American conservatism is intellectually bankrupt

This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, but only got exasperated enough to write about it after watching Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate. The issue is this: there aren’t many conservatives in academia, and lately even some left-leaning academics (notably Jonathan Haidt) have started saying this is a problem and there should be more conservative academics. But my view–which is probably more widely believed than said out loud, because it sounds bad–is that the scarcity of conservatives in academia is how things should be, because American conservatism is intellectually indefensible.

I say this realizing full well the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are mostly arbitrary. In a democracy, any politician who discovers he or she is a proponent of a minority ideology has incentives to tweak their ideology until they’ve got something that at least plausibly could be a majority ideology–though it’s hard to be the majority ideology by a very large margin, because the other side is playing the same game. So you end up with the country split about 50/50 into two semi-arbitrary coalitions.

On top of that, centrism wins elections, so politicians and parties that are nominally on opposite “sides” end up being pretty similar. Bryan Caplan has compared the Republican/ Democrat divide to the Shia/ Sunni divide and the Trotskyist/ Stalinist divide–hugely significant to people involved in those fights, but small to the point of meaninglessness to outsiders.

Still, we can talk about “conservatism” and “liberalism” in directional terms, things Republicans have more of relative to Democrats. And in those terms, conservatism in America is defined by three main things: free-market economics, religious traditionalism, and American nationalism. This coalition probably only made sense in the context of the Cold War, and we can see signs of it fraying (Donald Trump is big on nationalism, less into the other two). But it’s the coalition we have for now, if not for much longer.

Of these three components, free-market economics stands out as actually having a fair amount of support among academics. Economists are notorious for their libertarian streak, and even in the most stereotypically leftist fields you have people who describe themselves as “market socialists” and whatnot. Libertarians may still be a minority, but people who talk about the lack of conservative academics seem to be talking about something even scarcer in academia, namely the stuff that separates libertarians from conservatives. They don’t say so explicitly, but I think they’re talking about religion and nationalism.

Let’s start with religion. As someone with a background in philosophy, the suggestion that we need more religious academics, so that academia is representative of the American population, feels a bit like being told… well, bringing up creationism feels a little too easy, though obviously relevant. But instead, suppose half the general public was wildly enthusiastic about string theory, would that be reason for physicists to make sure string theory continues to have a role in physics? Of course not, it should be up to physicists what they think of string theory, it shouldn’t be settled by a popularity contest among non-experts.

Philosophy as a discipline is majority atheist by a wide margin (wide especially compared to the almost total lack of agreement among philosophers on most other subjects). While there are some prominent theistic philosophers, on the whole philosophy of religion isn’t taken very seriously. And lots of atheists in philosophy think they’re justified in not taking philosophy of religion very seriously. They think they’ve looked at the arguments on the other side and found them to be really bad.

And this isn’t just about atheist philosophers. Walk into a university seminary, and you can count on the professors to call themselves believers, but unless it’s the kind of seminary that requires its professors to sign detailed statements of faith, the professors are likely to be pretty heterodox. Actually, making your professors sign something is no guarantee they’ll believe it. Empirically, dedicating your life to studying a religion tends to lead to believing things other than what you learned in the Sunday school or youth group at your local church.

And that’s really just scratching the surface. I’ve become convinced that it’s impossible to make sense of Western intellectual history without realizing that for nearly 1500 years, religious orthodoxy was enforced by violence–but once it became safe for intellectuals to defect from the reigning religious orthodoxy they defected en masse (c. 1800–despite what you may have heard about the Enlightenment, open dissent remained dangerous until the late 1700s, or even the early 1800s century in some countries).

In short, the irreligiosity of academics isn’t a problem–it’s the fruits of victory in one of the most important intellectual and political battles that has ever been fought.

So far, I’ve been going out of my way to be kind to the conservative position here, talking about generic theism and vaguely-defined traditionalism. But some of the people complaining about liberal bias in academia seem to pretty clearly think academics have an obligation to become friendlier to Christian fundamentalism. For example, Meagan McArdle (a libertarian writer who is not, as far as I know, herself religious) has accused liberal academics of “bigotry” based on anecdotes like this one:

The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.

“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”

The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”

Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.

At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.

McArdle analogizes this to an admissions committee disparaging a small historically black college as a bunch of “left-wing black nationalists.” The problem with this analogy is that “right-wing Christian fundamentalists” is a perfectly accurate description of lots of small Christian colleges, and while it’s hard to be sure without knowing the name of the college, it sounds like in this case some committee members knew this was true of the college in question.

