The Corner

Conservatives Dropped the Ball

I want to underline something from Mark’s depressing late-night post. Here’s how Mark’s correspondent describes one of the factors threatening to “sink conservativism for at least a couple of decades:”

…years of liberals running their own private indoctrination camps through the American education system have finally taken their toll and are churning out reliably liberal kids who will inevitably come of age. Not enough of them are conservatives and not enough of them will be mugged by reality to convert to conservatism.

This guy is onto something, and it’s a problem conservatives have largely ignored, although it bears on our very existence. For all the grousing about liberal bias in education, conservatives have done virtually nothing substantive to combat it. And there are plenty of things we might have done, without in any way infringing on academic freedom. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has intentionally avoided fighting the education battles that earlier administrations pursued under the leadership of Bill Bennett and Lynn Cheney. Leading a public campaign against the bias and foibles of the American education system could have put a far larger question mark behind the taken-for-granted leftism students find at school.

We could also be doing a far better job of creating alternative institutions. Think tanks, as the saying goes, are “universities without students,” and so cannot produce a new generation of conservatives. Our think-tanks are running on the fast-depleting intellectual capital of the few conservatives left in our educational system. Very belatedly, conservatives have set up some institutions designed to encourage intellectual alternatives within the academy, yet these are grossly underfunded.

The NEA and the higher education lobby are massive, and far more influential on the Hill than most people realize. Yet when it comes to higher education, for example, there are simply no conservative lobbying organizations to counter them. Conservatives rarely even show up for most legislative battles over education, and when they do, they are vastly outspent and outgunned. And again, such education battles as the Bush administration has chosen to fight intentionally avoid precisely the “culture war” issues that might make a real difference.

The Bush administration’s attitude was that Bill Bennett/Lynn Cheney-type culture war issues sap political capital that could more profitably be put toward the war effort or social security reform. This was a huge mistake. Fighting the education culture war would have accumulated political capital. When it comes to the left-leaning craziness of the education system, the public is with us. The Lawrence Summers dispute, for example, was a disaster for the academy in the public eye. Linking the Democrats with their crazy leftist pals in the academy is the best way to beat them. The public is with us on this. The problem is that we haven’t developed any institutional way of harnessing public antipathy to educational bias.

What we need is a mass-membership organization, modeled on, say, People for the American Way, able to rally folks who want to do something about our education system – or perhaps separate organizations, one for K-12 and one for higher education. Without an large, broad-based lobby group, we can’t effectively counter-balance the massive teacher-professor-based education lobbies. Democrats are completely in the pocket of these liberal lobby groups, and even Republicans legislators have little reason to oppose them and plenty of reason to fear them.

Mass-based conservatively inclined education lobbies, well-funded programs inside and outside of the academy that can reach and train students, and an administration willing to openly revive the education culture wars of the eighties: these together might make a difference. Without them, we are losing the ability to reproduce a new generation of conservatives. The internet helps, for sure, but it’s not nearly enough. Unfortunately, conservative funders and Republican politicians tend to laugh off the academy as a bunch of irrelevant crazies. The result is the disaster Mark Steyn’s correspondent rightly points to.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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