of issues, ordinary citizens and the small duties they can discharge become irrelevant.

For the last century, progressives have been critics of local government and civil society. Not without justification, they’ve attacked the corruption, inefficiency, and injustice of political parties, town councils, private charities, and proposed national solutions to otherwise overwhelming problems. Conservatives bear responsibility, too. Dogmatic hostility to unions has helped marginalize the most effective form of association available to workers in large enterprises.

The problem is that national solutions have rarely been as easy or successful as promised, while purely individual efforts are impotent. Rather than qualified confidence in energetic politics, centralization promotes a vaguely schizophrenic combination of hope that government can do everything with the knowledge it’s failed in the past. Those are the conditions in which magical thinking thrives. It’s especially appealing when the institutions that once allowed citizens to exercise control over their common affairs are neutered or moribund.

Trump, in other words, is just a symptom. The disease is older, and also more frightening. Once we’ve lost our capacity for meaningful self-government it’s almost impossible to get it back. As Tocqueville foresaw nearly two hundred years ago:

It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity. I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Are Trump Supporters Authoritarians?

Yes, according to the political scientist Matthew McWilliams. Writing in Vox, McWilliams argues that “Trump won South Carolina because of the overwhelming, unyielding support of authoritarian voters.” McWilliams’s conclusion is based on a survey of likely voters in the week before the South Carolina primary and a body of scholarship on authoritarian attitudes (major figures in the field include Robert Altmeyer, Stanley Feldman, and Marc Hetherington).

The piece has been widely circulated on social media. Most readers are probably unaware that the idea that “authoritarianism” plays a significant role in American politics has a long and controversial history.

The concept was introduced for academic purposes by researchers associated with the Institute for Social Research, founded in Frankfurt in the 1920s and moved to New York in 1934. In research leading to the publication of The Authoritarian Personality in 1950, Theodor Adorno and other researchers attempted to provide an objective measure of individuals’ susceptibility to fascism. The result was the F-scale: a battery of questions purporting to identify anti-democratic leanings. You can test your own authoritarian tendencies on a digital version here.

The F-scale and associated analyses had serious problems. One was their connection to a Freudian theory of personality that obsessed the Frankfurt School but has not aged well (authoritarians were supposed to suffer from uncontrollable ids and to seek the help of external ego in maintaining psychological balance). Another problem was political bias. Reflecting Adorno’s conviction that authoritarians were naturally inclined to the right (at least in the in the United States), the F-Scale includes leading questions about the role of business and religious authority.

To avoid these problems, more recent research concentrates on attitudes toward childrearing. The authoritarianism index McWilliams adopts is based on preferences for “respect for elders” over “independence”, “obedience” over “self-reliance”, “good manners” over “curiosity”, and “being well-behaved” over “being considerate”.

These values are supposed to be separate from politics and social background in a way that the F-scale and some its successor theories are not. It’s not clear that it succeeds.

After all, the new index measures approval for some old-fashioned ideas about raising children. These ideas were once widespread, but have become more characteristic of the working class, especially in the South. To be “authoritarian”, in other other words, means little more than endorsing the folk wisdom of a class and place that many academics find alien.

You might also ask how “real” these values are. People often respond to surveys by giving what they regard as the appropriate answer, rather than the one that most accurately reflects their behavior. This “social desirability bias” helps explain why people report voting and going to church more often than they actually do them.

So people who express authoritarian attitudes may not be more authoritarian in practice than anyone else (they may even endorse authoritarian values precisely because their lives are disordered). Without some connection to other behaviors, the finding that people who like tough talk about children also like tough talk about immigrants and terrorists is not very suprising.

Finally, studies of authoritarianism almost always single out conservative and populist views for psychological explanation. In this case, the implication is that approval for Trump rests on an odd and disturbing mental profile–but not support for other politicians or positions. But couldn’t progressive views rest on a distinctive and potentially dangerous perspective, perhaps involving inadequate appreciation for discipline and indifference to risk? And what about the authoritarian basis of demands for censorship on college campuses? With the exception of Jonathan Haidt, not many social scientists seem interested in finding out.

These observations don’t discredit McWilliams’ specific findings, which are likely to be more qualified in their academic presentation than in the popular version. But they give ample reason to doubt that authoritarianism is very useful as an explanatory concept. Like many others, I think it’s more helpful to understand Trump as the latest expression of an old and influential “Jacksonian” tendency in American life. Sometimes politics really is about politics, rather than a proxy for other factors.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

The Problem With Free College

gary yim /

Free college sounds terrific. Bernie Sanders has made it a central theme of his campaign. It was once the norm at our best public universities. They still do it in Germany and other European countries. Why not make American great again by eliminating increasingly burdensome tuition and other fees?

There are a number of arguments against free college. Among other concerns, it would subsidize families that can afford to pay and threaten institutional diversity. Perhaps the most serious problem, though, is that Americans don’t actually want the kind of stripped-down higher education that could be provided at public expense.

The European comparison is useful. A Washington Post piece recently praised Germany for allowing students from around the world to enroll at its universities without charge. What German universities offer in exchange was not discussed. More specifically, the piece didn’t mention the services German universities usually don’t provide.  Here is a partial list:

  • Sports.
  • Dorms.
  • Elaborate food and other amenities.
  • Subsidized clubs and extracurricular activities.
  • Academic remediation.
  • Flexibility in majors.

German universities, in other words, are different from what most Americans have in mind when they think of college. Even the most famous are fairly spartan institutions, in which most students live at home or in private housing, with a minimum of academic and personal oversight. Classes are generally large lectures at which attendance is strictly optional. Graduation is based on rigorous exams rather than modular coursework. And students choose their subjects of concentration prior to enrollment, and switching is not easy.

These features are part of the reason German universities are free. Yes, Germans are more willing to support public higher education than Americans. But that’s not because they’re wildly profligate (a notably unGerman characteristic). It’s also because German universities are more limited in their tasks, and therefore cheaper to run, than their American counterparts. By the way, they don’t offer tenure to most of the faculty either.

That doesn’t mean that German universities are a bad deal. On the contrary, they’re excellent for academically prepared, emotionally mature students. But relatively few American students would flourish on the same terms. And they’re certainly not what Americans are encouraged to expect by the higher ed marketing industry.

We probably could have free college at a reasonable cost if more universities were subject to these limitations. But I’m not sure we would like the result. It’s one thing to hope for a free lunch. It’s another to expect to be served the whole menu.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Make the Parties Great Again

Three Democratic bosses of Maryland seated and drinking from mugs.
Three Democratic bosses of Maryland seated and drinking from mugs.

Why hasn’t the Republican “establishment” stopped Trump? One theory holds that party elders aren’t so anti-Donald as they seem. Trump is obnoxious, certainly. But he also a dealmaker, and therefore the kind of person with whom transactional politicians could do business. The real threat, this theory holds, is Ted Cruz. So maybe the party is willing to accept Trump to avoid a hostile takeover by ideological purists.

Jonathan Chait has a different explanation. He argues party leaders are unable to organize a united front because they’re too conservative for their own good. According to Chait:

The Republican Party has faced a collective-action problem: A consolidation of the Establishment candidates is in all of their interests, but it is in the interest of every individual candidate (and their supporters) to stay in the race. A famous essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons” once explored the nature of a collective-action problem, using the metaphor of a common meadow where farmers bring their cattle to graze, each one letting its cows eat more until all of the grass had disappeared. Republicans by their nature have difficulty grasping collective-action problems, which form the philosophical basis for much government action. If they fail, it will be because they placed too much faith in the invisible hand to sort it out.

Chait’s suggestion is more plausible than the hypothesis that the donor class and their clients are covertly pro-Trump. But it doesn’t come to grips with the more fundamental reason they haven’t been able to stop Trump. The issue is not lack of will or philosophical delusions. To put it simply, they haven’t done it because they can’t.

In the first place, the party has little leverage against a self-financing, universally recognized candidate with no evident interest in acquiring jobs and other perks for his friends and supporters. Since Trump doesn’t need the party, he has no reason to accept its guidance. That’s a big part of his appeal to voters.

Even if the party can’t muscle Trump, perhaps it could force out weaker candidates, consolidating its influence around one or two alternatives. The trouble is, other candidates are not much more dependent on the national party than Trump. All raise and spend their own money with little oversight. Many have been out of office for some time or will retire after the election, which means they’re not counting on the party to advance their careers. And media attention depends increasingly on outrageous quotes rather than the approval of Washington- and New York-based gatekeepers. Since the party can’t do much to promote or threaten their interests, they have little incentive to bow to the party’s will.

These aren’t just Republican problems. If it were up to Reince Priebus’s Democratic counterparts, the Bernie Sanders campaign would not have gotten off the ground. But what can they do about a challenger who doesn’t need their money and doesn’t want their patronage? Not much more than wait to see how things turn out.

Contrary to Chait’s suggestion, conservative ideas are not to blame for the parties’ incapacity. Although they have been further weakened by recent developments, including the deployment of great fortunes in politics and the advent of social media, progressives have been trying eliminate the parties as serious players for more than a hundred years.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, their targets were the urban machines, which progressives regarded as corrupt and incompetent. By World War II, the welfare state and good government rules had almost finished off the old bosses. In the 1950s and ’60s, reformers turned against the Southern Democrats, who exercised disproportionate influence in presidential nominations and Congress. The introduction of primaries to select convention delegates and modifications of the legislative process eliminated these obstacles to progressive candidates and policies. After Watergate, finally, liberal Democrats made it much more difficult for the parties to raise and spend money. The hope was that more regulated parties would be cleaner parties.

These changes were generally well-intentioned. But they had the unintended result of making candidates reliant on their own resources to win election and responsible for making their own way after they took office. The parties could control their members so long as they could offer rewards for good behavior and threaten punishments for noncompliance. Deprived of the carrot as well as the stick, they became little more than letterheads.

So Trump is not only a consequence of the GOP’s failure to offer any plausible responses to voter’s actual problems. His success has been made possible by decades of attempts to departisanize American politics in the expectation that more independent candidates would be more likely to pursue the common good. Unfortunately, absence of party discipline leaves politicians free to express their personal and pursue their political hobbyhorses. A serious and long-term response to Trump must consider ways to make the parties great again.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Adversary Politics and the Invisible Establishment

The Bush Center / Flickr
The Bush Center / Flickr

Earlier this week, Damon Linker diagnosed an odd phenomenon. No matter how much influence or popularity they enjoy, grandees of the conservative movement including the editor of National Review and Rush Limbaugh deny being part of the “establishment”. Linker questions their grasp of reality rather than their judgment:

I don’t doubt that Lowry and his ideological compatriots really believe this. But it’s nonsense, and the nonsense isn’t benign. It obscures the reality of who exercises power on the right — and allows those who wield it to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their reckless rhetoric and foolish mistakes.

This is an important point that helps explain conservatives’ refusal to take responsibility for a series of political disasters over the last few decades. But the cognitive dissonance isn’t limited to the right. Planned Parenthood threw a fit when Bernie Sanders described it as “part of the establishment”. According to the executive vice president of an organization that possesses assets worth close to two billion dollars and is supported by virtually every Democratic politician,

It’s regrettable and surprising to hear Sen. Sanders describe the very groups that fight on behalf of millions of often marginalized Americans — people who still have to fight for their most basic rights — as representing the “establishment”[.]

So there’s more going on than conservative illusions. The denialism that characterizes our politics is a consequence of the fact that both wings of today’s elite have roots in adversary politics.

As Linker points out, the Goldwater movement was the seminal moment for conservatives. For progressives, it was the personal liberation and anti-war campaigns that emerged just a few years later. Members of today’s establishment can’t be honest with themselves because they either came of political age as opponents of the status quo or nostalgically identify with those who did.

It’s impossible to talk people out of their basic self-understanding. What we can do is refuse to play along when the rich, influential, or well-connected pose as outsiders. That goes for Ivy League professors, national media figures, and presidential candidates on the right and the left. And…maybe even Donald Trump.

Why Isn’t My Professor Conservative?

The Heterodox Academy blog is circulating an overview of political opinion among college faculty. As the graph shows, more professors lean to the left today than even a few decades ago. HERI-graph-left-tiltAt National Review, Michael Strain raises questions about this trend. As a member of the mere 5% of professors who identify as conservative, I have some ideas about the answers. My thoughts are interspersed with Strain’s questions below.

1. What drives this? Is there much actual discrimination against conservatives in hiring and tenure decisions at universities? Or is the relative absence of conservatives in humanities and social science departments almost entirely driven by self-selection — is it instead the case that people who go into Ph.D. programs are majority liberal, and that people who graduate with Ph.D.s and who choose to go into faculty positions are (nearly) exclusively liberal?

There’s no single cause. As the original post points out, this is partly a matter of generational replacement. The cohort of professors who started their careers in the’50s and early ’60s was more balanced, with a lot of moderates as well as some conservatives. When they retired, they were replaced by Baby Boomers who came of age in the heyday of the student movement. Some radical activists and sympathizers liked college so much they stayed on. That explains part of the shift around the early ’90s.

Paul Krugman raises a second possibility: that the right took a turn for the extreme that alienated erstwhile sympathizers. The problem with Krugman’s analysis is that it depends on a conflation of conservatism with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. A more plausible explanation that emphasizes political events is that the big dip in conservative identification after 2004 reflects opposition to the Iraq War.

Like most conservatives, Strain wonders whether discrimination plays a role. My sense is that there’s not much intentional exclusion. In the natural sciences and many professional fields, politics would be very unlikely to come up in the hiring and promotion process.

Ideology is more obvious in the humanities and social sciences. When talking about discrimination in these disciplines, it’s important to distinguish among “flavors” of conservatism. Speaking broadly, economic libertarianism or foreign-policy hawkishness are considered eccentric but tolerable. Public criticism of the sexual revolution, on the other hand, is not okay. Of all the tribes of the right, conservative Christians face the biggest obstacles.

There may be another contributing factor: the adjunctification of the faculty. During the same period the graph covers, instructors working off the tenure track have become a considerable majority. Adjuncting is not an experience that promotes enthusiasm for conservative principles. A more precarious faculty is a likely to be a more left-leaning one.

2. Let’s say it’s driven by selection. Then why are progressives so much more likely than conservatives to get Ph.D.s? What is it about being a professor and doing research and teaching that are more attractive to liberals than conservatives? What is it about the university environment?

All these considerations have to be taken into account when we think about self-selection. Conservatives are less likely to pursue academic careers because they don’t think they’ll find success in an already Darwinian job market.

They’re probably right, and not just because of discrimination. A more fundamental issue is that conservatives tend to be skeptics about the progressive epistemology that defines the modern university. According to this vision, the goal is to “discover new knowledge”. As a result, research is treated as more important than teaching, and teaching is understood as an assault on prejudice rather than the continuation of tradition.

This conception of the academic enterprise makes  it tough to get through grad school if you see teaching as your main work or are inclined toward curatorial forms of scholarship (even though research is a relatively small element of most academic positions). Conservative social scientists may have fewer objections to this bias toward novelty. But it’s a real challenge for conservatives in the humanities.

3. Is overwhelming liberalism among humanities and social science faculty actually a significant problem? Does it affect research and teaching in the social sciences and the humanities in a non-trivial way?

It is a problem. The absence of conservatives means important questions won’t be asked and possible answers won’t be proposed and tested. A conservative presence is also important for ensuring that the curriculum includes certain classic works and unfashionable topics or methods. Finally, in a monolithically leftist academy, students won’t be exposed to a wide range of arguments and perspectives, leaving them dependent on conventional wisdom. In this respect, a stronger conservative presence is actually essential to the progressive task of challenging prejudice.

On the other hand, these are not the biggest problems the academy faces. More serious than the relative absence of political conservatives is the double threat to liberal education posed by corporatization and grievance politics. Conservatives might wish that students would read more Dante, say, or Tocqueville. But the real danger is that administrators and social justice warriors will agree that they don’t have to read anything they don’t want to.

The real question is what to do about this. Strain argues—and I agree—that ideological affirmative action is a bad idea. A more promising strategy is to reinvigorate conservative intellectual life outside the university, paying more attention to scholarship and the arts and less to politics. We’ll have a stronger case for admission to the academy when more of us make arguments or create works that can’t be ignored.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Two Threats to Intellectual Freedom

Matej Kastelic /
Matej Kastelic /

Intellectual freedom is in danger on American campuses. Although they’ve highlighted some real grievances, the recent wave of protests include unprecedented demands for uniformity on controversial issues related to race. Big changes may take longer than protestors would like, particularly on matters subject to faculty governance. But residential life administrators are enthusiastically proclaiming the new orthodoxy in areas under their influence.

It’s important to publicize attempts to exclude politically incorrect beliefs and practices, which sometimes collapse under scrutiny. But social justice activists and their bureaucratic allies are not the only threats to free thought and speech. At many universities, presidents and trustees with business backgrounds are trying to replace relatively unsupervised with scripted content delivery.

A recent incident at the University of Iowa reflects this development. At a meeting of the Staff Council, university president Bruce Harreld reportedly told faculty that there was “one way” to prepare for class and that instructors who failed to do so “should be shot”.

The ensuing controversy has revolved around the shooting comment, which Harreld now denies having made. Worse than this stupid but essentially harmless dead metaphor, however, is Harreld’s background assumption that education is about offering up  previously prepared goods for students to consume. It’s worth noting that Harreld, a former computer executive who was chosen for the Iowa job through a murky selection process, has minimal academic experience and appears confused about what universities do.

The two threats to intellectual freedom are not equally distributed. Political correctness is a bigger problem at elite private universities that enjoy enormous prestige but enroll only a tiny fraction of students (these schools are also not subject to the First Amendment). The corporatization of the curriculum is a greater risk at public universities, particularly below the flagship level, that are less glamorous but do most of the actual teaching. Conservatives who care about higher education can, and should, oppose both tendencies. It is no victory to prevent the rule of fanatics by transferring power to philistines.

How to Fix College Admissions

Flickr Commons

The Supreme Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin again yesterday. Since the arguments were much the same as the first time, it’s hard to predict what the justices will do. The paradox, essentially, is that the Court has said universities have a constitutionally permissible interest in enrolling a racially diverse class, but prohibited them from using numerical quotas. So they have to design admissions policies that just happen to produce the desired level of diversity, which cannot actually be defined without violating the 14th Amendment.

The problem with this strategy is not that it lets in vast numbers of unqualified students. It is that universities’ commitment to maintaining a specific demographic balance without applying quotas encourages opacity, and even downright dishonesty, in the admissions process.

You might say: universities simply should be prohibited from pursuing racial diversity. The thing is, they’re going to do it anyway, using indirect means if necessary.

Moreover, it’s not just “underrepresented minorities” who have a better shot at admission than their grades and scores suggest. So do athletes, legacies, and students from rural states, among others. Should universities also be banned from pursuing a social and geographic mix? Some critics of affirmative action argue admission should be strictly based on academic criteria. But I’m not convinced our great universities would be improved if they were more like CalTech.

There’s a better way to make college admissions more open and more fair. We could replace the mysterious art of crafting a class with a lottery for all qualified applicants.

In its simplest version, the process would work like this. The application would involve a checklist of more or less objective, externally verifiable criteria. These might include GPA above a certain cutoff, scores of 4 of 5 on a given number of AP tests, and so on. Extracurricular achievements could be considered. For example, there might be a box to be checked by applicants who played a varsity sport.  The application could even ask about socio-economic status, allowing applicants to indicate that their parents had not attended college or that they grew up in a high-poverty census tract.

Suppose the checklist contained ten criteria. Applicants who satisfied, say, six of them would be entered into a lottery for admission. Universities would then draw an appropriate number of admits. The whole exercise would take about two seconds.

In addition to its appealing transparency, a lottery would be extremely cheap. Under this plan, universities wouldn’t have to maintain a large and highly paid admissions office. All they’d need would be a good website on which applicants could enter their information and a few IT workers to manage the database.

A lottery would also relieve stress on applicants and their parents. Rather than driving themselves nuts pursuing all possible achievements, high school students could concentrate on doing well in their strongest subjects or activities.

Critics might argue a lottery would reduce academic quality. But there’s no reason to think students taken at random from a qualified pool would be worse than those selected in head-to-head comparisons. In fact, Harvard already attracts applications from more valedictorians than it can accept.

What about diversity? In the long run, the lottery would produce a student body proportional to the demographics of the applicant pool (which would not necessarily be the same as the general population). If universities aimed to enroll classes that more closely reflected the country as whole, they could encourage applications from underrepresented groups or regions and work with K-12 schools to increase the number of applicants who met the benchmarks. Such efforts would correspond to the original meaning of affirmative action and would not require invidious racial distinctions.

The lottery plan isn’t perfect. One concern is that alumni would hate it, since it would make snobbery about where they went to college harder to justify. This could reduce donations, forcing universities to make more prudent use of their existing resources.

More broadly, elite university universities might lose a bit of their cachet. They would still attract some of the world’s most brilliant students. But they could no longer claim that their careful selection of an exquisitely curated class gives them special moral authority.

Now that I think them over, these might not be such terrible problems.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Universities Meet Protest With Process

Chinese mandarins  Wikimedia Commons
Chinese mandarins Wikimedia Commons

The protests that have struck many college campuses over the last few months have been a disturbing spectacle. The exaggerated “demands” of student activists and the groveling of many administrators and some faculty reflect an institutional culture that is, at best, ambivalent about traditional activities of teaching and learning. Rod Dreher and many other bloggers have discussed specific examples: a more comprehensive list can be found here.

But things are not quite as bad as outsiders to academia imagine. One reason is that the byzantine structure of academic governance makes it difficult to change anything, let alone impose the sweeping mandates that the protestors have in mind. At many universities, administrators seem to be counting on this tendency toward inertia to rescue them from keeping their own promises.

Take Emory, which Rod discussed here. In response to a demand for mandatory reporting of professors’ alleged racism, the Emory administration issued the following statement:

Modifications to the course evaluation form are a core component of faculty governance in each school/college.

Each academic Dean will be asked to establish a process in the school/college to review and revise current course evaluations (e.g., add the recommended open-ended questions) as well as make other revisions identified as part of the review. Next, these revised course evaluations will be shared through existing mechanisms such as the Council of Deans, the University Senate, and the ongoing assessments on student learning…The Office of Planning and Budgeting will collect information on the faculty annual evaluations as part of the annual reporting requirement for each school, specifically the nature and number of negative actions regarding faculty members.

Rod describes this statement as a surrender to the thought police. And it may turn out that way… I don’t know. But that’s not actually what the statement says. Allow me to provide a translation from academese into English.

Modifications to the course evaluation form are a core component of faculty governance in each school/college.

Changes to the course evaluation forms have to be approved by the various faculties, on a separate basis in each school or college. The administration cannot impose such changes unilaterally, and takes no responsibility for doing so.

Each academic Dean will be asked to establish a process in the school/college to review and revise current course evaluations (e.g., add the recommended open-ended questions) as well as make other revisions identified as part of the review.

The dean of each college will appoint a committee to overhaul the evaluations. The revisions might include the questions mentioned in the demand, but they also might not. Any changes submitted to the relevant faculty under that college’s existing procedures would be products of the committee report, not read off the demands.

Next, these revised course evaluations will be shared through existing mechanisms such as the Council of Deans, the University Senate, and the ongoing assessments on student learning…

The meaning of this sentence isn’t totally clear, but it suggests an additional layer of consultation and coordination.

The Office of Planning and Budgeting will collect information on the faculty annual evaluations as part of the annual reporting requirement for each school, specifically the nature and number of negative actions regarding faculty members.

The Office of Planning and budget will record whatever information the evaluations collect, whether they include new questions or not.

So what’s the bottom line? That Emory will establish a procedure that is expected to last months or years, with lots of veto points along the way. It’s possible that this will lead to the kind of oversight the protestors want. But it’s more likely to yield vague guidelines that will allow the administration to preen “diversity” without provoking a revolt of the tenured faculty, who are rarely conservative but usually don’t like meddling with their classrooms.

Smothering illiberal demands in process is a risky strategy. It would be better to reassert a core element of academic freedom: the right of instructors to present controversial ideas in their own classrooms without risking official sanction. But that would require a reconception of the university as a place for serious study rather than a playland for personal exploration and progressive politics . In the meantime, we’ll have to hope the process is as long as convoluted as possible.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

The RJC Farce

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Republican Jewish Coalition held its forum for presidential candidates on Thursday. With the exception of Rand Paul, all of the 14 remaining candidates made appearances. The speeches were mostly predictable expressions of opposition to Islamism and support for Israel. But they also included amusing gaffes, such as Jim Gilmore explaining that he prepared for the event by watching Schindler’s List.

What was the point of this venture into the absurd? Not to attract Jewish voters. Fewer than one in three American Jews identifies as a Republican. While that number has increased slightly over the last decade, Jews overall are declining as a portion of the electorate. Politicians don’t usually risk making fools of themselves to win over a small portion of a shrinking demographic. There had to be other targets.

One of those targets can be found on the RJC’s masthead. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates in previous elections, and is likely to do so again. Adelson himself was not present. But the forum is widely considered a kind of public audition for his support.

The other target audience was evangelical conservatives, who will make a real difference in the general election as well as the primaries. For many of these voters, “love” for Jews is an article of faith, as well as a litmus test for candidates.

Successful appeals to these audiences are more likely to reduce Republicans’ share of the Jewish vote than to increase it. Israel is less important to most American Jews than it is to Adelson and his allies. And polls suggest they actually support the administration’s Middle East policies, including the Iran deal. So Ted Cruz’s argument that Jews should ignore their disagreements with his social views in favor of his foreign policy probably won’t work.

Jews are concerned about the resurgence anti-Semitism around the world, so they might be expected to welcome Christians’ sincere opposition to Jew hatred. The problem is that they find effusions of eternal love creepy rather than reassuring. Marco Rubio’s invocation of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” was more measured, but is unlikely to be more effective. Although it was evidently well-intentioned, this rhetoric reminds many of Jews of a long history of religious cooptation.

Republicans have been expecting a breakthrough in Jewish support for decades. Despite or because of the RJC’s efforts, it probably won’t happen any time soon.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Why America Isn’t Socialist

Before it became a favorite trope of Republican presidential candidates, “American exceptionalism” belonged to the left. The phrase referred to the United States’ puzzling divergence from the pattern of development proposed by Karl Marx. According to Marx, powerful socialist movements or labor parties should arise in advanced economies as workers recognized the opposition of interests between themselves and capital. Why did this fail to occur in America?

Jack Ross is the latest to raise this question, joining an honor roll of intellectuals including Friedrich Engels, Werner Sombart, H.G. Wells, Daniel Bell, and more recently Gary Marks and Seymour Martin Lipset. His book—ostensibly a history of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), which existed formally from 1901 to 1972—reconsiders the successes and, mostly, failures of socialist organizing from the end of the Civil War up to the present. Ross argues that the fundamental error of American socialism was its leaders’ refusal to build a political party on a foundation of unions and agricultural associations, as was done in Britain and Germany. The resulting split between labor and politics condemned the SPA to marginality.

Resisting the social and cultural approaches that dominate academic historiography, Ross argues that the main obstacle to American socialism was bad decisions taken by professional activists in conventions or meeting rooms. In Ross’s view, a terrible precedent was set in 1896 when the Populist Party endorsed the Democrat William Jennings Bryan rather than nominating Eugene Debs as its candidate for president. Debs then took his followers into the Social Democratic Party, a direct ancestor of the SPA, as a dissenting rump. Although it enjoyed electoral success in a few regional strongholds, the SPA would never really get established at the national level.

As the story proceeds into the 20th century, Ross blames sinister forces for pushing the socialist movement toward cooperation with the two-party system. Reversing the conventional interpretation, he associates this “conservative” tendency with the Communists. Usually remembered as the radical wing of American socialism, Ross presents them as its collaborationist “right.”

Because Ross pays little attention to ideas and proceeds chronologically rather than analytically, it is not easy to understand the basis for this characterization. Apparently it rests on the observation that leading figures in the SPA were less enthusiastic about the centralized state than we might expect socialists to be. Drawing on the Jeffersonian tradition, they envisioned a socialist America as an economic democracy embodied by cooperative enterprises and local government rather than a centralized bureaucracy.

These Jeffersonian socialists knew from the experience of the Civil War that military conflict has centralizing and bureaucratizing consequences. They also recognized that overseas expansion was a recipe for permanent militarism. So anti-imperialism, if not outright pacifism, was an important part of their socialist vision. In a phrase Ross repeats throughout the book, they wanted America to be a republic, not an empire.

This vision was appealing to the Northern European immigrants, theologically liberal Protestants, and skilled workers who were central to America’s socialist movements before the First World War. But it was anathema to those self-styled radicals who took their cues from The Communist Manifesto. For enthusiasts of the early Marx, war and imperialism were actually desirable because they hastened the final crisis of capitalism and promoted economic rationalization.

Leon Trotsky was the seminal theorist of this position. During his sojourn in the United States in early 1917, Trotsky mocked American socialists as petit bourgeois dreamers who thought socialism could be achieved by winning elections and who opposed American entry to the First World War. He believed the true road to socialism lay in temporary support for elected governments until a tiny cadre of militants could seize control of the vast powers already consolidated in the state apparatus.

Ross argues that this strategy of boring from within explains the failure of the Socialist Party after World War I. A strong showing in the 1920 presidential election demonstrated the SPA’s resilience in the face of unprecedented harassment by the Wilson administration. But the SPA was hobbled by the defection of Communists to their own party and by the internal influence of doctrinaire Marxists who saw the best opportunity for promoting socialism in cooperation with the Democrats.

Most historians present the Popular Front of the 1930s, which combined support for the New Deal with opposition to Nazi Germany, as the apogee of the American left. Ross, on the other hand, sees it as the moment when American socialists sold their Jeffersonian birthright for a mess of Bolshevik pottage.

The hero of this part of Ross’s enormous book is Norman Thomas, the former Presbyterian clergyman from Ohio whose political and cultural background made him more sympathetic to the isolationists than to FDR in the run-up to World War II, particularly after Roosevelt’s election to an unprecedented third term. Thomas was among the most prominent supporters of the America First movement, which drew part of its membership from the Socialist-led Keep America Out of War Committee.

Noting this almost forgotten overlap between the Old Left and the Old Right, Ross speculates that “a Labor or Farmer-Labor Party, had it emerged before the Second World War, would have profoundly differed from postwar liberalism. It would have in all likelihood been a progressive-isolationist major party, having much more in common with so-called rightwing populism than Cold War liberalism.” Ross contends that such a party would have been more consistent with the historic aspirations of American socialism, and perhaps more appealing to ordinary citizens, than the vision of a welfare-warfare state that Communists shared with Wilson and Roosevelt.

Perhaps. But Ross’s focus on party leaders to the exclusion of the wider political setting obscures the hurdles that such a party would have faced. To begin with, noninterventionism was popular between the world wars. This does not mean socialism was popular. Ross doesn’t see how marginal the SPA was because he emphasizes its positions on foreign policy to the exclusion of its domestic agenda. He forgets that antimilitarism was not a goal in itself for the Socialists but part of a larger ideological package. thisarticleappears copy

Certainly this package included Jeffersonian elements. But it also called for public ownership of large portions of the economy. Despite their shared noninterventionism, then, the SPA was not as close to the Old Right as Ross suggests. It wasn’t as close to the mainstream of progressive politics either. For many Socialists, the New Deal was objectionable less because it was centralizing as such than because it addressed some of the side effects of capitalism without replacing the profit system. In this respect, Roosevelt’s policies really were closer to European corporatism than to Marxism.

But these distinctions held little interest to actual voters. The Socialists lost support to Communists and Democrats because these parties supported policies that appeared to be helping people in their everyday lives. This was particularly true for union members. In addition to FDR’s White House support for labor organization, unionists did well in the military buildup that preceded Pearl Harbor.

So there is little reason to think a party rooted in organized labor would have been consistently antimilitarist. It would also have been weak in the South, where unions were rare and farmers were not isolationists. Rather than a national party, the formation Ross imagines might not have been much bigger that than actual Farmer-Labor organization that the progressive Republican Robert La Follette and his family established in the upper Midwest. It would have been literally a middle-American radicalism.

Beyond counterfactuals, it is not obvious that the transformation of the SPA into a broad-based Labor-Farm party would have been a good thing. Norman Thomas’s noninterventionism and opposition to what Ross calls “state capitalism” were based on impeccable motives. But Thomas was wrong to think the United States could avoid war with Nazi Germany in the long run or that doing so was better than fighting. Ross quotes as a kind of prophecy the SPA’s 1940 platform, according to which:

Defeat of Hitler will be welcomed by all anti-fascists. But defeat of Hitler will mean the defeat of Hitlerism and a victory for democracy only if the roots of fascism and the war system are destroyed. The United States cannot contribute toward that end nor vindicate real democracy if it loses itself in the processes of war. If America enters the war, we shall be subjected to military dictatorship, the regimentation of labor and the ultimate economic collapse that must follow war. In an effort to ‘save democracy,’ we shall have destroyed its only remaining citadel.

