Conservatives in the Capitol and the Ivory Tower

Recent blogs by Arnold Cusmariu on Marquette’s discrimination against conservative Catholics and by Thomas Lifson on the leftist campaign of terror against Scott Walker were both fascinating.

They need to be read carefully, however, side by side, with a great deal of contemplation. The problems they describe defy the simple categories of leftist folly and right-wing honor that many of us conservatives gloss.  These pieces offer glimpses into some of the tough contradictory choices faced by conservatives who want to fight back in good faith against left-wing political correctness.

Cusmariu’s blog deals with the defenseless position of conservative professors in Wisconsin, who can be suspended merely for defending students’ rights to oppose same-sex marriage.  Lifson’s piece deals with new information “about the conduct of that state’s Government Accountability Board (GAB) as it persecuted supporters of Governor Scott Walker, who bravely took on the public employee unions of that state.”

Like most conservatives, my gut instinct is to defend John McAdams, the tenured Marquette professor who has been suspended, apparently, due to leftists at this school targeting him for his Catholic beliefs.  Like most conservatives, I disapprove of the fanatical and seemingly criminal (but clearly obsessive) liberal campaign against Governor Scott Walker, who came to power through democratic elections and is, for all intents and purposes, governing with a mandate.

But there’s a problem with supporting both McAdams and Walker.  Conservatives have to work through this problem very carefully.  We need to be careful about assuming that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.  Sometimes that doesn’t work.

Why conservative professors need to be unionized

Conservative professors are exceedingly vulnerable in the academy.  Not only their academic colleagues  but also most of their administrators are against them.  Without the help of faculty unions, such professors can and will be crushed with increasing impunity by the leftists who control the hiring, promotion, and grievance processes at universities; the left can turn any frivolous gripe against a conservative professor into a kangaroo court and effortlessly dump the poor pedagogue on the street without spilling a drop of Starbucks latte on their tweeds.

Scott Walker was lionized for taking on the “public employee unions” of Wisconsin, but conservative support for him went far beyond that.  There was a general revolt against unions of all kinds.  Teachers’ unions were a particular target for rage.  Also by extension was the entire educational system, which many conservatives rightly perceived as dominated by corrupt left-wing ideologues.

Yet herein lies the rub: if you make it easier for education administrators to retaliate against professors, you will multiply the number of conservatives like John McAdams being crushed unfairly by the liberal-dominated administrations in charge of universities.  This will trickle down: more and more K-12 teachers will be credentialed at universities that have no conservative voice whatsoever, and all the terrible political repression wrought against John McAdams will be so commonplace at all levels of schooling that we will not even notice it anymore.

Are free-market libertarians the friends or enemies of social conservatives?

The added complication here is that Scott Walker has made recent overtures that amount to saying he isn’t going to fight against gay marriage anymore, since he wishes to concentrate his conservative message on economics.

Here’s why this leaves someone like John McAdams in extremely dangerous territory: there are conservative professors, and there are “conservative” professors.  Conservatives who are really just free-market libertarians who want to legalize gay marriage, marijuana, and open immigration do deal with some pushback from liberal colleagues.  But that’s nothing compared to what social conservatives get.  Oppose gay marriage, or even support someone else’s right to oppose gay marriage, and you will take an all-out barrage of vicious attacks that no libertarian could even imagine.

I am in John McAdams’s boat.  I testified in both Minnesota and France against same-sex marriage.  I have libertarian colleagues who like to tell me that they feel my pain, but they don’t.  There’s a world of difference between saying, “I believe in the free market but I think gay marriage is a civil right” and saying, “I believe that gay marriage undermines a child’s right to his mother and father, regardless of what my views may be about capitalism.”  Literally, I know no libertarian anywhere who has taken the abuse I have taken both on and off campus.  And consider the case of John McAdams, who has tenure and is now suspended.

Use me as a case study if it helps

I am tenured, and currently I am not suspended.  Why?  Well, the answer is simple: I have a union.  If Scott Walker were my governor, my family would be homeless right now.  This doesn’t mean I support people’s criminal activities to try to sabotage him.  But this does mean that I need fellow conservatives to slow down and think through their praise of Scott Walker a little.

If you follow Walker’s economic-but-not-social conservative philosophy and embrace his policy about bargaining rights of faculty, you are signing the death warrant of conservatives in the academy.

In 2011, protestors took over the capitol rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin, in protest against Scott Walker’s proposal to rein in the bargaining power of labor unions.  At the time, Walker became a hero to the right wing and the bogeyman of choice for the left wing.  According to the Wisconsin State-Journal, as reported on February 16, 2011, over 12,000 people surrounded the Capitol carrying signs saying “Kill the Bill.”  Their reasoning was that Walker’s legislation would “greatly weaken organized labor.”

