The Corner

Culture

The Reopening of the American Mind

I can’t resist saying that I am proud of my alma mater, the University of Chicago, for sending out a letter to incoming freshmen telling them forthrightly that there will be no “safe spaces” at the university.

The letter is a hopeful sign that there is still a vein of classic liberalism on the Left, and that the proponents of it are prepared to draw a line in the sand. It’s not the only sign. The Heterodox Academy is a group of scholars, including left of center scholars, who are fighting to reintroduce a measure of intellectual balance into higher education. The main point of the group is that intellectual accuracy, much less rigor, is only possible in an atmosphere where ideas are routinely challenged, and that in turn is only possible where the universities make some attempt to cultivate a range of views among their faculty.   

The group is active and growing, and I encourage conservatives to follow their efforts. A great deal is at stake, and not just for those of us on the right.

The formal motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”  Almost as important, and of much longer pedigree, is the informal motto: “E Pluribus Unum”: Out of the many, the one.  The phrase is of course a reference to the history of the United States, but in a larger sense, it is a description of the balance which democracies must strike to survive. 

Mature democracies reach and maintain a political equilibrium, but the equilibrium disguises – in fact, it requires – a constant struggle by each side for their policy and political goals according to a fair set of predetermined, neutral rules.  Often one side wins and the other loses, and sometimes one side loses a lot.  But everyone has the right to try to win, and everyone has faith that even those who find his views obnoxious will stand up for that right.  

In other words, outcomes matter, but process matters too, and in the long run process matters more.

I spent the first eight years of my public service in the Missouri House of Representatives, first as a member and then the Leader of the Republican caucus.  We were in a distinct minority the whole time, so we were always planning and agitating and attacking  that’s what legislative minorities do  and though the Democratic leaders controlled the process and could have shut us down, they rarely did.   

It was in those days that I began calling legislators on the other side “my Democratic friends.” There was no irony intended. We differed on most things – well, we differed on about everything – and we fought every day, but we could keep it from becoming personal, because there was also a common bond of respect and loyalty to the process we had all sworn to uphold. That bond held us together; it was the “Unum” in the middle of all the “Pluribus.”

That’s draining away now. It’s happening on both the Blue and Red teams, but the danger is greater on the Left, because the Left holds the commanding heights of the culture and is therefore harder to hold accountable for its abuses. 

There is mounting evidence that a substantial segment of the Left is consistently using its power, in big and small ways, to change the rules of the game and steamroll or punish rather than persuade its opponents.  Here are some examples: 

  • The disinvitations from campus of so many distinguished conservative speakers;
  • The partisan intervention four years ago by Candy Crowley in a crucial debate in which she was supposed to be a neutral moderator;
  • The apparent double standard on Twitter, and the concerns about Facebook suppressing conservative stories;
  • The professional destruction of people like Brandon Eich and Tim Hunt for opposing, or even appearing to oppose, the Left’s social orthodoxy;
  • The IRS suppression of grassroots Tea Party groups;
  • The failure of Jim Comey – a man previously known for his fair mindedness and political neutrality – to recommend prosecuting Hillary Clinton for crimes far worse than those for which others were prosecuted;
  • The Obama Administration’s constant issuance of executive orders and regulations that are effectively statutes when it cannot pass statutes in the Congress.

I hope fair minded Leftists can understand the concern now among conservatives about the Supreme Court. In the past, a divided Court has been willing to read rights into the Constitution to marginalize the conservative social agenda. For those of us who would have liked to persuade our fellow citizens to adopt some or all of that agenda through the democratic process, that has been bad enough. But will a future Supreme Court, if it has a solid left wing majority, be equally willing to read rights out of the Constitution – the rights to freedom of speech, religion, association, and due process – to marginalize conservatives even more broadly in the larger society?

I wish I were certain that the answer to that question is “no.” Twenty years ago, I would have been certain. But I’m not certain now.

That’s why the Chicago letter is so refreshing, and, I hope, important.  If there is one thing I’ve learned during my 30 years in public life, it’s that good people can want many of the same things while holding diametrically opposite opinions about how to achieve them.  Neither end of the political spectrum has a monopoly on truth, neither end is going away, and both sides need each other more than they realize.  If the center is to hold in the difficult days that are coming, the partisans must show more respect for our institutions, the process, and each other. 

The Chicago letter is a good first step. When a leading university is unashamedly determined to stop demonizing and start listening, it means, at least, that a crack in the wall has appeared. And it could mean more than that. It could mean a reopening of the American mind.  

Jim Talent — Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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