The college could, for example, have been Patrick Henry College, which requires teaching faculty to sign a statement saying they believe God created the world in six 24-hour days. Or it could have been any of countless other colleges that impose similar requirements on professors. Like I said, it’s hard to be sure, but it’s not like there are that many small Unitarian colleges out there.

In an alternate universe where it was common for historically black colleges to require professors to sign on to the crackpot theories of the Nation of Islam, it might be hard to blame admissions committee members for bringing that up in one of their meetings. Like, maybe the right thing to do would be to look beyond that and admit some students from historically black colleges anyway, but it would be a bit of a stretch to call skepticism under those circumstances a sign of “pervasive bigotry” and “outrageous… racist talk,” as McArdle puts it.

Now let’s talk about nationalism. What I mean by “nationalism” is a little hard to explain. It can be hard to see the water when you’re swimming in it, and in America we’re swimming in nationalism. (Reminder that I fully concede mainstream Democrats and Republicans aren’t that far apart–we’re talking in directional terms here.) What I’m talking about is easiest to see from a distance. So let’s talk about Japan.

In World War II, Japan instituted a system of sexual slavery using women from places it had conquered, euphemistically referred to as “comfort women.” I don’t know if you knew that, but if you’ve ever heard the phrase “Rape of Nanking,” you’re probably not totally surprised. But here’s what is going to confuse the hell out of a lot of Americans: Japan only recently agreed to admit to its crimes during World War II.

If you’re like me as of ~5 years ago, you’re confused, because didn’t we take over Japan and make them agree that their Emperor wasn’t a god after all, and didn’t they write pacifism into their constitution, and don’t they have these big parks / museums dedicated to the cause of peace at the sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And haven’t they stopped with the whole imperialism thing and switched to manufacturing cars and electronics and anime? Given all this, why bother going to the effort of being in denial about WWII?

Well, it’s complicated. Vox has a great explainer that taught me a lot even though I’d learned the basics when I lived in Asia. TLDR; a big part of the problem is that after WWII, we pretty much made Germany admit all their crimes, whereas we only made Japan admit their crimes about white people. So the Japanese never really processed the whole “gang rapes of Korean and Chinese women” thing, until very recently.

Among other things, Japan originally apologized in 1993, but there was an immediate backlash from Japanese conservatives, who insisted the women in question were all hookers who’d done everything voluntarily. According to Vox, Japan’s current Prime Minister, “had for years argued that the comfort women claims were overblown; in 2007, during his (very brief) first tenure as prime minister, he passed a cabinet resolution claiming that there was no official proof the women had been coerced at all.”

From an American point of view, this is kind of horrifying, but it’s also just kind of dumb. From a non-Japanese point of view, the historical issue is so open and shut that it’s hard to imagine what anyone could possibly hope to accomplish by arguing. And it’s hard to imagine what the intellectually respectable version of this sort of right-wing (Japanese) nationalism would even be.

So America. One thing that really jumped out at me from Thursday night’s debate is Rubio’s attacks on Obama. Here are some of his comments, helpfully transcribed by Vox:

Barack Obama does not believe that America is a great global power. Barack Obama believes America is an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size. That is how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel and we gut our military and we go around the world like he has done on ten separate occasions and apologized for America.

The line about “a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran” is pretty bonkers. I mean, unless you think we should go to war with Iran and North Korea and probably Russia and not settle for anything short of unconditional surrender, we’re going to have to occasionally compromise with people we don’t like. Right? But maybe that’s an isolated piece of stupidity few other conservatives would join Rubio on (hey, I’m feeling optimistic today).

The line about Obama apologizing for America, on the other hand, is definitely a popular line among conservatives. PolitiFact has a nice summary; according to them, users of the “Obama apologizing” attack line include Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, and the Heritage Foundation, and the attacks go back to the beginning of the Obama presidency. And the nutty thing about this attack line is that it implies that America has literally never, ever done anything seriously wrong, or else that we should never apologize even when we have done something seriously wrong.