The reaction from conservatives was swift and thunderous.  While one would not want to hold up Ann Coulter as the voice of all right-wingers, consider that she publishes only one column per week on her website, and Scott Walker’s union tempest was the main focus of her February 23, March 2, and March 9, 2011 essays.  Equal in ferocity to the left’s war on Scott Walker was the right’s determination to defend him against bullying by unions.

While many jobs are affected by labor union policies, teachers were a main focus of the conservative groundswell in favor of Scott Walker.  Right-wing columns delighted in recounting the abuses of the system by educators.  Stories abounded, from tenured people who barely taught to excessive health benefits extended to teachers who, in the eyes of the public, were doing only a fraction of the work done by people in the private sector.

In those months, I was still a newbie at conservative commentary.  While I had published an essay on American Thinker in 2009, I would not return to the site as an author again until July 7, 2011, when I began commenting primarily on problems with the LGBT movement.

In February 2011, it would have been risky for me to jump into the fray.  Tenure would not come for two more years for me.  I was still in the Army Reserves and wary of stepping into any public debate, particularly given the sensitivity surrounding Don’t Ask Don’t Tell at the time.  Also, at that time, I was struggling to fight back against severe harassment from pacifists and anti-military leftists at my job – with the help of the faculty union.

I knew that if a Scott Walker type had been governor of California and had severely weakened faculty unions, I would have been doomed to lose my job.

Being an Army reservist, conservative, and a professor was like navigating a daily obstacle course, only with no safety nets anywhere.  I had been sold a myth that the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act (USERRA) protected me from retaliation at my job over my military service – it didn’t.  Not at all.

USERRA only forced civilian employers in a narrow sense to make no personnel decisions that could demonstrably be linked to my decision to serve.  That left loopholes you could drive a Sherman tank through.  Colleagues could still hang up inflammatory posters, incite students against me in class, organize people to post negative comments on, and over-scrutinize my publications in search of red flags to sink me on.  My reactions to provocations could be used against me, but literally hundreds of other people who were not legally circumscribed by USERRA could provoke me with impunity.

Even if I had wanted to get USERRA involved in 2011, I was told I would have to drive three hours away to Fort Irwin and set up a meeting with a lawyer there.  It was totally infeasible for me.

In truth, the California Faculty Association (CFA) was instrumental in helping me navigate the winding course of booby traps laid all around me.  I had a right to bring a union representative with me to any meetings, and this did make a difference.  People who wanted to use student feedback or anonymous complaints against me were highly limited by union rules and could not put things in my personnel file.  Then, when I went up for tenure, there were strict rules about what in my personnel file the review committees could cite in order to harm me professionally.\

Sandbags at the campus diversity office

There is a diversity office on my campus that would technically protect me from backlash based on several protected statuses: I am (now) a veteran, Christian, bisexual, Latino, and a married father who took paternity leave.

But when you are conservative, such offices cannot help you.  The main way that people retaliate against you is use of the campus diversity office based on the fact that your views are, in some far-fetched syllogism, discriminating, in some cases against the same group to which you belong.

Let’s say the conservative is himself a member of a protected class.  Most of the discrimination against the conservative who is part of a protected class will be couched not in ways that such offices are accustomed to deem racist – i.e., “you are stupid because you are Latino, so I will pay you less” – but rather in ways that obscure the prejudice against the protected status behind a political objection ostensibly supporting the protected status – i.e., “as a bisexual opposed to gay marriage, you are discriminating against gays, so my hostility to your bisexuality is actually a defense of other people’s homosexuality.”

On most campuses, the diversity office is closely tied to the left-wing professors who do much of the harassing against conservatives, and conservatives do not have any official protected status.

Don’t abandon the colorful conservatives

The result, therefore, is that a conservative professor, even one who belongs to a protected class, can receive no assistance against retaliation based on being an ideological or any other kind of minority.  He can get help based only on his identity as a faculty member and employee of the university.  Laws that crush the bargaining power of unions will take away the one card such a beleaguered person can play.

I am glad that conservatives are scrutinizing what is happening both to Walker and McAdams, but I hope that some on our side can go to the next level and reflect on an area where the conservative movement has been less than thorough.  There has been ample focus on liberal professors abusing their power over conservative students, and a lot of scrutiny of the lopsidedness of the faculty favoring liberal ideologies.  Not enough has been done to strategize how to support the few conservative professors there are already in the system.

In my monograph The Colorful Conservative, I addressed this briefly in a passage in which I sought to pay homage to David Horowitz but also call his supporters to the next task.  It is something perhaps to think about, even now, four years after the book came out:

The key to a conservative Reconquista of the academy lies in articulating persuasive alternatives to leftism, mixed with intellectual perseverance on the part of young conservatives willing to face the gauntlet in graduate programs. […] Constant caterwauling and ridicule aimed at academic liberals doubly injure the few conservative scholars in fields like English: Their colleagues lash out at them to vent anger at Horowitz-style bombast, and rightists still end up largely unsupported.