As former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich put it, this presidential election “was a rejection of the Democratic establishment, the Republican establishment, the media establishment and the financial establishment.”
Kucinich missed one power center: Donald Trump’s election marked rejection of the higher-education establishment. And academia knows it.
Earlier in the year, Emory students claimed psychological distress at the mere sight of the word “Trump” chalked on pavements. Later, professors at campuses like Yale and Penn let students skip exams to grieve the election results. Stanford actually offered students and faculty psychological counseling to help with election-induced “uncertainty, anger, anxiety and/or fear.” At many colleges and universities, including mine, chancellors issued de rigueur official statements making clear that they feel the pain of Hillary Clinton voters. It’s hard to imagine such solicitousness toward Trump voters.
My professional organization, the American Educational Research Association, went a step further, essentially blaming Trump for incidents “from Charleston to Orlando” spreading “anger and hate (that) have overridden our sensibilities around respect for others and social justice. The hostility since the election has been even more appalling, as violent threats, hate speech, and verbal attacks have nurtured fear.”
I’m certainly no fan of Trump, the only American politician capable of making Clinton seem law-abiding.
Yet in a broad sense, Trump really does represent the powerless at universities, and in polite society generally. All societies have elites who set etiquette, the rules of discourse. Problems arise when self-righteous elites use intimidation to deter reasonable debate, enforcing a narrow conformity rather than ideological diversity.
As political scientist Stanley Rothman demonstrated empirically in a series of works culminating with his posthumous “The End of the Experiment” (meaning the American experiment), in the late 20th century, progressives came to dominate academia, and eventually popular culture and the news media, sowing skepticism toward traditional institutions like the nuclear family and organized religion, and reverence toward traditionally disadvantaged groups.
To be clear, a dose of skepticism toward traditional hierarchies is healthy. Yet taken too far, progressivism became groupthink, ignoring real world tradeoffs, silencing alternative views and ultimately limiting what policies governments can consider. Examples abound.
To those like me raised in urban America in the 1970s, it was clear that the progressive welfare state eroded the two-parent family, first among African-Americans and later among blue-collar whites, with disastrous impacts on children. Statistically, the rise of single-parent families is the biggest driver of economic inequity. Blue-collar folks have long understood this, and some Trump support reflects a desire not to make America hate again, but to make families great again. Yet from Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s to Bradford Wilcox today, anyone in academia who dares discuss family change in a realistic way risks being labeled racist and sexist, which is no way to get grants or tenure.
Much is made of the plight of working-class white males, the core of Trump support. Over the past half-century, led by universities, society welcomed women into the paid workplace. While this was generally a positive development, none of the geniuses who championed women’s liberation dared consider how an enormous increase in the supply of labor might affect wages.
Similarly, over the past 30 years we have welcomed more immigrants than at any time since the early 20th century, many undocumented, without considering impacts on working-class wages and labor-participation rates, not to mention the rule of law. Those who did were called racist.
Regarding foreign policy, the reluctance of academics to address how particular strands of Wahhabi Islam spawned terrorism has left us ill-equipped to understand who we fight and what we are fighting for.
Generally, the overuse of epithets like “racist,” “sexist,” and “Islamophobic” has, as conservative Trump critic Steve Daece put it on “PBS NewsHour,” “insulated Trump from any legitimate criticism he may have as president, because they’re just going to roll their eyes and say there goes the media again.”
Academics have created a world in which defending risque Halloween costumes or gender-designated bathrooms routinely leads to outrage over perceived bigotry. Yet when everything is prejudice, then nothing is, giving demagogues a free pass and even some sympathy when they really do say horrendous things about minorities or women.
Trump is a showman who understands this. If only our politically correct universities were half so analytical.
A former Villanova professor, Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and co-editor of “The Politically Correct University.”