I’m A Conservative. Is There Still A Place For Me In The Field Of Political Science?


This week, thousands of social scientists are meeting in Los Angeles for the 119th annual American Political Science Association meeting. I’ve attended nearly every APSA since 1984, a third of its existence and most of my life. Seeing old friends, new books and countless panels exploring politics is the highlight of my year, even though I am one of the roughly 10 percent of political scientists — not all on the down-low — who usually vote Republican.

But will academia remain open to people like me and to the unique perspectives we bring? Until recently, I assured libertarians and conservatives that unlike much of academia, political science had a tent big enough for them. Today, as academia becomes as leftist as Rush Limbaugh always said we were, I am not so sure.

It was not always that way. As a first generation college student at the University of Maryland, I was mentored by a social democrat who in class occasionally needled me about my politics, but who also graded my papers fairly. He urged me to apply to the top-ten Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota and wrote a recommendation which helped me win a graduate fellowship there in 1980. Decades later, we still keep in touch.

My dissertation adviser at Minnesota, Charles Walcott, also leaned left. He nonetheless exposed me to a range of ideas, encouraged me when I posed novel questions from a conservative perspective, and helped me get my dissertation published as a scholarly book. In it, I empirically demonstrated that the Reagan administration was not uniformly anti-bureaucracy, but rather supported defense agencies, generally opposed social welfare and regulatory agencies and had varied approaches elsewhere. Most conflicts between Reagan political appointees and career bureaucrats reflected legitimate policy disagreements about priorities rather than clashes between “extremist” politicians and “expert” bureaucrats.

When my book criticized the work of a leading presidency scholar, James P. Pfiffner, he responded by modifying some of his views, promoting my work and helping me get a job in in the Clinton bureaucracy. Like many others, Jim showed me how to be a real social scientist. I thought about that a decade later when praising a terrific book by Vanderbilt political scientist David Lewis, which empirically undermined some of my findings.

These anecdotes above from my own career demonstrate the open-mindedness that once characterized my field. As political scientist Richard M. Merelman detailed in “Pluralism at Yale,” in the mid and late 20th century, the nation’s leading political science department enshrined pluralism rather than Marxism or traditionalism as the field’s dominant paradigm. Pluralists value disagreement — we don’t purge dissenters. Courtesy temperament, pluralists oppose both McCarthyism and Marxism.   

Pluralists likewise endorse the scientific method — what Karl Popper called “conjectures and refutations” — even when hypothesis-testing undermines our beliefs. For pluralists, science requires disagreement, without which it loses both its legitimacy and its ability to ask novel questions.

Unfortunately, pluralism is fading. I fear that in my remaining years (I’m 65) no conservative scholar will ever lead APSA, even though as recently as the 1990s, James Q. Wilson and Nobel Prize-winning economist Eleanor Ostrom did so.

From what I can tell, not a single open Republican now serves on the 31-member APSA governing council. That leaves half the country unrepresented politically in an organization whose job is to promote political research about all the country, and the world.

Reflecting behind-the-scenes pressure from activists, since the 2012 conference in New Orleans, no APSA annual meeting has occurred in a red state, with only one in a purple state (Philadelphia in 2016). Last year, APSA met in Montreal, but it seems unlikely that we might meet in Dallas, Phoenix, Charlotte or Orlando.

In 2021, activist threats of violence led the APSA annual conference, at the last minute, to move online its 10 panels involving the right-wing Claremont Institute, because of Claremont’s association with John Eastman. Eastman, who currently faces disbarment and a criminal trial for election interference in Georgia, had written the infamous six-page memo suggesting that Vice President Mike Pence could lawfully invalidate Electoral College votes for Joe Biden when Congress convened on Jan. 6, 2021 to certify the 2020 election.

Rather than hold its panels online, Claremont pulled out altogether, which seemed to be what some wanted.

I detest Eastman’s views on the peaceful transfer of power, and more to the point he was simply wrong in many of the assertions that underpinned his arguments. But I also believe that scholars fight bad ideas of all political varieties with debate, not banishment, and certainly not through guilt by institutional association with those who hold erroneous or even detestable viewpoints.

Further, ending its longtime association with Claremont leaves APSA without any significant organized conservative presence, which is a travesty for representation. Notably, the Claremont panels were always among the best-attended at APSA annual meetings. Two years on, APSA should bring back Claremont, or something like it.

When I mention this lack of representation, older APSA members admit it is a problem. For younger members, raised under the spell of critical theory, responses are mixed. In the meantime, many conservatives (including some anti-Trumpers like myself) have just given up, keeping their heads low in a sort of academic Benedict Option.

Yet ultimately, giving up on pluralism is giving up on the American Political Science Association, and on America itself.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and a founding member of the Society for Open Inquiry in the Behavioral Sciences. His views do not necessarily represent those of these organizations.

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