Higher Education

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Much has been written in the last year, but especially since November 2, about the need for the Democrats to stand on principle and that conservative success has been founded on standing on principle. And there is much to this, and this line of thinking and its relationship to "reform" and any revitalization of a strong Democratic Party seems clear. However, I think this line of thinking suffers from a severe blindspot, that I will expound upon below. I don't necessarily expect everyone here to agree with my point - and I don't even know if I fully believe my own argument - but I think these issues are vital to consider nonetheless.

Recently, there has been much rightist attention played to "liberal bias" on university campuses. And, frankly, the rightists are correct that thinkers supportive of the Bush administration are hopelessly marginalized in much of academia. Much of their criticism is levelled at straw men like ethnic studies and women's studies departments, which are, frankly, hopelessly doctrinaire and unwelcoming, even to many on the center left. But liberalism still dominates much of the rest of academia - at least in the social sciences and humanities - in a way that it simply does not in the rest of society. I can tell you for a fact that liberalism in normative in the nation's history departments. On any given faculty/graduate student contigent, most people are politically centrist or center-left. There are probably more radical leftists on most faculties and amongst grad students than their are center rightists. Hard right Bushites are virtually non-existent. Of course, this is a broad generalization, and the two major university history departments I have been associated with are fairly different ideologically. And factors like region and faculty specialization do create more ideological variation than the most shrill on the right would have you believe. But why is this so? And what does this have to do with modern American politics?

Well, I think there are two major factors that account for academia's normative liberalism (not leftism, an important distinction) that critics and defenders never really mention. Academia is not liberal because it attracts smart people not interested in making money or who are particularly socially conscious (as liberals often claim); nor is it a result of faculty selection "bias" against American conservatives (as conservatives and rightists claim). Rather, academia is liberal because: a) liberalism is fundamentally a centrist philosophy in global terms, and academics operate in a scholarly context that is fundamentally global, not national; and b) liberals are "flip floppers" by nature, as they tend to weigh all sides of an issue and consider the validity of all viewpoints. Conversely, American conservatives and real leftists tend to accept a certain world view as a priori correct, and base their arguments on such fundamental assumptions. In this sense, they are ideologues, and their reasoning is frequently "faith based." Needless to say, naked ideology and "faith based" reasoning is antithetical to the academic mission. By nature, academics are taught to take all viewpoints seriously. Thus, Wahhabi Islam or Stalinism, for example, are studied on their own terms and the reason people support such viewpoints are taken seriously - they are not simply demonized. We are interested, fundamentally, in "root causes," a concept much derided by the Bush administration.

But, what, you may ask, has any of this to do with what I term "the crisis of the Left" internationally and of the Democratic Party "locally." Well, I would argue that since socialism has been largely discredited in the last 30 years or so, whether in its more "radical" Soviet guise or in a more moderate democratic or Fabian form, the ideological underpinnings of the 20th century left have largely been discredited and abandoned, even by those who still obstensibly consider themselves a part of the left. This "discredation" is even true of the profoundly conservative form of social democracy that reached preemince in the United States during the middle third of the 20th century. Without these underpinnings, we - non-rightists - have been adrift since the 1970s. Thus, we are left with liberalism in its academic guise - a philosophy that is fundamentally non-ideological and thus has a profound difficulty arguing from principle in a way that "movement conservatism" and the old, Marxist left did not.

As a side note, this is why I think all this Tom Frank stuff about emphasizing "economic populism" misses the boat completely. He is arguing in favor policies whose fundamental basis is no longer credible to the population at large. People aren't voting against their self-interest. If I hear this again, I will puke. They simply don't believe - whether implicitly or not - that social democratic economics - whether Keynesian, Fabian, or Marxist - are that much more effective than neo-classical supply side Republicanism.

The left needs to find its voice again, if for no other reason than that a democracy needs a "reformism" party to work (alongside a "conservative" party). But this left cannot be fully effective utilizing the discredited tools of the past (i.e. moving left) or by simply offering a watered down conservatism (i.e. moving to the center). It must find a new ideological basis. Now what this basis will be (is already?) I don't know. But, to me, finding out what this basis is is a task of uptmost importance.

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