Should the American Political Science Association Take a Stand Against Actual Attacks on Liberal Democracy? Yes!

8 October 2021, 1214 EDT

The annual meeting of the American Political Science Association has now come and gone.

This year’s meeting was marked by a controversy related to the participation of the Claremont Institute and especially one of its principals, John Eastman, a recently-resigned Chapman University law professor who conspired with Donald Trump to overthrow the results of the November 2020 election. David Karpf, a political science professor, drafted and circulated a powerful open letter (signed by many hundreds of colleagues) calling on APSA to effectively ban the Institute, and Eastman, because of the role of both in the bogus “Stop the Steal” movement that continues to grow, and continues to threaten liberal democracy in the U.S. I followed up with a piece that argued that while the Karpf letter raised procedural questions for APSA that merited serious deliberation, the making of a strong public statement did not raise such procedural questions, and thus “The American Political Science Association Should Condemn the Claremont Connection.”

The APSA Council and its elected leaders did not take any official action on Karpf’s demands. Nor did it issue the kind of statement I advocated, or indeed any statement whatsoever.

While these days I have no insider knowledge of APSA business, it would appear that in the days leading up to the Conference—which coincided with the controversy about the Institute–some questions arose regarding panels sponsored by the Institute (one rumor has it that the questions related to vaccination status of participants; another that it related to security concerns; I do not know about the veracity of such claims); APSA moved the panels to an online format (apparently many panels were held online this year because of the pandemic); and the Claremont Institute then pulled its panels from the conference and cried “foul.”

Patrick Deneen now claims, in a First Things essay entitled “Ostracizing Claremont,” that APSA, through the rescheduling noted above,  “effectively banned the Claremont Institute” and those associated with it from participating in APSA; that this “banishment” represents a concession to a small but loud group of radicals typical of “the rise of cancel culture”; and that this is nothing less than “a political purge” achieved not directly, but “by means of subterfuge.”

I do not know what was behind APSA’s scheduling moves. But I do know that Deneen is engaging in rank hyperbole and polemical nastiness. 

No decision has been taken by APSA regarding the Karpf letter’s demands; regardless of how APSA might deal with the Karpf letter moving forward, a wide range of venues beyond the Claremont Institute exist for conservative political scientists to write, publish, meet, and advocate both inside and outside of APSA; and there has been no “political purge” of any kind. 

Deneen’s description of the Claremont Institute is worse than disingenuous. It is deceitful.

Indeed, Deneen’s condemnations of APSA are of a piece with his general political stance as an increasingly vocal purveyor of far-right propaganda. Back in January, a few days after the Capitol insurrection, he re-Tweeted a Chinese academic denouncing the U.S. political system along with this bit of philosophical profundity: “Not infrequently, the view from outside gives you better insight into what is going on inside. The U.S. today is a unique form of liberal oligarchy that was disrupted by a momentary burst of democracy. The elite made sure to roll that back—amusingly, in the name of ‘democracy.’” [Note: this comment, posted here, was subsequently removed from Deneen’s Twitter feed.] His First Things piece is an academic equivalent of posts such as these—a whitewashing of what the far-right activities with which he is associated or at least sympathetic towards are really about. He presents the Claremont Institute as a venue for serious philosophic discussion of alternative “regimes,” “some of whose members had expressed support for Donald Trump”: and he completely ignores the alignment of the Claremont Institute and its leaders with the “Stop the Steal” movement that culminated in the January 6 violent insurrection, and that poses an ongoing threat (which can only perversely be described as “a momentary burst of democracy”).

Deneen’s description of the Claremont Institute is worse than disingenuous. It is deceitful. 

And what he describes as a venue of broad academic discussion in dialogue with other perspectives is in fact a well-funded political organization that does much more than raise interesting normative questions about liberalism and democracy—it continues to align itself with an authoritarian and arguably fascist movement, it participated in inciting an insurrection, and it regularly publishes propaganda against liberal democracy, at its more “respectable” Claremont Review of Books, and at its more paranoid The American Mind. I will make no effort to document this, for it has been exhaustively documented by Laura K. Field in her much-cited “What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute?”—published in July in The Bulwark, the conservative successor to The Weekly Standard. (A case also made in The Bulwark by Christian Vanderbrouk in his “Meet Trump’s Pro-Insurrection ‘Intellectuals”).

