Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Conservatives an embattled minority in academia?

(jn response to this piece in the Washington Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/07/AR2007120701618_pf.html )

Although (or perhaps because) I am a dyed-in-the wool liberal, I agree with Robert Maranto that a diversity of ideas and debate between opposing viewpoints shouldbe central to university life. However, I think it is this very debate in the marketplace of ideas that explains why Maranto finds himself and other right-of-center academics in the minority. They are losing the argument.

Don’t just ask me—ask the American public. According to polling by the Washington Post and ABC News,President Bush’s approval ratings haven’t seen 50%since March 2005 and have been stuck in the low 30s all year. 51% have a favorable view of Democrats, 39% have a favorable view of Republicans. Similarly, a recent CNN poll shows 68% oppose the war in Iraq. Other polling shows 66% think there should be stricter laws regarding handgun sales. 78% believe that people who are in the U.S. without documentation should still be given a chance at citizenship. Just a small minority, 27%, believes that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances (and those numbers come from a Fox News poll). A substantial majority, 73%,thinks we should make it easier for women at all income levels to obtain contraceptives. By a 57-38% margin, Americans believe it is the government’s responsibility to make sure Americans have adequate health care.

If the right wing is losing on all these issues before the public, is it so odd that only a minority of academics support the right wing view on these issues? But polls don’t tell us everything of course. Let’s think logically about why the right wing might be underrepresented in academia.

First, a central tenet of learning and of academic endeavor is that you have to back up your position with evidence. It’s not enough for someone to say I believe in creationism, not evolution, or I think that whenever you reduce taxes there is a consequential increase in revenues. You have to back up your views with evidence, with reasoned argument.

Maranto mentions the war in Iraq, complaining that a conservative friend of his who wanted to publicly debate the decision to invade was told it could complicate his tenure decision. I would support a debate on the war in Iraq, but I also think that someone supporting the invasion would have some explaining to do, both before we invaded and now. Before the war, there was not evidence to support the arguments for invasion—to the contrary, the “evidence” presented was full of holes. In short, the president and others who argued for invasion were not telling the truth, as the Washington Post reported in an October 22, 2002 piece by Dana Milbank entitled “ForBush, Facts Are Malleable”. The Milbank piece explained that President Bush was making specific arguments in support of war, including claims aboutIraq’s ability to launch a chemical attack on the U.S. and the time it would take for Iraq to develop a nuclear weapon, that were simply and demonstrably not supported by the very evidence the president cited. I don’t know what arguments Maranto’s friend would have offered in support of invading Iraq, and perhaps he had something better to offer than the president did. But someone in the academy making the intellectually bankrupt arguments President Bush made for the war shouldn’t be surprised if those faulty arguments have consequences—just as there would be consequences formaking an unsupported argument in favor of a liberal viewpoint.

Iraq is not the only issue on which facts expose the flaws in conservative argument. For much of the past25 years, Republicans have insisted that lower taxes produce increased revenues. The first President Bushonce called this “voodoo economics”. He was right. Supply side economic theory has been debunked by evidence. Contrary to conservative arguments,Clinton’s tax increases in the early 1990s did not sink the economy. While Republican presidential candidates continue to insist that tax cuts mean increased revenue, the results of the Bush tax cuts do not bear this out. Even Treasury Secretary HenryPaulson concedes that “as a general rule, I don’t believe that tax cuts pay for themselves.” On economics, the conservative viewpoint, at least on these central issues, is not supported by theevidence. Does Maranto think economists who support these views should be sailing to the top of academia on the merits of their arguments?

Maranto may be engaging in intellectual relativism. He complains that conservative papers and books areless likely than liberal papers to be published. Butall ideas are not created equal. Perhaps conservative writing contains weaker arguments than liberal papers. Perhaps liberal publications predominate because they are more interesting, more likely to be supported by evidence, more conducive to learning and thoughtful discussion.

If Maranto favors the idea of “balance” on all questions, that view too has been discredited. Conservative politicians have become adept at exploiting the media’s desire to present two sides of every issue—no matter whether both positions have anything close to equal evidentiary support. This leads to coverage that presents arguments for creationism (or its dressed-up sibling “intelligent design”) on the same footing as evolution, or stories giving equal time to global warming skeptics.

I don’t mean to be dogmatic, however, and I certainly don’t think any of this is the end of the story. Hey,I’m a liberal -- I really am interested in differentideas and different ways of looking at things. I don’t think I have all the answers. But I wonder if Maranto has fully considered why the academy isn’t clogged with supporters of President Bush and the war in Iraq. The answer might not be that universities have abandoned reasoned inquiry and debate, as Maranto suggests. It may be that his side is losing the debate, on the merits. None of this means there is no place for conservatives in universities. It just means they have to come up with better arguments.


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