Conservatives on Campus

Bradley Watson offered a careful, insightful, and fair review of our book, Passing on the Right, and that’s all Jon Shields and I could hope for as authors (“Second-Class Citizens,” Fall 2016).

Towards the end of his review, Watson notes that “attentive readers will take more than a few issues with this interesting book.” The first issue he notes is our use of “right-wing” as a synonym for conservatives even though he doesn’t know of any conservatives who refer themselves as “right-wingers.” He mentions one possible reason for using the term, “the faux precision of a linear spectrum.” That is in fact one of the reasons we chose it. We explained that “although the term ‘right-wing’ sometimes implies ‘far-right,’ we use it as a synonym for conservatism throughout the book.” There are people on the Right and people on the Left so it seems appropriate to say right-wing and left-wing. In some ways, when it comes to political ideology and orientation all we have is faux precision. I’ll also confess that I don’t mind being called a right-winger and have referred to myself as a right-winger. Scandalizing the academic bourgeoisie can be great sport.

An additional reason to limit our use of “conservative” is that some members of our sample, particularly some disputatious libertarians (but perhaps I repeat myself), do not like being called conservative. However, libertarians are clearly within the broad coalition that we refer to as conservatism that is opposed to modern liberalism. Many of the libertarians we interviewed—maybe even most—would be much more comfortable being called right-wing than conservative.

This also points to an interesting fact about folks on the Right, or right-wingers. They tend to be a bit obsessive about taxonomy in a way that left-wingers are not. In our interviews and surveys we asked our subjects to give their preferred term for their politics if it was not adequately captured by conservative or libertarian. Their responses included Catholic conservative, Christian traditionalist, Christian humanist, communitarian conservative, constitutional conservative, paleoconservative, neoconservative, social conservative, natural rights conservative, classical conservative, conservative libertarian, libertarian, free-market conservative, and reactionary. One historian said he subscribes to “Hobbitan conservatism” because he wants “to live in the Shire as described by J.R.R. Tolkien, [because it] has a sense of natural order and natural deference.” Sigmund Freud, it seems, was at least right about the narcissism of minor differences.

Watson also worries that “for everything the authors give to conservative critics of the academy, they seem to take something away.” In particular, he thinks that our claim that the “right-wing critique of the academy is overdrawn” might not be meaningful because of our methodology. He notes that we created our initial sample by gathering names from journals and membership lists of organizations with right-wing reputations. Thus, this initial sample might be unrepresentative of the broader population of conservative professors. But that was just the initial sample. To gather more names, we created a snowball sample where we asked known conservative and libertarian professors to identify ten others that we could contact. That we had to use a snowball sample was itself telling since it’s a method used to identify difficult to locate populations like the homeless. Nevertheless, I think that makes our sample more representative than it otherwise would be. Of course, it still could be unrepresentative because there very well could be large numbers of even more deeply closeted conservatives that we were unable to locate. But I’m still not sure why sampling more politicized academics would make this claim less generalizable. The academics who are most outspoken about their politics could very well be the most radicalized and thus have even more reason to be critical of the academy. That they were not is an interesting finding.

Regardless, I think it’s not terribly controversial that the Right can overstate how grim things are on campus. Of course, saying that things aren’t as bad as the Right sometimes says it is not the same thing as saying they aren’t bad—we, in fact, provide substantial evidence that things are bad. That rather obvious fact has been lost on a few—but thankfully not Watson—who have criticized our book. As he notes, we think that overstating the obstacles facing conservatives and libertarians can unnecessarily dissuade right-wing students from pursuing academic careers. If that happens the ideological imbalance in the academy will only grow worse. That doesn’t mean that I think that the Right should stop exposing the ideological insanity and political bigotry that exists in the academy. When the university doesn’t live up to its self-professed principles of tolerance and diversity, then I’m all for naming and shaming. But that naming and shaming should be tempered with a more complete picture of the academy.

Finally, Watson points out that faculty on the Right “don’t get to live out their identities quite like their liberal colleagues.” This raises a question that he didn’t ask but that others have after reading our book: how open should conservative and libertarian faculty be about their politics? Contrary to what some critics said, who I will charitably say could not have read the book, we did not take a position on this. As those who read the book know, we related different survival strategies used by the professors we interviewed and we hope that that will be of value to conservative and libertarian students considering an academic career.

Of course, it’s unfair that conservative faculty can’t live out their identities like their liberal colleagues. But until we reach that happy day when conservatives face no ideological discrimination, swords are beaten into plowshares, and the lion lies down with the lamb, that tells us nothing about what any particular professor should do. Some have been open, as both Jon Shields and I have been, while others have felt it necessary to not disclose their politics. I personally think that more could be open about their politics, but I am not in their shoes. I am happy to say that individual scholars are in the best position to know what they should do and, even more importantly, I don’t have any claim on their professional lives. Conservatives, after all, have traditionally opposed the idea that the personal must be the political. As well, some of the closeted faculty we interviewed came out of the closet after tenure and have since become leading conservative public intellectuals, in fact, gracing the pages of the CRB. No less a conservative than Harvey Mansfield has advised conservatives to wait until tenure “to hoist the Jolly Roger.” At the very least, I’m not prepared to kick Harvey Mansfield out of the conservative club for this alleged heresy. Maybe the closeted faculty we interviewed should have come out sooner but maybe not. Climbing out of the trench and running toward the blinking light might be courageous or it might be foolhardy. Prudence is needed and, as conservatives should know, that’s not the same thing as cowardice.

Joshua Dunn
University of Colorado
Colorado Springs, CO

Bradley C.S. Watson replies:

Joshua Dunn is correct to point out the “narcissism of minor differences” among those on the Right. But it doesn’t follow from this that the term “right-wing” is a good or necessary descriptor for the various shades of conservatism that he and Jon Shields find in the academy. If, as Dunn says, they use “right-wing” merely as a “synonym for conservatism,” why not stick with conservatism—and include an appropriate footnote explaining those shades? Alternatively, why not stick with “people on the Right” versus “people on the Left,” and thus jettison the pejorative connotations of “right-wing”? I’ll reiterate what I said in my review: I don’t encounter any colleagues who refer to themselves as “right-wingers,” except ironically. This language flows easily from the lips of the progressive commentariat, not to mention from progressive professors. I maintain that it’s not very helpful language—other than helping to make the book eminently quotable by such people.

As to the authors’ methodology, no reiteration of their snowball sampling technique is required. The point I made in my review is not that they are bad social scientists, or that they didn’t work carefully and hard to do what they’ve done. Rather, it’s that any “thick description” inevitably makes it difficult to reach generalizable conclusions. In this particular case, the problems flow from the authors’ small sample (particularly in relation to the overall size of the American academy), conjoined with the fact that their subjects were, necessarily, already enjoying academic success—after all, they had real academic jobs. What of the conservatives who don’t? Perhaps a snowball sample could more profitably uncover this “difficult to locate” population. And of course no snowball sample would be required if they were trying to identify progressive interviewees amongst the more than a million college instructors in the United States—ipso facto evidence of a much bigger problem than Shields and Dunn seem to suggest.

The scope of the problem is shown in other ways too. If the point of Passing on the Right is to encourage, or at least not “unnecessarily dissuade” conservatives and libertarians from pursuing academic careers, it’s hard to see how it can do this by telling them the view from the top is fine—but only after they’ve scaled Mount Everest in winter. And this is especially so if no effort is made to remind them that so many travelers—probably a majority—have fallen to their deaths along the way. Although I’m not saying the noble effort should be avoided, I do think Passing on the Right calls more for complacency than heroism. And the latter, or more particularly the moral virtue that makes it possible, is what’s most needed in the academy.

Let me be more pointed still. Does the academy really need conservatives of the sort identified by the authors’ sampling technique—the sort who, happily or unhappily, voted for Barack Obama or (one presumes) Hillary Clinton? Voting is a proxy, of course, as I noted in my review. But if, to borrow from Charles Murray, the “bubbles” in which academic conservatives live are as thick as their progressive colleagues’, they’re quite likely to miss some important things that their fellow citizens pick up on, things that matter to human beings outside the academy. They’re certainly not likely to represent, in any meaningful way, the rich diversity of voices in America. In fact, it’s quite possible they’re not really conservatives at all. Certainly, based on what Shields and Dunn report, they appear more likely, compared to the average American, to view as deplorable the same things their progressive colleagues do.

In the academy, go-along-to-get-along tendencies are likely to be pronounced, if for no other reason than very little is at stake for successful academics, as long as they don’t rock the boat. Perhaps, as Dunn suggests, some of them simply had to be cautious, and the results are better than if they hadn’t been. Nonetheless, once herd animals are raised, we shouldn’t be surprised if they keep following the herd.

Let me restate this: if the academy should represent a wider range of views than it does—as the authors recommend—shouldn’t conservative academics not only be far more numerous, but far more conservative, than they are? And by “conservative,” I mean well outside the mainstream of academic opinion. Shouldn’t they be less likely than they are to reflect the attitudes and behaviors of their progressive colleagues on some pretty important questions?

Could cultural conservatives—the sort of “right-wingers” that Shields and Dunn recognize to be in particularly short supply—somehow storm the academic barricades, aided by the “right-wingers” who are already there? Or would they be doused with boiling oil before they came anywhere near the parapet? Those who challenge orthodoxies head-on tend to be the sort of people with high pain thresholds, but even they can’t accomplish superhuman feats. And they need allies.

Passing on the Right is self-refuting insofar as it insists that “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn.”