That said, I agree with Deneen about two things.

First, the way that APSA leaders handled the Claremont Institute situation was troubling (I would not say “cowardly,” though I will say that APSA refused to show the courage of its earlier, publicly expressed convictions).

And second, what is at stake in this affair is a big question about whether APSA, as an organization, ought to be committed to some broadly liberal democratic values, and what follows and does not follow from the affirmative answer to this question.

With regard to the first: as I pointed out in “The American Political Science Association Should Condemn the Claremont Connection,” in the past year APSA has made at least three very public and very clear statements expressing concern for the future of liberal democracy and criticizing those who not simply criticize but attack it. APSA has never withdrawn these statements. Integrity would thus have required APSA to stand by them. And having specifically condemned those who “have continually endorsed and disseminated falsehoods and misinformation, and who have worked to overturned the results of a free and fair Presidential Election,” it really was incumbent on APSA to respond to the Karpf letter with a follow-up that reiterated the earlier condemnation and stated that this required them to censure, i.e., publicly condemn, the Claremont Institute, and John Eastman, on these very grounds.

I don’t know why APSA refused to make such a statement, but I regret that it did, and consider those who so refrained, some of whom I count as friends, intellectually responsible for explaining why.

Deneen accuses APSA of “subterfuge.” I would have preferred if APSA had been more explicit in its denunciation of what Deneen supports in his piece. For I believe that what Deneen supports is not simply intellectually contestable and objectionable; it is dangerous, violent, and anti-intellectual.

But this does mean that I believe that a 21st century academic professional association such as the American Political Science Association must be committed to certain values beyond “scholarly inquiry.”

Deneen puts the question bluntly: “Is APSA and its membership required to support liberal democracy, as many members seem to have concluded is a self-evident proposition?”

To this the answer must be “yes,” as APSA’s recent statements, cited in my earlier piece, gesture towards.

But not a simple “yes.” For, in ways that Deneen obscures, the question is a complicated one, and requires a more sustained defense.

While I can’t offer such a sustained defense here, I will offer some thoughts as promissory notes and as contributions to the serious discussion that I hope APSA leaders will promote.

APSA ought to be non-partisan, but this is different from saying it ought to be agnostic about core political values. And the value of liberal democracy is hardly a partisan value in the ordinary sense of the term.

If APSA were an association that transcended time and space, then it could avow an agnostic approach to questions about “regime.” But it is not such an association. It exists in space and time. What could it mean for APSA, as an organization of people who mainly live in the 21st century United States, to say that as an organization it is indifferent to questions of regime?

Aristotle defends slavery. Does this mean that the Association, because it values discussion of Aristotle, is agnostic about the practice of slavery?

Aquinas believed that women were naturally subordinate to men. Does this mean that the Association, because it supports the academic freedom of scholars to study Aquinas, is agnostic about whether women ought to be subordinate to men in the profession or in the classroom or beyond?

Slavery. White supremacy and racism. Patriarchy and the second-class citizenship of all who are not male. Official forms of censorship. The arrest of individuals for articulating their interests in public. The denial of civil and political rights to certain classes of people. All of these things have been supported by very important and sometimes brilliant thinkers in the past. All of these things have been debated. And, in a moral and political sense, these debates have been decided.

What could it mean for a 21st century APSA to be agnostic about these things?

I suppose APSA could be indifferent to sexual discrimination, harassment, and violence in its ranks.

It could be indifferent to the existence of affiliated journals that promote white supremacy.

It could be indifferent to efforts of politicians to ban the teaching of things like “Critical Race Theory” in public schools—the kind of efforts promoted by the same supporters of Claremont now crying “academic freedom.”

It could be indifferent to a violent assault on the Capitol by many hundreds of Trumpists calling for the head of public officials, as part of a broader effort, still ongoing, of an authoritarian demagogue to overthrow a legitimate election and retain his own power.

But an association that was so indifferent would be an association to which most 21st century American political scientists could never belong. 

Because most 21st century political scientists are fully in and of the world of the 21st century, a world of much suffering and corruption, but also a world in which certain expansions of freedom and dignity have been won, expansions of freedom and dignity neatly if imperfectly covered by the term “liberal democracy.”

Such an association, indifferent to the above-named forms of domination and exclusion, would be suitable to only the most reactionary academics, for whom old ideas and practices are not simply parts of an historical inheritance worth engaging, understanding, and wrestling with, but ideals to be fought for and to be reinstituted.

Like “Make American Great Again.”

This is an intellectual-political project at war with “progressivism,” i.e., with most of what has been accomplished since the onset of the 20th century, including women’s rights and civil rights and, ironically, almost all of what goes by the name of “political science.”

Such an association would be suitable only for Patrick Deneen and his friends at the Claremont Institute.

Fortunately for them, they enjoy the freedoms of a liberal democratic society, and they can and do have the association they desire—the Claremont Institute, with its publications, fellowships, and conferences, and with its affiliates and allies, including Hillsdale College, The Intercollegiate Studies Association, Law & Liberty, the New Criterion, and of course First Things.

Nothing about an APSA broadly committed to liberal democratic values is inconsistent with the operation and even the flourishing of those organizations or with the individuals broadly associated with those organizations belonging to APSA and participating in APSA conferences.

But when a group, such as the Claremont Institute, engages in such manifest forms of threatening conduct as incitement of insurrection and abetting the overthrow of an election, it is wholly appropriate for APSA to condemn such a group and even to disaffiliate with it.

This is not a litmus test about ideas. But it is a litmus test about the kinds of organized practices appropriate to affiliation with a self-respecting, 21st century academic association.

Such condemnation and even disaffiliation, were it to occur, would be wholly consistent with a very broad remit for individuals to study, argue, teach, and publish within the bounds of the civil law of a modern society. Nothing I have said means that people who promote natural law teaching about gender and sex or Platonic arguments about the value of philosophic wisdom and the debasement of the multitude ought to be excluded from APSA. There are a wide range of venues available to such academics within a large and broad association like APSA.

The organized support for insurrection and the overthrow of constitutional democracy might reasonably be considered – and should be considered – beyond the pale

But it is entirely appropriate for there to be certain ethical limits when it comes to organizational affiliates and the collective identity of the profession. Much more needs to be said about the principle behind such limits before it could be a valid basis for actual policy proposals. And any such proposals ought to also incorporate appropriately liberal notions of due process.

But we are living at a particularly dangerous moment in the history of liberal democracy, in the U.S. and more broadly. And we cannot ignore the fact that the January 6 insurrection occurred, and that after it did 147 Republicans in Congress, on that very same day, voted to overturn the election; and that House and Senate Republican leadership has refused to support an inquiry into the events of that day; and that former president Trump continues to say, as recently as yesterday, that “the real insurrection happened on November 3 . . . not on January 6—which was a day of protesting the fake election results” (this sounds a lot like Deneen’s “momentary burst of democracy.” One can only wonder who is reading whom).

And I submit that at this moment, the organized support for insurrection and the overthrow of constitutional democracy might reasonably be considered–and should be considered– beyond the pale of a self-respecting academic association such as APSA.

Deneen closes his polemic by suggesting, to his First Things readers, that “if one wishes to examine our deepest and most pressing political matters, don’t bother with APSA or much of what remains of academia.” In point of fact, Deneen and his readers and allies care little for APSA, for modern forms of academic inquiry or for modern forms of civil and political freedom. They are not really academic interlocutors. They are partisans, in the sense of Steve Bannon and Michael Anton and Carl Schmitt—disparagers of political science and avowed enemies of liberal democracy. 

They enjoy the academic freedom that the liberalism they so revile affords them. And they should enjoy this freedom, and it should be respected by APSA.

But this does not oblige APSA to welcome their organizations as affiliate members, nor does it oblige APSA to refrain from issuing public statements condemning them when they engage in conduct that manifestly promotes disinformation and encourages attacks on the basic freedoms on which all citizens of a liberal democracy rely.

APSA ought to stand for liberal democracy broadly understood, and it ought to do so consistently, and with integrity.

And American political scientists ought to do the work necessary to make this happen.

As I argued last summer, and will elaborate further soon, such work is no small task. And it involves much more than the kinds of symbolic statements and actions currently being debated—though in a profession that centers on writing and speaking, such symbolic statements are very important.

And it is more than the integrity of our professional association and our professional lives that is at stake.

Liberal democracy itself is at stake.

Editor’s note: this piece was originally posted at Jeffrey Isaac’s personal blog.