In the next few weeks or month on some conservative site there will be another clickbait article about how academia is dominated by liberals and how conservative students feel uncomfortable on America’s best campuses. When that article appears, we should all remember that same thing was written in the 1980s when Brett Kavanaugh was running around Yale, an environment in which the evidence suggests he felt very comfortable. However, it is no longer the 1980s and it is certainly possible that this trend has grown stronger in the intervening decades.
These articles generally present this finding as some kind of cosmic injustice or proof of a left wing conspiracy, but the debacle we saw last Thursday in the US Senate should, among other things, make it clear why Republican and conservative ideas are not popular on American campuses today. There was much to be learned about privilege, race, gender relations, toxic male behavior, substance abuse and politics from those hearings, but it also demonstrated the chasm between Democrats and Republicans on science and legal processes.
Because of Christine Blaisey Ford’s academic expertise, she was able to discuss memory and brain science with great knowledge. For example, I cannot remember the last time I heard the word “hippocampus” at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. The Democrats were able to follow this and ask relevant questions about why some memories were stronger than others. The Republicans, for their part, didn’t question Dr. Ford at all because they didn’t want to be seen as old white men bullying a woman-which is, of course, precisely what they were.
Although the forum on Thursday was not a trial of any kind, the Democrats seemed to be pursuing the kind of legal strategy and questioning that one would expect in a contemporary courtroom, although few courtrooms are dominated by belligerent interruptions the way the Senate hearing was. Senator Richard Blumenthal’s use of the Latin phrase “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” was an attempt to use a Latin phrase to frame the Democratic argument against Kavanaugh. There was a moment of humor, or at least irony, as the Jewish Senator had to explain to the man who in his own words “busted his tail” in Catholic School what this very basic Latin phrase meant.
Rachel Mitchell, who led the questioning for Republicans in the first part of the hearing pursued a similar sophisticated legal strategy, but when the Republican Senators brushed her aside we saw a very different approach. Lindsay Graham’s tantrum has become the most memorable thing said by a Republican Senator that day, but Senator John Kennedy’s questions for Brett Kavanaugh were deeply revealing of the Republican view of Kavanaugh. Kennedy simply asked Kavanaugh to “swear to G*d”that he was innocent. That was a bizarre moment. American prisons are people who would make a similar pledge of their innocence; some of those people are indeed innocent, but many are guilty. Our judicial system has never let pledges of innocence, even if the defendant swears to G*d, be seen as proof of innocence for reasons that anybody can figure out.
At the core of this very revealing, and for many upsetting, hearing was the radically different approaches the two parties take to knowledge. The Democratic Senators seemed comfortable is the realm of science and the reality that human memory is complex and that some moments remain deeply imprinted while others may fade away. The Republicans pursued a different course, one that was more grounded in a subjective sense of Kavanaugh’s character and honesty.
This hearing helps explain the liberal bias on college campuses and why that bias may seem bigger now. When differences between conservatives and progressives were primarily around issues like how much the government should be involved in the economy or what American foreign policy should look like, there was much more space for conservative thought and debate in general in institutions, like most universities, dedicated to rigorous research, thought and methodology, but conservatism has changed. Much of the new conservatism was on display last week in the US Senate. The discomfort with modern science, which last week took the form of skepticism about contemporary research on memory and the brain but is also seen in widespread climate change denial that is now part of conservative orthodoxy, are just some example of this. The unwillingness of any of the Republicans to engage in legal discourse, resorting instead to outrage and subjective judgments of character is the same emotional response that explains much of the appeal of Donald Trump, the face of the new ignorant conservatism. There is no place for disdain for science and rational argument in research and higher learning, so we cannot be surprised, and should probably be grateful, that this kind of conservatism has yet to get a foothold in academia. If it did, our universities, still among the very best in the world, would rapidly decline.