Daniel W. Drezner

Brooks and Krugman roil the waters

Occasionally I wonder whether David Brooks and Paul Krugman call each other up and say, “Hey, let’s get the blogosphere really worked up about topic X!!” I know that doesn’t actually happen, but their columns from today — Krugman’s explanation for why no conservatives are in academia and vice versa, and Brooks’ explanation of why ...

Occasionally I wonder whether David Brooks and Paul Krugman call each other up and say, “Hey, let’s get the blogosphere really worked up about topic X!!” I know that doesn’t actually happen, but their columns from today — Krugman’s explanation for why no conservatives are in academia and vice versa, and Brooks’ explanation of why conservatives are the party of big ideas — play off each other nicely. Krugman’s thesis:

Claims that liberal bias keeps conservatives off college faculties almost always focus on the humanities and social sciences, where judgments about what constitutes good scholarship can seem subjective to an outsider. But studies that find registered Republicans in the minority at elite universities show that Republicans are almost as rare in hard sciences like physics and in engineering departments as in softer fields. Why? One answer is self-selection – the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering. But there’s also, crucially, a values issue…. Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that “the jury is still out.” Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a “gigantic hoax.” And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton’s anti-environmentalist fantasies. Think of the message this sends: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

In contrast to Krugman’s claim of Republican intolerance, Brooks argues that it’s precisely the intra-party squabbling that keeps the GOP on its toes:

Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they’ve found one faction to agree with…. Moreover, it’s not only feuding that has been the key to conservative success – it’s also what the feuding’s about. When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn’t even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers – Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson – to define what a just society should look like. Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement’s views about human nature and society are true. Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I’d asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he’d call me back. He never did. Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition, liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys.

Combined, these two columns have certainly inspired a great deal of blog chatter. On Brooks, see Glenn Reynolds, Kieran Healy, Mark Schmitt, Matthew Yglesias, and Kevin Drum. On Krugman, see Juan Non-Volokh, Orin Kerr, Mark Kleiman, and Brad DeLong [What the hell does DeLong’s post have to do with Krugman’s article?–ed. Nothing, except it does offer a glimpse into the kind of mentality that is necessary to survive and thrive in the modern academy]. As a Republican academic, I offer the following insights:

1) At the conference I atttended this weekend, a law professor (whose name and affiliation will remain anonymous) told me flat out that a colleague had Googled a job applicant who was being seriously looked at, found the applicant’s blog, found the political views on the blog to be “reactionary,” and that this was a contributing factor to the decision not to hire the applicant. This, alas, confirms one of the negative externalities of scholar-blogging. My point? Krugman clearly believes that some beliefs about the scientific method are a necessary condition for academia, and these these views are anathema to Republicans. To which I would say: a) this is the intellectual equivalent of quoting union Democrats bashing the logic of free trade and therefore concluding that no Democrats could possibly become economists — in other words, Krugman mistakenly attributes the attitudes of some Republicans about evolution to all Republicans; and b) the above anecdote suggests that when the broad swath of academia is liberal, receptivity to evolution ain’t the only necessary belief to hold in order to get hired. 2) If you go back and read Ron Susskind’s “reality-based” New York Times Magazine cover story on the Bush administration, or think about Bush’s definition of “political capital,” you quickly become aware that conservatives are quite well-versed in arguments about the social construction of reality, thank you very much. 3) I fear I may botch the point I want to make here, but it’s worth roiling the waters by making it anyway. Considering how both sides of the ideological spectrum have been thinking about foreign policy since 9/11, I can’t help thinking that both Krugman and Brooks have a decent point. On questions of grand strategy, almost all of the intellectual ferment has come from conservatives (though bravo to the folks at Democracy Arsenal for trying to correct that imbalance). At the same time, the conservatives in power did a God-awful job of actually implementing various parts of this strategy, in part because they they were so unwilling to question the empirical support for their foundational assumptions. In contrast, “reality-based” liberals have been correct on an awful lot of particulars, but not on the big questions. In other words, my ideal foreign policy is one that’s forged in the grand strategy debates on the right, but implemented by the policy wonk mandarins on the left.

There’s plenty more to wrestle with here — including the question of how Mill’s On Liberty would inform one’s reaction to these columns — but I’ll leave that to the readers.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner