Groupthink & Political Analysis

A central
component of the groupthink academy
is the law of group polarization–that
in environments (such as most humanities and social sciences departments) in
which people basically think alike, more extreme versions of the common
assumption will emerge. Within the academy, that condition has had the effect
of producing more extreme new faculty hires and less pedagogical diversity.
Outside the academy, the prevalence of groupthink has had the unintended
consequence of making the views of “mainstream” academics of little use even
for their seeming political allies.

Take, as an example, the recent book analyzing the
ideological roots of modern conservatism, penned by political science professor
Corey Robin. Published by Oxford University Press, The Reactionary Mind would seem to be what passes for quality in
contemporary political science–exactly the sort of analysis that liberals might
like to receive as they embark on what promises to be a highly contentious
campaign season. The book’s general thesis–that conservatives defend the
interests of the elite at the expense of the weak–likewise would seem to be
attractive for partisans in the post-Occupy Wall Street era.

Instead, the Robin book has been panned, in caustic terms,
by publications that would seem to be sympathetic to an academic critique of
the contemporary right. In the New York
, Sheri
Berman terms Robin’s work
a diatribe that
preaches to the converted rather than offering much to general readers
sincerely trying to under­stand the right’s role in contemporary American
political dysfunction.”

In a brutal takedown of the book’s thesis, Berman observes
that while right-wing populism formed a critical component of 20th
century conservatism in both the United States
and much of Western Europe, “Robin cannot or will not accept this, insisting
instead that conservatism is always, at its core, about subjugating society’s
lower orders. He thus has to explain away right-wing populism as some sort of
trick designed to ‘harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or
restore the power of elites.’ Suffice it to say that reliance on conspiracy
theories and false-consciousness explanations to dispose of inconvenient
evidence is always a bad sign.”

Or take
Mark Lilla’s review
, in the New York
Review of Books
. Like Berman, Lilla welcomes the idea of a book analyzing
the ideological foundations of contemporary conservatism; defining key
political labels is “what renders the political present legible to us.”
 Yet he fears that Robin’s “is a useful book to have–not as an example to follow,
but one to avoid.”

Lilla describes Robin as “a lumper, an über-lumper,
which may please his beleaguered readers on the left, but makes his entire
enterprise incoherent.” As an example, he cites “the book’s most extraordinary
paragraph: ‘I use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary
interchangeably: not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative…but all
conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary. I seat
philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists,
evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to
Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia,
with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt,
Margaret Thatcher, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Winston Churchill, Phyllis
Schlafly, Richard Nixon, Irving Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and George W. Bush
interspersed throughout.'”

As Lilla correctly concludes, “Glenn Beck’s blackboard was
never half this full.”

The Daily Beast’s
Andrew Sullivan has been a stout defender of President Obama, while his
anti-Israel fanaticism
might even make him at home in Columbia’s Middle
East Studies Department, much less in most contemporary political science
departments. Yet Sullivan, like Lilla and Berman, dismissed
Robin’s work
, commenting that its “premise–that
all conservatism means and can mean is suppression of the downtrodden and that
all conservatives are the same underneath–is so crude it beggars belief.”

Again, these are comments from
figures and publications whose politics would seem to make them sympathetic to
a book like Robin’s.

It’s possible, of course, that
even in a more intellectually and pedagogically diverse academy, a book with
such a “crude” thesis would have appeared. But–especially on political
matters–groupthink has a corrosive effect on the peer-review process upon which
effective academic publications depend. While Robin’s ideas are quite
in the ideological cocoon that too often defines the academy, few if any Democratic politicians could embrace (or even
find useful) such an “incoherent” thesis without alienating not only
independents but much of their base.

Fifty years ago, academics
frequently migrated in and out political life. Now, with the exceptions of a
handful of fields (data-dependent economics; faculty from schools of law,
business, or medicine, whose curricula are set in part by forces outside the
academy), it’s all but inconceivable to imagine professors whose views reflect
the basic assumptions of their respective disciplines serving in responsible
government positions. Indeed, with occasional exceptions (such as political
scientists Brendan Nyhan or Jonathan Bernstein), it’s hard to imagine academics
outside of economics, the law, and medicine having much interesting to say
about politics.

I suspect that most members of the
majority viewpoint on today’s campuses are willing to make the trade, firming
up their power within the academy in exchange for losing virtually all
influence in the public square. Whether society benefits from this exchange is
another matter.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

    View all posts

2 thoughts on “Groupthink & Political Analysis

  1. Nice column! Robin’s book got the reviews it deserved the first time, so he brought it back in a second edition that’s even worse. Once a preening self-righteous SJW…

  2. You simultaneously cite leftist critiques of the book and claim that the book exposes leftist group-think. If leftist group-think prevailed, wouldn’t they have embraced the book? The reaction to this book may instead suggest that the left’s echo-chamber isn’t quite as insular as the right’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *