The Duck of Minerva

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The American Political Science Association Should Condemn the Calremont Institute Connection

September 26, 2021

Academic freedom is a very important value. Professional integrity is another. Both values admit complexity, and are the subject of reasonable disagreement among colleagues and leaders of academic institutions. At the same time, the modern academy would not be what it is, or at least aspires to be, were it not for these values. 

A very wide range of behaviors are consistent with and protected by these values. But for these values to have meaning, there also must be certain things that are simply beyond the pale.

Is 21st century American fascism beyond the pale of the American Political Science Association?

The American Political Science Association, the premiere professional association of U.S. political scientists since its founding in 1903, is committed to both academic freedom and professional integrity, and rightly so. While it is officially non-partisan, and limited by its Constitution to public advocacy only in cases that relate to its core academic mission, the Association has nevertheless often been pressed to issue public statements and even to take public stands on questions of academic integrity, civil liberties, and even the role of universities in a democratic society. As it has done so, it has learned, weathered storms, and grown. Today’s APSA is not the APSA of 1903.

The Association is now embroiled, or at least involved, in a controversy related to the participation at this year’s Annual Conference of John Eastman, a former law professor and Claremont Institute leader who was also a Trump Whisperer (think Stephen Miller with a law degree and an ostentatious wide-brimmed hat). 

An Open Letter drafted and circulated by Professor David Karpf lays out the case plainly and with great power, and it is worth quoting in full:

To the members of the APSA Council:

On January 11, 2021, you issued the following statement on behalf of the APSA and its members: “The American Political Science Association strongly condemns President Trump, Republican legislators, and all those who have continuously endorsed and disseminated falsehoods and misinformation, and who have worked to overturn the results of a free and fair Presidential Election.”

John Eastman was an active participant in the attempted coup. Eastman, by his own admission, presented a memo to President Trump and Vice President Pence that “war gamed” alternatives for installing Trump as President by invalidating the Electoral Count Act through Vice Presidential fiat. “The main thing here,” Eastman wrote, “is that Pence should do this without asking permission – either from a vote of the joint session or from the Court.” Had Eastman been successful, the outcome of the 2020 election would have been nullified. American electoral democracy would have come to an abrupt conclusion.

The Claremont Institute has invited Eastman to appear on two of its panels at APSA this year. Eastman is a member of the Claremont Institute’s Board of Directors, and continues to serve as Director of Claremont’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. As Dr. Laura K. Field documents in her exhaustive study of Claremont’s participation in the 2020 election and its aftermath, the Claremont Institute has been an active proponent falsehoods and misinformation about the 2020 election and its aftermath. Far from condemning Eastman’s participation in the attempt to undermine U.S. electoral democracy, the Claremont Institute has provided him with a welcome and comforting home for these efforts.

We are aware that Sections and Related Groups are free to populate their panels with whoever they see fit. 

But John Eastman has violated our discipline’s professional ethics by participating in the dangerous attempt to overturn the institution of electoral democracy in the United States. 

Your statement of strong condemnation on January 11th must apply to the Claremont Institute if it is to apply to anyone at all. 

Therefore we hereby request that you, in accordance with APSA’s bylaws, to strip John Eastman of APSA membership.We also request that you rescind the Claremont Institute’s status as an APSA related group. It is well within your power to do so. The Claremont Institute currently deploys its status as an APSA Related Group as a fundraising vehicle – offering donors the opportunity to purchase a panel slot for a $5,000 donation. Claremont’s status as a Related Group provides a material benefit to an institution that is expressly at odds with the goals and values of the American Political Science Association and its membership. 

The Claremont Institute has the right to publish ill-reasoned diatribes that call for the end of electoral democracy in the United States. But the American Political Science Association has the responsibility to sever all ties with the Claremont Institute.”

This letter has generated some real debate in the digital public sphere. Questions have been raised about whether there even exist clear procedures within Association bylaws to strip memberships or rescind the status of related or affiliated groups. It is legitimate to expect that Association officials, staff, and legal counsel would take these questions very seriously before taking action on these matters.

At the same time, Professor Karpf has done the entire discipline a real service in drafting and circulating the Letter, and on the broader issue, he is surely correct: both the actions of John Eastman and the activism of the Claremont Institute with which he is associated are “at odds with the goals and values” of the Association and its membership, at least as these have been articulated and promoted by the Association in this century.

And whether or not APSA leadership feels able to take either of the actions demanded by the Letter, it is surely within the power and authority of APSA leadership to censure Eastman and the Claremont Institute, by making a very public statement that they are among “those who have continuously endorsed and disseminated falsehoods and misinformation, and who have worked to overturn the results of a free and fair Presidential Election,” and they thus deserve to be condemned. 

I believe that APSA leadership ought to make such a statement now, as it has often done on matters it considers important.*

Such a statement could also express support for the concerns raised by signatories of Professor Karpf’s Letter, and a commitment by APSA to undertake a serious deliberative review of its policies and whether support for or participation in an effort to overthrow a democratic election is consistent with the professional ethics of U.S. political science in the 21st century.

And I believe that the answer that any deliberative process must arrive at is a resounding “No!”

The Open Letter properly cites the Association’s January 11 Statement condemning those who have both promoted lies and falsehoods and supported the January 6 insurrection. It is impossible for an Association that published that Statement to then claim “neutrality” regarding the participation of those so condemned in its own activities. 

But the January 11 Statement was hardly the only public statement over the past year in which the Association staked out a position that can only be described as worried about and broadly committed to the future of constitutional democracy.

In the run-up to the 2020 elections–which was also the period in which Black Lives Matter protests exploded throughout the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder–the Association made three important public statements, each of which in its own way acknowledged that the U.S. was headed into a serious constitutional crisis in which the rule of law and democratic procedures were in jeopardy, and that the Association supported the rule of law and democratic procedures.

Its June 2020 “Statement on Systemic Racism” declared that “The American Political Science Association recognizes and condemns in the strongest terms the systemic racism that contributed to these deaths and shares the justified outrage it has provoked. We strongly support the right to protest and are alarmed by the government’s violent responses to peaceful protesters, including excessive uses of force in the name of order. We are also alarmed at the opportunistic criminal conduct of some who do not share the protesters’ commendable goals. These actions are a severe violation of democratic principles.” This statement centered on the danger associated with threats to democratic citizenship.

Later that summer, APSA issued a “Statement on the Essential Role of Social Scientific Inquiry in Maintaining a Free, Participatory, Civil, and Law-Governed Society” which “reaffirms the essential role of social scientific inquiry in maintaining a free, participatory, civil, and law-governed society, and our commitment to scholarship and professional practices that contribute to social as well intellectual progress. As a scholarly discipline, political science has a special connection to public life. It involves the analysis of ideas, institutions, and behavior to elucidate the distribution of power, the actions of governments, and their consequences for people’s lives.” Here too, the value of democratic citizenship, but also the importance of teaching about it, whatever one thinks about it, loomed large.

And then on November 25, 2020, APSA issued a third “Statement on 2020 Election”:

Political science research also highlights the importance of an orderly transition between the current president and the president-elect for national security and the integrity of our democratic process. We strongly and unequivocally support such an orderly transition, for the good of the country and the world. APSA’s Raise the Vote and Democracy 2020 Projects highlighted just some of the expertise, scholarship, and initiatives that political scientists undertook to strengthen civic engagement and civic education in the run-up to the election.”

This statement included these words at the bottom: “ . . . APSA brings together political scientists from all fields of inquiry, regions, and occupational endeavors within and outside academe to deepen our understanding of politics, democracy, and citizenship throughout the world.”

The Association was clearly doing more than making public statements. Its Raise the Vote and Democracy 2020 projects were serious efforts to promote broadly democratic civic education and voter participation at a time when APSA leaders clearly thought democracy was in danger. 

The Association did not also support initiatives to restrict voting or to suppress BLM protesters as riotous, Antifa Marxists who hate America or to promote “Second Amendment solutions” in the run-up to the election. Why not? Because the Association has never been agnostic about democratic citizenship, broadly construed. 

In April 2020, I drafted and circulated along with my colleague Will Kindred Winecoff an  Open Letter, signed by over 1000 political scientists. The letter, entitled “We Must Urgently Work to Guarantee Free and Fair Elections in November,” concluded: “In the entire history of the United States, there has never been a missed election. Elections were held during the Civil War, during World War I, and during World War II. We must make sure that the election takes place this coming November, and that it is a free, fair, and democratic election in which all citizens have the chance to participate.” On April 17, 2020, APSA’s Political Science Now site posted a feature linked to that Letter. (Can you imagine the site posting an announcement on “How Patriotic Political Scientists Can Stop the Steal,” or “Civic Education on the Virtues of Fascism?”).

The situation leading up to the 2020 election was unprecedented, and unprecedently dangerous. 

APSA’s public statements acknowledged this.

APSA’s use of its Political Science Now site to publicize “democracy promotion” activities acknowledged this.

The late July APSA “President’s Letter on 2020 Election & Voting” underscored this, articulating the normative importance of “America’s ‘Great Experiment in Democracy,’” and calling on all levels of U.S. government “to make our elections as open, accessible, and free to all citizens as possible, so that America may truly become a government of the people and by the people as well as for the people.” (While this was not an “official” APSA statement, it was signed by virtually every living APSA current and past President, and was publicized on the APSA site.)

Those dangers to democracy have not abated—something indeed recognized by the APSA statements made since the election and especially since the January 6 insurrection.

APSA now ought to take the obvious next step, at this moment of real ongoing crisis, and strongly distance itself from all of those who teach and publish about politics and the law and use their professional credentials to promote far-right, anti-democratic action to the point of literal insurrection.

John Eastman did more than offer a controversial “republican” reading of the law to Trump and Pence. He conspired with them to overthrow an election by offering a twisted argument that was beyond the pale of serious legal scholarship. As a piece in The Bulwark put it: “The basis of John Eastman’s memo: Get Pence to lie, then count on the GOP to be Trump trucklers.” But Eastman did not stop there. He then spoke at the January 6 rally that incited the insurrection. He was introduced by Rudolph Guliani–who infamously spoke to the angry crowd about “trial by combatand pledged to “fight to the very end”– in this way: “Let me ask Professor Eastman to explain . . . what happened last night, how they cheated, and how it was exactly the same as what they did on November 3.”

“Professor Eastman” then demagogically declared that the election had been stolen, that there was definitive proof of widespread voter fraud, ballot tampering, and misuses of voting machines, and that it was imperative for the crowd to “demand of Vice-President Pence” that he refuse to count recognize the state-certified Electoral College ballots. [A C-Span clip of Eastman’s speech can be seen here.]  Eastman was there to offer academic legitimation to the entire event—the demonstration and the march on the Capitol to make demands–and we know how that went. 

His lies and his specious approach to the law represented both professional malpractice and, arguably, sedition against democracy.

Further, his actions here were perfectly consistent with the broader efforts of the Claremont Institute and its two major publications—the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind—to promote conspiracy theories about “progressives” and “liberals,” and to fan the flame of paranoia about Democratic election “theft” (on November 4, 2020, The American Mind published a piece by Michael Anton, of “The Flight 93 Election” fame, entitled “Game on for the Coup?”). These efforts are undeniable, and have been extensively documented by Laura Field in a widely-cited and very carefully researched piece: “What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute?” The piece, published at The Bulwark—founded by former Republicans such as William Kristol, Charlie Sykes, and Mona Charen to defend democracy against Trumpist attacks—demonstrates how the Institute “plunged into Trumpism, illiberalism, and lying about the election.” (Field’s argument was further strengthened by a second Bulwark piece, Christian Vanderbrouk’s “Meet Trump’s Pro-Insurrection ‘Intellectuals.”) 

There can be no doubt that Eastman and his Claremont Institute “have continuously endorsed and disseminated falsehoods and misinformation, and who have worked to overturn the results of a free and fair Presidential Election.”

The only question that remains is how serious APSA was when it issued its January 11 condemnation of precisely those who did this.

It is hard to take seriously the notion that this is a matter that can simply be brushed under the rug on the grounds that it is “political” and not “professional.” Not given all the APSA public statements cited above.

No self-respecting academic professional association in the year 2021 would regard itself as indifferent to questions of racial or sexual discrimination or harassment. The professional ethics of contemporary political science include a broad commitment to the equal dignity of all colleagues and students regardless of identity. 

“Racism” and ‘sexism” have no place in the American Political Science Association, and that is a good thing indeed.

Does fascism have a place?

*  Back in September 2017, I published a piece at Public Seminar entitled “Taking Political Differences Seriously: Why I Did Not Protest John Yoo at the APSA Meetings.” I stand by that piece—which painstakingly explained the “why?” I also think the current situation is very different, because of the immediacy and gravity of the current situation, and because of the precedent established by APSA public statements attesting to the gravity of the situation. But it would cloud this piece, and the urgency of the situation, for me to elaborate here on this mainly autobiographical matter.

Postscript: The Claremount Institute canceled their appearance at APSA after its panels were all moved on-line.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac served as Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere, a flagship journal of APSA, for eight years. During this time (2009-2017), he also served as an ex-officio member of the APSA Governing Council. In 2017, he was awarded APSA’s Frank J. Goodnow Award for his contributions to the public engagement of the political science discipline.