When I look at the examples of alleged Obama apologies PolitiFact has collected (drawn from, among other things, Romney’s 2008 book), they’re all pretty uncontroversial statements of fact, things Obama would look pretty stupid trying to deny, like:

  • Slavery
  • Treatment of Native Americans
  • A statement that the United States “shares blame” for the 2007-2008 financial crisis (actually, that could be controversial insofar as many would call it a gross understatement)
  • Torture under George W. Bush’s administration
  • Guantanamo Bay
  • Supporting the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected government in the 50s

As far as I know, none of the conservative figures mentioned above claim our pre-Civil War African slaves were here voluntarily, nor are they Iranian-coup denialists. And while it feels a bit weird for an organization like PolitiFact to make an official ruling on something like this, I have to agree with the expert PolitiFact interviewed who said Obama’s statements read more like non-apologies, statements of fact that don’t actually come with an “I’m sorry” or “I regret” or “I apologize.”

I guess the attitude is that America may have made mistakes, but we must never talk about them, lest we betray a slight hint of disloyalty. And this doesn’t seem to just be about Obama or whoever happens to be president at any given time. Lots of conservatives seem to be incapable of talking about, say, slavery without emphasizing that it doesn’t remotely diminish America’s status as the single greatest country that has ever existed, and why do you want to dwell so much on the past anyway, are you secretly rooting for one of those other countries that are in fact so much worse than America?

This is not, to put it mildly, a view we should expect to be popular among scholars–especially not ones who hope to be part of an international community of scholars. An American historian can’t expect her British colleagues to go along with ignoring the more embarrassing episodes from America’s history, any more than a Japanese historian can expect American historians to overlook Japan’s war crimes during WWII.

When I started writing this post, I was tempted to say “xenophobia” instead of “nationalism”. I didn’t, but only because “xenophobia” doesn’t seem like the right word for refusing to even talk about America’s past crimes. But xenophobia is clearly a huge part of it. And again, the left isn’t blameless on that front–see Bernie Sanders painting immigrants as corporate pawns–but on the left the xenophobia is relatively muted, whereas in this election cycle it may have become the biggest force driving the conservative movement.

It’s not just Trump; Cruz and Rubio have only been slightly more circumspect. The last couple GOP debates have been largely about how foreigners are scary and we need a strong president to defend us from the scary foreigners.

I think Joshua Greene pinpointed the problem in his book Moral Tribesresponding to Haidt. Liberalism and libertarianism are ideologies that travel well across national boundaries, but conservatism not so much. What’s “conservative” in America is distinctly different from what’s “conservative” in Iran.

Haidt, of course, knows this. The impression I get from his writings is he wants us to seriously consider a sort of conservative relativism–everyone is loyal to their own local in-group, respects local authority figures, follows local purity taboos, and so on. Unfortunately, relativism and the Christian orthodoxy of actual American conservatives don’t go well with each other.

Maybe Haidt’s conservative relativism isn’t too far off from attitudes you could find among ancient Greek and Roman pagans, or among some modern-day Hindus, but I’m not even sure about that. My general sense from reading dead philosophers is that mostly people respond to contact with other traditions and cultures by either deciding one tradition is objectively superior, or else deciding they’re all silly.

(Actually, I’m a little confused by why Haidt’s position isn’t more popular. It’s at least more consistent than the sort of academic relativist who fights racism and homophobia at home but makes excuses for female genital mutilation abroad. But for whatever reason, it’s hard to find other examples of people taking Haidt’s approach.)

This is something that really clicked for me when I read Tumblr user @nostalgebraist‘s side blog when he made the point that when people grow up in a liberal bubble and develop a taste for conservative ideas in their 20s or 30s or 40s, they often do this weird thing where they become traditionalists who never manage to get themselves an actual tradition. The result looks pretty weird to anyone who has experience with real conservatives–real conservatives have a specific tradition they want to conserve.

I think you’re going to see similar problems with any attempt to cultivate an academic version of “conservatism” that’s compatible with open inquiry as part of a community of scholars that crosses national and religious boundaries. Actual conservatives generally want to claim the thing they’re conserving is objectively better than the alternatives, but arguments for claims of that form tend to be really unconvincing to outsiders.


10 thoughts on “American conservatism is intellectually bankrupt

  1. There are elements of what I think you’re talking about regarding conservative relativism in ancient ways of thinking about religion, if I’m not mistaken. For large parts of history, the idea of each people having their own deity – but acknowledging that other people had another one that was not considered to be a false god – was not uncommon. Making sacrifices to another country’s god according to their ritual was even a common aspect of diplomatic relations – a good example being the Roman Emperor Augustus paid for regular sacrifices at the Jewish Temple in Judea. There’s an element of this in Cyrus’ decision to allow an end to the Jewish exile in Babylon – the idea that it is good for each people to worship their own deity and be attentive to their own traditions and histories. A good biblical example of this is in the story of Jonah – when the storm hits the ship he’s traveling on, the sailors and passengers tell everyone on the boat to call out to their own god. They’re not hedging their bets here – they’re trying to figure out which among many deities, all considered legitimate, is pissed at them.