For more discussion of conservatives on campus with Joshua Dunn, Bradley C.S. Watson, and Peter Wood please visit CRB Digital


Individual Sovereignty

It seems churlish to complain about so thoughtful and favorable a treatment as Jeremy Rabkin’s review of my book, Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People (“Liberty or Death,” Fall 2016). So consider this a clarification rather than a complaint. Perhaps it is no surprise that a political theorist of national sovereignty like Rabkin would question the coherence of the concept of individual popular sovereignty that I advance in the book. “If you say there is ‘sovereignty’ in individuals but it is somehow limited,” he observes, “you haven’t done much to explain why and to what extent such limits are justified. You have not improved on saying ‘These are natural rights…though subject to limits and restrictions.”

I disagree. Among other things, sovereignty identifies who’s the boss—who’s the master and who’s the servant—within a respective domain. That the founders maintained that “We the People” are the sovereign boss and those in government merely their agent or servant is universally accepted. However, many today believe this entails that sovereignty effectively resides in a majority of the people. For them, the legitimacy of any institution or practice that gets in the way of the “will of the majority” is suspect. Witness the rending of garments over the fact that Hillary Clinton received more votes than did Donald Trump (albeit still a plurality of the total votes cast). Examples of people extolling the sanctity of majoritarian will—at least, when it’s with them—are legion.

Yet noteworthy founders like James Wilson believed that the ultimate sovereign was the individual person, whose consent—if only presumed—was necessary to legitimate governance. “The sovereign, when traced to his source,” he wrote as a Supreme Court Justice in Chisholm v. Georgia, “must be found in the man.” And, in The Federalist, James Madison famously referred to the desires of a “faction,” by which he meant “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (emphasis added).

Of course, the sovereignty of individuals is limited. But so too is the sovereignty of nations. And yet, these limits notwithstanding, it remains useful to consider nations to be sovereign. Indeed, as I explain in the book, when we consider the “natural rights” of sovereign individuals by analogy with the well-known rights of sovereign monarchs, these rights seem much less mysterious.

Just as sovereign monarchs claim jurisdiction over their territories and possessions, sovereign individual citizens have jurisdiction over their private property. Just as one monarch may not interfere within the territorial jurisdiction of other monarchs, no citizen may interfere with the person and property of any other. Just as monarchs may use force to defend their people and territory from the aggression of other monarchs, so too may individual citizens use force in defense of themselves and their possessions. Just as monarchs may consensually alter their legal relations with other monarchs by entering into treaties, so too may individual citizens freely alter their legal relations by entering into contracts with those to whom John Jay referred as “fellow citizens and joint sovereigns.”

What’s more, stressing that individuals are the ultimate sovereigns helps us appreciate that majorities in legislative bodies are not the ultimate boss. Neither is a majority of the electorate (much less a plurality). And appreciating this is vital to assessing the proper role of judges in a constitutional republic like ours is supposed to be.

My book The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law was about the natural rights we have as individuals living in society with others. My book Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty was about how the original meaning of the Constitution protected these rights in ways that have been lost to us. This new book—inspired by my experience litigating the constitutional challenge to Obamacare—is about the proper role of judges in enforcing these structural and substantive protections even against the “will of the majority” as supposedly reflected in the acts of Congress and state legislatures.

Judges, no less than legislators, are agents or servants of the people themselves, and as servants of the people judges have a job to do: protect the ultimate sovereignty of the people from abuses by their agents in legislatures and executive branch agencies. In short, to understand the proper role of judges, we need to appreciate that it is We the People—each and every one of us—who are the ultimate sovereign in our constitutional republic.

I am quite sure that, in his heart, Jeremy Rabkin knows I’m right.

Randy E. Barnett
Georgetown University
Law Center
Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Rabkin replies:

Randy Barnett has written a valuable book. But he’s not right about everything. He’s certainly not right about what’s in my heart. He may be right, though, that our differences are worth pursuing here.

Alert readers will notice that Barnett’s quotation from The Federalist doesn’t mention sovereignty at all. Not in that passage, nor anywhere else, does Publius talk about a “sovereign individual.” The passage Barnett quotes from Justice Wilson’s Chisholm opinion cannot mean that individuals retain some sovereign status (I think Wilson meant “the man” in the sense of ordinary people, in contrast to an abstract entity like “legislative authority”). In the same opinion, Wilson himself says, “the term SOVEREIGN…could have been used with propriety” in the Constitution only if “those who ordained and established that Constitution…announced themselves ‘SOVEREIGN’ people of the United States.” The people as a collective are “sovereign,” by this doctrine, not each individual.

I don’t think it makes sense to regard each individual as exercising a sovereign status, equivalent to that of a sovereign people or sovereign nation. A single sovereign nation might maintain itself in the world, while a single “sovereign individual” could not (or not for long). Human beings enter the world with parents and families and have fundamental obligations to them. A political community does not need a predecessor to launch it. States or nations can make promises in treaties, but it remains their right to decide when these promises can be kept and when they must be abrogated. Not so with individuals. In the last analysis, one nation can’t be expected to sacrifice itself for the benefit of another. Individuals are regularly required to do this—as soldiers, policemen, firemen, and even, in different ways, as parents and family members.

I don’t myself embrace the radical individualism that Randy Barnett seems to espouse. I don’t believe the founders did, either.