An example of how conservatives and liberals can make common cause

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”

By Marty Rochester

Although readers know I lean conservative, they also know, if they bother reading my columns carefully and are open-minded, that I am usually careful to criticize both sides of the political spectrum as behaving badly and contributing to polarization of our political system.

For example, I have called Donald Trump “reckless” and “unpresidential” while criticizing the leadership of the “resistance” as extremist and no more willing to work toward reasonable compromises on immigration and other issues than Trump and the Republicans. I have criticized Fox News as spinning the news to the right and being a disgrace to journalism no less than MSNBC, CNN and the mainstream media, which veer left.

Each side bashes the other and in the process does great harm to our political system. It does not have to be this way. I wish to offer an example of how liberals and conservatives can make common cause around mutually shared values.

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed (“A Movement Rises to Take Back Higher Education”) commented on the growing threat to free speech on college campuses, noting that “two-thirds of this year’s graduating seniors at Harvard said ‘they had at some point chosen not to express an opinion … out of fear that it would offend others,’ according to a Harvard Crimson poll. But some students and professors are standing up against the new culture of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and bias response teams.”


The WSJ was referring to a new organization, the Heterodox Academy (HA), which has formed to counter these censorship trends in the belief that “the pursuit of truth, not social justice, is the purpose of the university.” The group was born in 2015, a week before racial unrest erupted at Mizzou that led to the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri.The most interesting aspect of the organization is its diverse membership, not just racial and gender diversity but also “viewpoint diversity.”

HA has about 2,000 members who include both leading conservative academics as well as leading liberal academics, such respected scholars as political scientist Robert George of Princeton, cognitive scientist Jonathan Haidt of NYU, psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard, linguist John McWhorter of Columbia, and former ACLU president Nadine Strassen.  

I attended HA’s first conference June 15 in New York City, the “Open Mind Conference.” Interestingly,  The New York Times, to its credit, hosted the meeting at its Times Center headquarters. Here was an example of a very liberal newspaper inviting some of the most prominent conservative professors in the country onto its turf to break bread and break the silence about restrictive campus speech codes and a lack of intellectual diversity in academia. Nicholas Kristof and Frank Bruni have been among the few Times columnists who have taken liberals to task for failing to speak out against left-wing bias on campus and failing to defend traditional liberal values of free speech and inquiry. 

HA gave a special award to Robert George, head of the conservative James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, for having the courage to co-teach a course with radical-left African-American studies professor Cornel West, who was also recognized.

George noted how “ideology is corrupting not only teaching but research.” He quoted John Stuart Mill’s famous line, that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” that is, free speech and debate were essential to not only maintaining a free society but also nurturing personal intellectual growth, as only through the competition of ideas could one sharpen one’s knowledge and develop a factual basis for reaching conclusions about race, inequality or any other subject.

Professor Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago, a cultural anthropologist, criticized the American Anthropological Association and other academic groups for their support of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, since it had the effect of stifling speech. The AAA membership only narrowly defeated a BDS resolution that singled out Israel as unworthy of participation in academic conferences; the resolution was supported by the leadership but fell short by 39 votes out of 5,000 cast. Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, said there was essentially “a stealth boycott” of pro-Israeli speakers on the part of humanities departments because few ever invite a supporter of Israel onto campus.

Jonathan Haidt discussed his new book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which blames the need felt by today’s students for “safe spaces” at least partly on helicopter parents whose children’s psyches are more fragile than the dispositions of “free range” kids of yesteryear. He also noted that the suicide rate among girls is up 100 percent, due to the “call out culture” on social media. Even forming clubs is considered unsafe by some school officials insofar as it raises exclusivity concerns. The bottom line is that offense is taken easily and can lead to restrictions on free association as well as discourse and  still worse outcomes.

John McWhorter called the left’s obsession with identity politics a type of “religion,” with “white privilege” considered “original sin.”  At the same time, professors such as philosopher Jason Stanley of Yale argued that the right-wing, represented by state legislators and big donors,  posed at least as big a threat to the mission of the university as the left did.

Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, which has led the fight against censorship and whose “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” is now being adopted by a growing number of universities (including the University of Missouri), said he was shocked that he had to issue such a statement but did so after observing so many trends that were “antithetical” to the very being of a university.  He quoted the university’s former president, Robert Hutchins, who stated, “If we can’t disagree well, democracy is in danger.”

Hutchins captured the central problem we have today, one that goes well beyond the walls of the ivory tower and extends to the whole of American society. Yes, of course we will have our disagreements, as there should be. Not all arguments are equal, as some are backed more by evidence and logic than others and thus deserve more support. But we need to try harder to stop mindlessly insulting each other, to listen better to the other side’s argument, to engage in civil debate, and ultimately to search for and reach common ground.

 For example, we should be able to develop public policy that combines the left’s concern about “social justice” with the right’s concern about “personal responsibility.” It is absurd that we treat these norms as mutually exclusive, leading to screaming and hollering more than problem-solving.

The Heterodox Academy shows that it is possible to reduce polarization and to bring together diverse viewpoints to serve the common good.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”