Despite its many shortcomings, it is difficult to see Truman’s America in this grim forecast.


This book should probably end in 1952, when the SPA ran its last presidential campaign. It was a sad affair: Norman Thomas was unavailable to run because he was touring Asia at the expense of the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, having become a fellow traveler of Cold War liberalism. But Ross follows events up to 1972, when the party formally dissolved. This is because he wants to trace another genealogy: the emergence of neoconservatism from the sects that persisted after Thomas’s defection.

It is a kind of demonic-possession story. Having fatally weakened the SPA in the ’20s and ’30s, the Bolsheviks return to reanimate the corpse after the World War II. This time the villain is Max Shachtman, a Trotskyist who argued that the Soviet Union had become an obstacle to the very revolution that it had initiated. Shachtman and his followers urged socialists to work within the Democratic Party to promote a hard line against the USSR, as well as socialization of the domestic economy, rather than offering an electoral alternative. Their strategy of “realignment” attracted younger figures who became the public faces of socialism in the 1960s, most notably Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin.

The key fact for Ross is that the Shachtmanites belied their socialist rhetoric and the SPA’s legacy of antimilitarism by offering political cover for the welfare-warfare policies of Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson. By 1972, many of them supported Richard Nixon. Following the lead of former Communists who played prominent roles in the conservative movement of the 1950s, the strategic “right” of postwar socialism eventually found a new home on the political right in the 1970s.

This is a fascinating story, which Ross may be the first to treat as a continuation of the odyssey that begins with the Populists and the Knights of Labor. But it fits awkwardly with the four or five hundred pages that precede it. By the time Ross turns to the post-history of the SPA—a sequence of almost totally insignificant paper organizations—the number of names, groups, and journals in play has become overwhelming. Early socialists dreamed of a broad-based party that could attract support from millions of ordinary Americans. By the end, there were more factions than members.

So why wasn’t that dream realized? Strategic choices clearly played some part in the failure to establish a viable socialist party. So did official repression. Later on, socialists had to contend with the problem of co-optation, whether by Communists or Democrats. Ross documents all these factors. Yet an even more important consideration is almost entirely absent from his analysis: America’s ethnic and religious diversity. Socialism appeals to class as the defining fact of politics. It is most successful when people have few other major differences from each other.

This has never been the case in the United States. Even before the wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe that began in the 1870s, many Americans saw themselves as old stock or German or Irish, Catholic or Protestant, rather than as workers. There were some examples of pan-ethnic cooperation. But they were generally limited to specific industries or periods of economic depression.

Race was even more important. Blacks were America’s most exploited laborers, but they never embraced socialism to any significant extent. This was partly because their political activity was sharply restricted and partly because many early populists and socialists were white supremacists who limited black participation to racially segregated cells or discouraged it altogether. Due to the tragedy of America’s racial history, socialists lost a major source of potential support.

Finally, the leading representatives of American socialism may have been too American for their own good. The Jeffersonian elements Ross prizes were most appealing to middle-class Midwestern Protestants. As Lipset and Marks have pointed out, anti-statist themes were less exciting to a working class composed of new immigrants, particularly Catholics. They responded to Father Coughlin, not Norman Thomas.

It is possible that better luck and more skillful tactics could have overcome these obstacles. But it is not clear how much that would have mattered in the end. Despite their antimilitarist beginnings, socialist parties in most of Europe supported both World Wars and then embraced much the same blend of social welfare, economic corporatism, and militarized internationalism that has defined the Democratic Party at least since FDR.

Perhaps America is not exceptional after all.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Democrats Are Not Socialists, and Neither Is Bernie Sanders

Debbie Wasserman Schultz was recently mocked for flubbing a question on Chris Matthews. Asked the difference between Democrats and socialists, Wasserman Schultz tries to talk about the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

The exchange doesn’t reflect well on Wasserman Schultz, who plows through her talking points as if the question had never been asked. But it has a pretty easy answer. Historically, the essential feature of socialism is the demand for public ownership or direct government control of major sectors of the economy. A bit more abstractly, socialists have aimed to eliminate considerations of profit from as many areas of life as possible. They used to the describe this goal as “revolution”, which didn’t necessarily mean violence.

The modern Democratic Party isn’t about revolution. Since FDR, Democrats have consistently supported regulated competition and redistributive policies that direct private profits toward the relative losers in market exchange. These strategies are better understood as “welfarism” than socialism. A concrete example? Compare Britain’s NHS before Thatcher’s reforms to Medicare…or Obamacare, for that matter.

There’s something of a spectrum between these positions. Even so, you don’t meet many socialists in mainstream politics these days. Most “Socialist” parties in Europe abandoned their revolutionary dreams a long time ago. And the self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders offers a welfarist agenda that’s barely updated from the ’50s.

So no, Democrats aren’t socialists. We might be able to have a less stupid discussion of their actual positions if welfarists, and their critics, knew the difference.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

It’s the Donald’s World, We’re Just Living In It

Christopher Halloran /

In late summer and early autumn of 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas conducted seven debates around the State of Illinois. Thousands of people attended the contests, at which each speaker got 90 minutes to make his case. The result is among the classics of American political oratory. The style is folksy and occasionally silly. But the language is clear and honest, and the arguments are deadly serious.

Last night’s spectacle wasn’t like that. Although we call it a debate, it was really a group interview, with candidates answering questions from the moderators rather than developing and contrasting their positions. This was probably unavoidable, given the number of candidates and short attention spans of viewers. But the reality show format doesn’t inspire pride in American civic life.

Pious lament aside, however, the debate was vastly entertaining. I watched with a boisterous crowd of undergraduates at an ISI Honors Conference. They were, by turns, amused, provoked, and inspired. As the discussion continued late (too late) into the night, they also resisted any consensus about the winners. That’s important: pretty much all the candidates had at least one effective moment.

Rubio was probably the biggest surprise. Although he’s been overshadowed recently, he was the most likeable and relaxed man on the stage. John Kasich made a pretty good impression. He got tangled up in statistics and his dad’s resume, but many of conservative students I watched with were sympathetic to his faith-based argument for expanded healthcare. Huckabee also remains fantastic at doing what he does.