    This is part of why monotheism was considered so radical/revolutionary/dangerous in the minds of a lot of people in the ancient world – it was at cross-purposes with the idea that each religious worldview could be viewed as legitimate by each other worldview. Monotheism was simultaneously insanely provincial (for only believing in one god) and insanely ambitious/aggressive (for believing that god had domain over every part of the world and should be recognized by every people).

    Connecting that with academic cultural relativism is an interesting idea that hadn’t occurred to me before. I think that part of the reason for why it hasn’t caught on in those circles is the degree to which anti-imperialism has succeeded in overriding every other value in large parts of the left, as opposed to the old days when it was one value among many. The unwillingness to condemn FGM or the tendency in certain circles to complain about “homo-nationalism” when people criticize Putin’s Russia is reflective of anti-imperialism being the top priority, not a genuine belief in equal time or legitimacy of different worldviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t agree about academia being pro-free market – in my experience, academics tend to be a lot more skeptical of capitalism and markets in general than most intellectuals are. Not to mention (at least in my experience) that academics with libertarian leanings tend to receive the same sort of opprobrium given to religious and nationalistic zealots.

    I’ll admit I may be biased though because my university is more left-wing than most.


  3. “In an alternate universe where it was common for historically black colleges to require professors to sign on to the crackpot theories of the Nation of Islam”
    In our universe, overtly not signing on to the crackpot theory that all races are equally intelligent leads to, I suspect, more opprobrium than being overly Christian or jingoistic. I don’t think academic freedom is that strong.


  4. Steven Pinker for example has suggested that ‘more non-leftist’ faculty would be good for the intellectual climate of universities, and he’s not necessarily talking about conventional American conservatives, more like classical liberals. My experience is that some humanities and social science departments are dominated by doctrinaire Marxists, and that anyone to the right of Trotsky is a heretic in those circles. I do generally agree on the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream American conservatism; there was a respectable Burkean tradition in the US forty years ago that has been swamped by right-populism appealing to less-educated working-class whites.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read intelligent secular conservatives who don’t believe in god and are cosmopolitan in the EA sense of the term, but believe in one or more of US hegemony, restrictive immigration, ethnonationalism (yes including for people of other nations), and traditional family values for pragmatic utilitarian reasons. Usually along with something about liberals being naive about how the real world works (especially outside of bubbles of nice rich smart people like the Bay Area and Boston) and unhealthily obsessed with showing off progressive virtue at the expense of seeing the world the way it actually is, whether we like it or not. You’ll find lots of these people in the neoreactionary blogosphere and some commenting on blogs like slatestarcodex. Just because these people’s views aren’t represented among academia does not mean that they’re wrong. What’s frustrating to me is that those on the left typically see fit to condemn these people for conclusions they consider unthinkably evil (by progressive morality standards) instead of trying to refute the arguments for those conclusions on a fact-based level. I’ve been wishing someone would create a “fact-based left” blog to engage with neoreactionaries etc. on a factual, not moral, basis for a while. In fact I would encourage you to write such a blog.


  6. @ CBA:

    Hallquist’s point, I gather, is that these people are not regular conservatives. They do not believe in what actual, real American conservatives believe in. These kinds of relativist traditionalists are a bizarre fringe group.

    And for the record, I absolutely agree with this post. American conservatism, as a combination of laissez-faire capitalism, Christianity, and nationalism, is intellectually bankrupt. But then again, it was never intellectually sound. And mainstream American “liberalism” isn’t that sound, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “conservatism not so much.”
    The Donald and the Dutch Great Blonde Leader

    have more than one thing in common though.

    “What’s “conservative” in America is distinctly different from what’s “conservative” in Iran.”
    Even of this one I’m not so sure. It seems to me that say IS at one hand and Wilders and Trump at the other hand want the same thing: making Samuel Huntington’s prediction (clash of civilizations) come true.

    To be a bit more contrary just for the sake of being contrary: if conservatism means something like “wanting to conserve some things” environmentalism is a form of conservatism.

    “environmental protection used to be a bipartisan affair”
    This means conserving a healthy environment on Earth.


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