There is a fairly straightforward way to settle this debate and it lies in examining the entire body of evidence on party realignment in holistic fashion. If that is the case, what more can be said? All along I have wondered why this even became a debate in the first place. Why are historians engaging the larger public on Twitter by debating something that was settled long ago? Why are non-experts allowed to challenge experts on their field of expertise and thereby force the experts to take time out of their day to prove, in fact, that they are experts? Answering these questions requires that we think about the worlds of conservative politics and right-wing media echo-chambers in which Dinesh D'Souza and company spend most of their time.
Who Exactly are these Wannabe Historians?
The individuals who have most vocally challenged the scholarly consensus on party realignment include D’Souza, Carol Swain, Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Tom Cotton, Eduardo Neret, and others. They sometimes appear on Fox News. D’Souza resigned as president of a Christian college amid charges of adultery and deception. He pled guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws a few years ago, but was pardoned by the current president* and White House occupant. Swain is a former academic who has done short videos for Prager University, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to academia. It is actually called “PragerU” because it is not a real university. It is basically a scam funded by oil tycoons. And it shows. Among its featured videos and articles are ones that endorse fossil fuels and disseminate climate denialism. One op-ed penned by Prager himself disparaged environmentalists, created a false dichotomy between conservation and jobs, and cited the work of Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist whose work was lambasted by experts for misuse of statistics (Oreskes and Conway 258). Watching Prager, in short, is more destructive than ignorance for it actively misinforms the viewer.
It cannot be coincidental that D’Souza, Owens, and Swain are all people of color. The posts in this series have documented in fine detail how the GOP has embraced white nationalism and has struggled with attracting non-white voters. With that knowledge in hand, it is not hard to guess how the elite white power structure that governs the GOP, cognizant of the party’s race problems, would attempt to cover them up and fool the public by putting forth people of color as their chief propagandists. Having recently read this piece on Owens’s background, I am more convinced than ever that her rapid advance was based much more on pure opportunism than any consistent commitment to core ideological principles. The worst part is how mainstream media willingly accommodates this cynical ploy by putting Owens and Cornell West on at the same time, giving them equal screen and air time when 80-90% of the African American voting population would be more inclined to agree with West (there are plenty of other examples of this kind of false objectivity in cable news, including a contrived debate between Charles Blow and Paris Denard). For all the time that conservatives spend whining about the liberal media, they sure do a good job over-representing black conservatives in positions of prominence on television.
One of the ways in which anti-intellectualism plays out in society is through the politicization of knowledge and information that should ideally be non-controversial. Don’t like the Congressional Budget Office study that says tax cuts don’t pay for themselves? Attack the economists! Don’t like the scientific data pointing to significant human-caused climate change? Attack the climate scientists! Don’t like the universities that introduce students to the evidence of racism, corruption, and greed that challenge cherished American institutions like the church, military, and business community? Attack the professors! Don’t like the judge that struck down North Carolina’s racial gerrymandering? Attack the judges! Don’t like the uncovering of the Access Hollywood tape or the coverage of the Mueller Report? Attack the liberal media! When one considers this increasingly long list, it is ironic and hypocritical indeed for conservatives to deride the “victimhood mentality” that supposedly plagues American universities. The tragedy is that rather than engage evidence or evaluate an argument based on the merits, conservatives who adopt this anti-intellectual posture effectively kill the messenger for reporting information they don’t want to hear.
For all of the “gotcha moments” and McCarthyist “watchlists” that try to get professors fired for radicalizing the youth, there is a stunning lack of curiosity and seriousness as to why professors, especially in the humanities, are so overwhelmingly liberal in the first place? Answering this question with due justice would require its own post, but briefly, it could be that professors are arming students with the facts and critical thinking skills that allow them to deconstruct and rebut misleading arguments, which tend to be disproportionately concentrated on the side of the political spectrum that lies more often. It could be the fact that it is disproportionately Republican politicians who want to cut funding for public schools, scuttle departments, or eliminate tenure. It could be that teachers and professors intrinsically value an open-mindedness to multiple ways of thinking and a fundamental belief in the equality of all human beings that conflicts with the emphasis on hierarchy, obedience, conformity, and authority that are mainstays of conservatism. In any case, just because professors are liberal, it does not mean that they can’t do their jobs well or that they “discriminate” against conservative students by giving them bad grades, which one study by a lifelong Republican debunked.
Professors are like everyone else in that they share the best and worst of humanity’s range of behavioral types. But what distinguishes professors from the general populace is that they have spent an inordinate amount of time reading books and articles, writing, publishing, and speaking in front of audiences. In other words, they are informed and educated. That leaves us with two generalizations that we can safely make about professors: 1) they are educated and 2) they are liberal. The odds are that these two variables are connected somehow, perhaps causally. Could it be that being more educated causes one to adopt a more liberal policy position? If that is true, and most of us agree that it is better to be more educated than less educated, then what exactly is the problem? Given the relationship between education and political liberalism, are we really ready to accept that by trying to thwart the spread of liberal ideas in the classroom, the D’Souza crowd is essentially yearning for a society that is less educated and thus more open to manipulation and control?
No serious or respectable academic historian agrees with D’Souza. Kevin Kruse and others have repeatedly dunked on them on Twitter in humiliating fashion. So why would they continue to peddle disinformation? It could be that D’Souza won’t listen to anything written by a professional historian (bad); he won’t examine evidence that contradicts his views (even worse); or he believes there is something to be gained in persisting (frightening). Unfortunately there are large swaths of white suburbanites, rural whites, and whites without college degrees, especially among men over 50, who have been primed by decades of conservative media to be suspicious of academics. And in that sense, a depressingly high percentage of Americans will believe whatever D’Souza says, no matter how far-fetched, if he merely pushes the right buttons of permanent culture war.
It could also just be a cold political calculation. The larger conservative project, in addition to seeking to overturn the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement, has been fairly effective in weakening the institutions and norms that would prevent the rise of an authoritarian president* and give Republicans an advantage at the polls, despite their status as a minority of the population. Citizens’ United, gerrymandering, welcoming foreign interference in our elections, the attempt to put a citizenship question on the census, and voter suppression are all part of this project.
Education is now a more significant predictor of voting behavior compared to the past. It used to be in the 1990s that Republicans maintained an advantage among college-educated white voters. Now, they're increasingly identifying as Democratic while whites without a college degree are the bulwark of the GOP.
The trouble is, it might be working.
There’s certainly a compelling case that engaging the D’Souzas of the world will be counterproductive. It spreads misinformation and gives bullies and trolls the attention they are so desperate to obtain. It may also elevate your blood pressure to deal with non-sense! Then there are studies suggesting that if you come across someone like a climate denier or an anti-vaxxer, trying to convince them with facts and logic will only make them more stubborn in their views. Their ideas are so wrapped up in their identities as conservatives that if you show the absurdity of an idea like climate denialism, you are not just attacking a bad idea, but attacking the person. For all these reasons, I initially ignored D’Souza’s claims.
But then I noticed that his ideas weren’t going away, no matter how many times we debunked them. I sensed that this cadre of conservative activists were trying to throw into question decades of received wisdom that historians have worked hard to establish. They were trying to muddy the waters; to throw sand in the face of the umpire to prevent an accurate call on which political party is more open to demographic change and which party has descended into bigotry and white nationalism. Their hope is to maintain power by encouraging a sort of apathy among enough voters who will say “Both sides are bad,” and therefore “I’m gonna go with my gut” or “I’m gonna go with the guy [and it’s always a guy] who tells it like it is.” Or some other banal, meaningless catchphrase that should be unacceptable in a third grader, let alone a functioning adult. And in that sense I agree with fellow historian Christopher Deutsch, who argues that D'Souza is engaged in an electoral strategy. In an article for Tropics of Meta, Deutsch made a convincing case for dunking on D’Souza, noting with alarm the conservative assault on higher education in Wisconsin. Historians, whether they admit it or not, are locked in a battle that may threaten the very survival of their profession.
The larger backdrop to this discussion is that academia is not in very good shape. Even prior to 2008, the best you could say was that it was treading water. Then we suffered the worst recession since the 1930s. In spite of the fact that the stock market, unemployment, and consumer confidence have reached record levels in recent months, academia, especially the humanities, was essentially shut out of the ten-year economic recovery. The longer-term trend is that over the last four decades it has succumbed to a more privatized model that devalues the labor and artistry of teaching, which is shown in universities’ increasing reliance on part-time labor. Some adjunct professors with doctoral degrees live in cars or have to choose between paying rent and the health care not provided to them by their employers. This neoliberal business model leaves students with decades crippling student loan debt and as a result, rather than viewing public education as a journey in the exploration of ideas, too many students now adopt a customer mentality where professors are forced to compromise their ethics. The fundamental mission of a university is a ghost of what it once was.
D’Souza and his allies have aligned themselves with the forces that have already undermined academia. To the extent that public universities (prior to the neoliberal turn) are worth preserving, it is essential to push back vigorously on D’Souza’s commentary. Remember all the predictions from the 1990s that the Internet would democratize society? How wrong that turned out to be in the age of fake news, Russian bots, and misinformation. We need to take this challenge seriously. Historians are often faulted for not engaging with the public. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to the study of history have not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to fight quackery with evidence and analysis through public engagement.