To what extent is the university a microcosm of the political party system?
I thought on this recently at the Philadelphia Society’s fall meeting. The theme of the two-day conference was “The History and Meaning of American Political Parties.” Historians and political philosophers recounted the origins of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or “rats” and “anti-rats” as Elbridge Gerry dubbed them). We talked about the Democrats and about the Whigs, and how they split over slavery, leaving room for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party to rise in the 1860 election. I learned from Hillsdale College’s R.J. Pestritto that early Progressives debated whether the party model was useful. Teddy Roosevelt thought parties, as private organizations, separated the voters from their representatives. Woodrow Wilson believed a well-organized party led by a popular president kept the government at the service of its people.
Many of the conference speakers mentioned this year’s bizarre election cycle, marked by what Richard Brake of the Institute for Family Studies called “a hostile take-over of the GOP” by Donald Trump and the near take-over of the Democratic Party by self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. National Review editor John O’Sullivan ribbed the Republican Party: “This is the first time the conservative movement is upset because one-half of them might vote Republican!”
Some people view the university as a testing site for new social and political movements. NAS’s 2015 study, Inside Divestment, tracked the way Bill McKibben and other leaders of the fossil fuel divestment movement built the campaign on college campuses and then brought it to Congress. Others see colleges as recruiting grounds for entrenched political interests. NAS’s research on civics instruction shows that universities are replacing the study of the history and structure of the American regime with exercises in political activism.
But is the university itself modeled on the tug-of-war of politics—and if it is, should it be? In Philadelphia, during a pre-conference session on the meaning of academic freedom, one graduate student suggested we treat academic disciplines the way James Madison treated factions in Federalist 10: let each rival the others, canceling each other out. “It’s a kind of federalism” to let each field determine its own truth, the student said, arguing that no one has authority to declare whether objective truth exists. Letting each discipline define itself gives people choices, allowing them to reject disciplines whose claims don’t match their beliefs or experience: “The market wins.”
But denying the transcendence of truth strips higher education of its special purpose, turning it into just another institution leveraging its clout and prestige to suit its own interests. Higher education is unique because it is devoted to understanding the world around us, whether or not that knowledge is immediately useful or politically powerful. Colleges can pursue not just the practical, but the enduring.
The political stage, when separated from shared enduring principles, becomes a mere battle of wills. The most powerful win. Is that what higher education should strive to be? Some speakers suggested American political parties, like American colleges, would do well to recover an appreciation for objective principles from natural law.
David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, said both Federalists and Anti-Federalists were “partisans of liberty”—more loyal to the principle of individual freedom than to the differences that separated them. That common ground is what enabled both sides to accept the legitimacy of the U.S. Constitution—though the Anti-Federalists had opposed its ratification. (Bobb poked colleges when he brought up James Madison’s rejection of the notion that government could eliminate factions by giving everyone the same interests and opinions. “This is what colleges try to do today,” Bobb said wryly.)
Charles Kesler from Claremont McKenna College noted that the two-party system presumes some minimum level of shared values among the American voters. “A two-party system depends on an underlying one-party system – on some consensus on the ends and goals of politics,” he said. The parties may disagree on the proper methods to achieve their shared goals, but “a peaceful transition between two parties presupposes they don’t have revolutionary differences from each other.”
Is there such a shared goal in higher education, something common that professors and students in all disciplines accept as the basis for academic research and study? NAS president Peter Wood’s statement The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, which all participants in the pre-conference seminar read, suggests the pursuit of truth should be one of these shared goals. Civility should be another, argued one participant. Views that reject the existence of intellectual freedom “should be off the table,” said another.
David Bobb’s talk in Philadelphia noted that the end of the eighteenth century was a time of “folly and madness,” marked by growing political partisanship George Washington sought to restrain. Higher education today has its own share of folly. Restoring a common understanding of the pursuit of truth would be wise.