In the war of ideas, the Right holds a weak hand for the simple reason that it has minimal access to America’s 20 million college students. Yes, Heritage, the Manhattan Institute, and other right-leaning organizations can publish brilliant, wonkish papers, but this reach pales in comparison to the countless airheaded, lefty professors who indoctrinate thousands of impressionable youngsters every year. One only needs to observe the outcomes of today’s ideological strife to confirm this unpleasant imbalance.
This is all so obvious, and one would think that conservative think tanks would at least try to enter the collegiate marketplace of ideas by recruiting college professors to hear their messages and eventually bring them to students—that they’d at least do something more than just mail professors unsolicited policy papers or sponsor newspaper op-eds. Not so. University faculty, with scant exception, are MIA in the world of right-leaning think tanks.
This partly reflects the think tanks’ pay-to-play business model. It’s expensive to participate in this world, where meals and conferences typically cost several hundred dollars or more. Alas, professors are notoriously cheap, especially if there is no immediate professional benefit from, say, attending an AEI lunch versus networking at a disciplinary meeting. Why pay $1,500 to hob-nob with non-academics? What’s more, on many campuses, attending said lunch can be a guilt-by-association career liability. With these prices and risks, it’s hardly surprising that think tanks attract so few professors to hear their sermons.
But beyond the financial and professional disincentives, conservative organizations face a more formidable obstacle: the pecking order. In a nutshell, a professor who arrives at a conservative-sponsored event invariably loses status, a process identical to inserting a newcomer chicken into an established barnyard flock hierarchy. This recent arrival may be a brilliant, distinguished specimen, bedecked in glorious plumage, but he will be pecked at by the others and forbidden to reciprocate. This is true even if the meal is free. And the pecking order is hard-wired into human nature. That the business folk who attend think tank events often have a low view of “pointy-headed” intellectuals hardly helps.
Let me be more specific. Think tanks rely on regular, often yearly donations, not student tuition, government subsidies, and endowments. Nor do these organizations come cheap—top administrators are well paid; meetings and meals require expensive venues and staffing. It is thus perfectly rational for think tanks to treat members according to their generosity. Pay the membership minimum and receive a free magazine; donate mega bucks and attend private dinners with dignitaries. Further, think tanks hire staff to schmooze with attendees, functioning like top restaurants—big-tipping regulars sit at prestige tables and receive fawning service, while hoi polloi dine near the kitchen door.
Most academics will find this sudden loss of status painful and irreversible, unless, of course, they are willing to shell out $25,000 to sit at the head table for a dinner honoring a GOP functionary rambling on with a canned speech.
To top it all off, what counts as academic currency—a sharp intelligence, a mastering of the arcane, a long vita, disciplinary awards, and similar academic accomplishments—counts for little in the think tank’s social whirl. Yes, you may be a renowned expert on international affairs, but if you pay the minimum for a ticket to the annual dinner, you may well be seated at banquet hall’s cheap seats with donors trading pictures of grandchildren. Nobody wants to hear your insightful application of Hans Morgenthau’s theories to the current Middle East. This is light years from one’s home turf, where students must pay attention to your pearls of wisdom. And who needs the hotel’s rubber chicken, to boot?
Don’t believe the claim that think tanks are a refuge from oppressive campus orthodoxies and thus should naturally attract free-thinking professors. An academic who believes that he can speak freely by escaping the campus thoughtcrime apparatchiki is mistaken. The choice is between two different orthodoxies, not between the stifling dogmas of the academy and an unbridled marketplace of ideas at a Harvard Club luncheon.
Academics may well be frustrated by their intellectual encounters with those they meet at think tank events. Attendees who’ve made fortunes in the “real world” are rarely able to discuss complex issues by citing scholarly research or make references to eminent theorists. More likely, think tank-ers (including mega donors) will invoke some general principle (e.g., enhanced competition will cure America’s educational short comings) and will perhaps add some anecdotal evidence.
This divide in intellectual currency can rarely be bridged, and those earning handsome livelihoods in the “real world” will resent being criticized for their naïve views. All in all, then, why should a professor venture to where his arguments, often viewed as long-winded, fall flat? Better to remain on campus where colleagues and students will appreciate long-drawn-out erudition.
This divide between think tanks and the academy helps explain why universities have so easily embraced intellectual and political insanity. Where is the counterattack? Certainly not from right-of-center think tanks. Heritage, AEI, and the like have long been asleep at the wheel, oblivious to the rise of identity politics, the social construction of everything, the belief that science is racist, and all the rest. Had anybody been monitoring campus intellectual life thirty years ago, academics could have explained how pernicious postmodern gobbledygook and racial preferences were infiltrating departmental hiring and undermining intellectual standards. The same goes for the emergence of academic specialties that are nothing more than grievance-mongering. Today’s think tank speakers alarmed at campuses’ ideologically infused raving and ranting are decades too late. The academy’s Cassandras never had a chance to sound the alarm.
Yes, preaching the message to affluent, middle-aged lawyers, finance types, and assorted retirees may be a sound business model to keep right-of-center think tanks solvent, but it is, sadly, a side show in today’s ideological battlefield. It’s rearguard resistance at best, since these messages will go nowhere. The real battle today occurs on campus, where the Left enjoys near-unencumbered access to scores of suggestible youngsters. What else explains the rise of woke capitalism and the one-sided mass media?
I am unsure of how to overcome this obstacle of campus access, but I am convinced that it must entail energizing greater numbers of faculty, especially junior faculty, who often teach large groups of undergraduates yet to be fully marinated in the woke orthodoxy. Perhaps we should study the Communist Party for tips on recruiting top-rung university talent. It is no accident, comrade, that the CPUSA successfully recruited and then manipulated hundreds of fellow traveler-professors to spread the Marxist gospel—and did so without fancy events.
Image: Italo Melo, Public Domain