But the big story is still Trump. The Fox News commentators seemed pretty sure that his schtick turned people. We’ll get a sense from polling over the next few days whether that’s true. For my part, I thought his response to several attempted gotcha questions was pretty successful. Remember: a lot of Americans have had trouble with lenders or wavered in their party affiliations. What looks like irresponsibility to media and activist crowds might seem pretty normal beyond those circles.

The biggest losers were Bush, Walker, and Paul. They seemed uncomfortable and didn’t offer any memorable lines. Bush can afford a rope-a-dope strategy while the field clears. Walker and Paul need to provide justifications for their campaigns.

Last come the C’s. I thought Cruz and Carson made little impression. Carson’s a nice man who doesn’t belong in the race. And Cruz is expert at impressing his supporters… and no one else. Several people I spoke to thought Christie turned in a strong performance. Maybe. But I was not impressed by his hug-a-thon with Rand Paul.

The truth is, debates don’t matter much to election results, and early debates matter even less. So it’s not worth a lot of mental energy to analyze the details. As long as Trump remains in the race, he’ll be the center of attention, encouraging the carnival atmosphere. It’s the Donald’s world, we’re just living in it.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Can America Learn from German Universities?

Until Hitler took power, German universities were the envy of the world. They had they best facilities, offered the best training, and employed the best researchers. Between 1901 and 1932, scholars based in Germany won 33 Nobel Prizes for academic work (counting the historian Theodor Mommsen, but excluding other winners in Literature).  Americans won just five.

The academic balance of power has changed. American universities dominate international rankings. And German officials periodically warn of a “brain drain” toward the United States. It’s a sad decline for the land of Humboldt, Hegel, and Heisenberg.

You might reasonably conclude that German universities have something to learn from their American counterparts. The Notre Dame professor Mark Roche made that case in a recent book. Last week, he turned the argument around. In a piece for FAZ (link in German), Roche suggests that American universities emulate seven features of German universities: the intellectual independence they offer students; the seminar system; a place of honor for the traditional lecture; double majoring; professors who take a broad view of their subject; respect for the humanities; and a generous attitude toward academic training for non-academic careers.

Roche could have mentioned another appealing aspect of German universities: they’re much cheaper to run. As Rebecca Schuman reminds progressives impressed by the fact that they don’t charge tuition,

German universities consist almost entirely of classroom buildings and libraries—no palatial gyms with rock walls and water parks; no team sports facilities (unless you count the fencing fraternities I will never understand); no billion-dollar student unions with flat-screen TVs and first-run movie theaters. And forget the resort-style dormitories. What few dorms exist are minimalistic, to put it kindly—but that’s largely irrelevant anyway, as many German students still live at home with their parents, or in independent apartment shares, none of which foster the kind of insular, summer-camp-esque experience Americans associate closely with college life (and its hefty price tag)…There is also little in the way academic advising, which in the U.S. is now so hands-on that it has become its own cottage industry within the administration. Over there, you’re expected to know what you need to take, and to take it.

Roche provides useful reminders of the shortcomings of American higher education, which is quite expensive and not all that effective for undergraduates. But I’m not convinced Germany has many lessons to teach.

To begin with, American colleges and universities already do several of things Roche recommends. Double majors, for example, are pretty common.

Some of Roche’s other suggestions are in tension with each other. You can emphasize small seminars and traditional lectures, but probably not both. In any case, the relation between lectures and specialized study in Germany is determined by a model of secondary education that few Americans would accept. German students are ready for advanced work because they attended tracked high schools that rigorously separate the college-bound minority from those destined for trades.

Finally, funding structures make a difference. Because they depend on enrollment rather than direct subsidies, American universities have to compete for customers.  Although they don’t always pay off, football, fancy dorms, and other amenities that attract students are often attempts to balance the books.

The main problem, however, is that Roche thinks too much like a German. His argument implies that there’s just one model of well-run university. This approach goes back to Humboldt himself, who conceived the research university as a rational synthesis of ancient and modern, theory and practice, institution and individual.

American universities have never achieved this ideal, or even seriously pursued it. The truth is, the set of responsibilities they’ve acquired doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That’s not so terrible, though. What we lack in coherence we gain in diversity. In Germany, one university is about the same as another. Americans, on the other hand, can choose public or private, secular or religious, technical or humanistic, urban or rural, and so on. Rather than trying to fix colleges by making them more similar, we should resist standardization, whether it’s justified by economic, political, or even academic considerations. The Germans will always do that kind of thing better, anyway.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

Another Misguided MOOC

Last week, Arizona State University and edX announced a new program to offer freshman  instruction online. Unless most MOOCs, these courses would offer graduation credits that students could use to continue at ASU or to transfer elsewhere. Although it questions the logistics, Walter Russell Mead’s blog argues that “this kind of experiment is promising, and shows how the mainstreaming of MOOCs could help lower costs.”

Lowering higher ed costs is an important goal, but MOOCification is the wrong way to go. The first reason, as Matt Reed points out, is that community colleges are already extremely cheap. ASU/edX  would charge $200 per credit. Yet students can take similar courses at Maricopa Community College for just $84 per credit.  Students in these courses would also have the benefit of “an actual instructor [to] provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course.”

Supporters of the ASU plan might observe that students who enroll in four-year colleges are more likely to get a degree than those with similar SAT scores who start at two-year institutions. But getting a degree is not an end in itself. Even romantics like me think it ought to promote students’ intellectual, cultural, and yes, economic flourishing after graduation.

Thanks to a survey by Gallup and Purdue, we now have a pretty good idea what aspects of college students think helped them in there postgrad lives. Here are the summary results:


So what matters to students, basically, is having personal relationships with professors and participating in extracurricular activities. In other words: the very experiences that MOOCs can’t provide, even if they’re taught by superstar lecturers.

As far as costs go, there’s good news and bad news in these results. The good news is that students don’t need posh dorms, elaborate food, and luxurious gyms. Although we can’t get the money back for monuments of indulgence that have already been built, universities can safely cut back on facilities in the future. If they’re worried that they’ll have trouble attracting paying customers without a lazy river, they might try emphasizing their commitment to what “science shows” really matters.

The bad news is that instructors who aren’t too overworked and stressed out to do real teaching and mentoring don’t come cheap. No one becomes an academic to get rich. In order to do their jobs, however, they need decent compensation, some job security, and reasonable teaching loads and research expectations.

Yet these are the costs that administrators and disruption theorists reliably attack. Somehow, there’s always money for high-tech gimmicks and big wigs’ salaries… but not for the people who do the most important work. MOOCs may be useful in providing instruction in specific areas, particularly for adult students. But they’re a distraction from the real problem of higher ed: how to offer serious instruction in real subjects to more of the students who want them, and to figure out something else to do with those who don’t.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

The Mirage of a Classless Society

Paul Krugman  (flickr / 00Joshi)

In a recent post, Paul Krugman reiterated his view that conservative critics of the welfare state are petty authoritarians. Citing Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, Krugman explains:

It’s fundamentally about challenging or sustaining traditional hierarchy. The actual lineup of positions on social and economic issues doesn’t make sense if you assume that conservatives are, as they claim, defenders of personal liberty on all fronts. But it makes perfect sense if you suppose that conservatism is instead about preserving traditional forms of authority: employers over workers, patriarchs over families. A strong social safety net undermines the first, because it empowers workers to demand more or quit; permissive social policy undermines the second in obvious ways.

In contrast to conservatism, Krugman argues:

…modern liberalism is in some sense the obverse — it is about creating a society that is more fluid as well as fairer. We all like to laugh at the war-on-Christmas types, right-wing blowhards who fulminate about the liberal plot to destroy family values. We like to point out that a country like France, with maternity leave, aid to new mothers, and more, is a lot more family-friendly than rat-race America. But if “family values” actually means traditional structures of authority, then there’s a grain of truth in the accusation. Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.

I’ve written about Robin’s widely-misunderstood argument in the past. But Krugman’s post is a good opportunity to revisit and summarize my critique. In short, Robin is right that classic conservative theorists were defenders of  economic, social, and political hierarchy against modern liberation movements. But he misunderstands the basis of the position.

The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders.

Radical leftists understand this. That’s why Lenin’s “who, whom?” question became an unofficial motto of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks promised that a classless society would one day emerge. In the meantime, however, they were open and enthusiastic practitioners of power politics.

Modern liberals find this vision upsetting. So they pretend that their policies are about reducing inequality and promoting freedom rather than empowering some people at the expense of others. They associate inequality with wealth and freedom with liberation from religion and family. So they assume that a society in which rich people, churches, and fathers have less power is ipso facto freer and more equal.

Notice how Krugman’s hostility to these traditional hierarchies blinds him to other kinds of inequality. He praises France because social insurance and stronger protections for employees make it easier for mothers and workers to stand up to patriarchs and bosses. Do they really make France “fairer and more fluid”? In cultural terms, perhaps. But not politically or even economically.

The defining feature of French life is that the welfare and regulatory state Krugman admires is administered by graduates of elite educational institutions. These aristocrats of the universities and civil service are geographically concentrated in Paris and anecdotally quite “inbred.” France is not a class society in the Marxist sense. But it could be described with only minimal exaggeration as an ENAligarchy.

Krugman doesn’t see the énarques as a ruling class that need to be knocked down a peg because their authority isn’t traditional. They wield power over other people’s lives because they got good grades, not because they have a lot of money or are heads of households or leaders of religious communities. But academic meritocracy is not the same thing as a fluid and fairer society. It’s certainly no fairer that some people are lucky enough to be smart than that others are good at making a fortune.

And France is no star when it comes to economic mobility. According to a review of the literature by the economist Miles Corak, France joins the U.S. and the UK as the Western countries with the least intergenerational mobility. Krugman also doesn’t mention that France is a very good place to have a job, but not so hospitable to people looking for work. That’s especially a problem for young people who didn’t go to the best schools.

There are serious arguments in favor of rule by a highly-trained administrative class within a moderately redistributive capitalist economy. Those arguments were a crucial source of the modern liberalism that Krugman endorses, and have recently been reiterated by Frank Fukuyama. What modern liberals really want, however, isn’t freedom or equality—terms that have no meaning before it’s determined for what and by whom they will be enjoyed. As conservatives have long understood, it’s a society in which people like themselves and their favored constituencies have more power while the old elites of property, church, and family have less.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

What Libertarians (and Conservatives) Don’t Understand About Poverty

Photo by Jeremy Brooks (creative commons)

You can’t spend much time in right-of-center circles without hearing, often in the comfort of an open bar, that America’s poor don’t have it too bad. Yes, there are about 45 million people below the official poverty line. But that doesn’t mean that they’re suffering under the conditions we see in photos of the dustbowl or the old industrial slums. A Heritage Foundation report observes that “When LBJ launched the War on Poverty, about a quarter of poor Americans lacked flush toilets and running water in the home. Today, such conditions have all but vanished. According to government surveys, over 80 percent of the poor have air conditioning, three quarters have a car, nearly two thirds have cable or satellite TV, half have a computer, and 40 percent have a wide screen HDTV.”

Megan McArdle makes a version of the same argument in her comment on Joni Ernst’s State of the Union response. She reminds Internet snarks who mocked Ernst’s story about using plastic bags to protect her only pair of shoes that this was a common practice until pretty recently. According to McArdle, “we forget how much poorer we used to be, and then we forget that we have forgotten.” These days, even people without much money enjoy a material abundance of which their grandparents could only have dreamed. (Rod Dreher remembers the story of his own family here.)

That’s true, as far as it goes. Pretty much anything that’s made in a factory is cheaper and higher-quality than it used to be. I admit to moments of SWPL enthusiasm for craftsmanship (or the Brooklyn facsimile). But let’s get real: expanded access to consumer products is a good thing.

But that doesn’t mean poverty is exaggerated by ungrateful whiners. Goods and services that depend on skilled human labor cost more than they used to. Curiously, McArdle relies on figures from 1987 to make her case that American households face lighter expenses for necessities than they used to. That ignores the increase in prices for childcare, healthcare, and higher education over the last decade or so.

So people can accumulate possessions while maintaining a relatively low standard of living. Indoor plumbing won’t take care of your kids, and an Xbox won’t send them to college. The poor are also more likely to suffer from “diseases of affluence” such as obesity and diabetes. Unlike the truly affluent, however, they can’t afford to have them treated.

Material deprivation is also not always the most wrenching aspect of poverty. As Karl Polanyi argues his study of the Industrial Revolution, the lack of meaningful work and a secure social position can be worse than low wages or high consumer prices.

It’s important to question depictions of Dickensian poverty in the media, which often focus on exceptional cases. And we should resist nostalgia for a mythical time when folks didn’t have much but their dignity. But the grinding, uncertain lives of poor Americans today is a problem that new shoes and air conditioning won’t solve.

Literary Addendum: McArdle draws several examples of the bad old days from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels for children. She claims:

…what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

This is a serious misreading of the books. As Wilder’s autobiography makes clear, the reason that the Ingalls family seems poor is that they were poor. There was nothing bourgeois about them, except perhaps Ma’s (relatively) advanced education. Even in the idealized version presented in the books, the Ingallses fail, time and again, to realize their dream of becoming independent farmers. That’s why the story ends, rather tragically, with Pa working as a clerk in a railroad town, a fate that he’d dragged his family thousands of miles to avoid.

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