Yesterday, Geoffrey Kabaservice issued a challenge to those citizens—and particularly those historians—who genuinely want to understand the history of conservatism. Stop listening to liberals professing to have plumbed the heart of the movement, he says, and ask actual conservatives to give you their take.
The liberal scholars whom Kabaservice denounces include some members of our Society, so I thought it appropriate to take a break from my series on the history of capitalism and bring his column to your attention. Kabaservice singles out for opprobrium Corey Robin, Heather Cox Richardson, Rick Perlstein, Nancy MacLean, and Seth Cotlar. The only historian (apart from himself, one supposes) who escapes his strictures is Lisa McGirr, whose Suburban Warriors “was one of the earliest and best of these [new] histories [of conservatism],” but even she committed one of the common errors of this biased scholarship: “to take the extreme right as representative of conservatism (or the Republican Party) as a whole.”
That tendency to overrepresent the extreme has gone unchecked, Kabaservice argues, because by design or not, the history of conservatism has been a tool for insulating liberals from encountering—and perhaps learning from—actual conservatives, especially more moderate ones who fit in poorly among the “kooks” that populate the liberal history of the right. Even worse, the liberal history of conservatism has made academics unwilling to have conservative colleagues. “I was a graduate student at the beginning of this new wave of conservative studies,” he writes, “and I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with the historical profession’s purge of any scholars who could be described as Republicans or conservatives.”
“Purge” is, I think we could agree, a loaded word, asserting intent and even some kind of (dare I say) collusion, but Kabaservice provides no evidence for such a grave charge—in fact, doesn’t even make a gesture in that direction. Or rather, he does, but inadvertently: when discussing Corey Robin’s work, he parenthesizes, “full disclosure, [Robin] helped make my Ph.D. years miserable by leading a grad student unionization effort at my university.” Robin and Kabaservice coincided as graduate students at Yale. Robin was one of the leaders of GESO, which has what many (even sympathetic) grad students have considered an aggressive organizing culture.
It’s important to understand the context here, and as a former GESO member, let me act as a kind of native interpreter. What Kabaservice is saying is that Robin—perhaps personally—sought to recruit him, probably by asking to meet and to listen to the case for a graduate union. I know from experience that GESO organizers can be persistent and that they frequently brush off polite attempts to say “not interested.” They want to engage your objections; they are deeply confident that they can convince you, and they aren’t afraid of an argument. It’s possible that Kabaservice found himself in a conversation with a GESO organizer that got heated; it’s possible that he had a number of these confrontations during his time at Yale.
Making for a more pressurized environment, Kabaservice and Robin were enrolled at Yale during the 1995 grade strike by TAs—Kabaservice and Robin both took their doctorates in 1999. Robin was one of the leaders of this strike, and for a graduate student undoubtedly out of sympathy with the strike’s goals and methods, Kabaservice probably saw him as responsible for “making my Ph.D. years miserable.”
Kabaservice’s grudge doesn’t go very far to explain what he means by a “purge” of conservatives and Republicans from academia, but it does perhaps explain a bit about why he has such strong feelings about the academy as a place of liberal/progressive intolerance.
What is odd, though, is that numerous Yale faculty—not to mention the university administration—were stridently against the strike. I’m not by any measure an expert on the history of graduate student organizing at Yale—for that, you should talk to Zach Schwartz-Weinstein—but the general sense I have of the environment at the time suggests that it was the strike leaders who were closest to being all-too-literally purged from academia.
This little sidelight on Kabaservice’s column may suggest a more general pattern, however. Most of us form some of our broader views about academia while in graduate school, so it seems reasonable to speculate that Kabaservice interpreted the conflict and tension on campus that surrounded GESO as creating a hostile environment specifically for conservatives. Even though he almost certainly could have found numerous faculty who agreed with his views on GESO, and even though the administration was militantly on his “side,” what was important (to him) was that the very existence of conflict posed an occupational hazard for conservatives trying to work in academia. Conservatives—at least conservatives like Kabaservice—felt that a politicized academy was by nature one that was hostile to conservatives, even if the actual terms of its politicization were by no means friendly to progressives.
This aversion toward politicization comes through in his column when he identifies what the history of conservatism should look like. He tells us that
[liberal] historians of this new generation consider themselves to be unbiased and even sympathetic observers of conservatism. Many believe their collective efforts have produced a profound historical understanding of conservatism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, and thus contributed in some measure to bringing politically opposed citizens together.
In denying that the liberal historiography of conservatism has achieved these goals of being unbiased and sympathetic, “profound,” and unifying, he reveals what he thinks the historiography ought to be doing. Later, he avows that histories of conservatism need to be “even-tempered,” a word that suggest not just “nonjudgmental” and “impartial”—two other qualities he believes this scholarship should have—but also serene, untroubled. A lack of open conflict is essential to writing good history, he argues: “It’s unlikely that a more nuanced history of conservatism will emerge until this latest culture war has run its course.”
It’s unclear what historians are supposed to do at a moment when the fractious world won’t stop intruding on our studies, but Kabaservice has a further requirement. What a history of conservatism really needs is to be written in dialogue with living conservatives.
[N]early all [liberal scholarship on conservatism] reveal[s] the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.
This is an odd thing for a historian to say, given that most of us spend our lives writing about people whom we cannot possibly be friends with for the very simple reason that they have been deceased for centuries. We don’t, however, complain that medievalists aren’t friends with any 11th century monks, or that a scholar of ancient Rome has not a single Roman colleague.
That is not at all to say that academia should be ideologically homogeneous: I do think that a diversity of opinions is important to the academy’s scholarly mission, as well as to its pedagogical purpose. But the idea that historians can’t write a good history of conservatism unless they have conservative friends and colleagues is not really a tenable argument for greater ideological diversity. And I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.
Instead, the function of Kabaservice’s insistence on ideological diversity is a demand for ideological courtesy, or, essentially, for deference. Liberals ought to accept internal accounts of what conservatism’s ideas mean, and take at face value the explanations that conservatives give for their actions. He is arguing, essentially, that liberals ought to defer to the judgment of conservatives about their own ideology in the same way that a doctor of internal medicine won’t overrule a neurologist when it comes to the brain.
This is an incredibly weak argument. People who self-identify as conservatives aren’t ipso facto experts on conservative ideas or the history of the Republican Party any more than a self-professed Christian is an expert on the Pauline epistles or second-century ecclesiology. When Kabaservice complains that liberal historians “approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous,” and implies that liberals ought to run their interpretations by the ‘natives,’ he’s in fact grousing that conservatives are not being given the chance to edit the scholarly record before it is published. That is less of a check or balance and more of a preemption.
I do believe that historians generally ought to write in such a way that their subjects would be recognizable to themselves in the scholarly record, but there are absolutely cases where insisting upon this does scholarship—and the public—a grave disservice. If there is anything that reading history teaches us, it is that power denies its potency, deceives itself far more than it deceives its subordinates.
The old saw that no man is a hero to his valet is also an invitation—to liberals and conservatives alike—to read the archive against the grain. To refuse to accept conservatives’ self-estimation at face value is not to be conspiratorial or paranoid but instead to refuse them an ahistorical and indeed unprofessional deference. If that makes for uncomfortable reading for conservatives like Kabaservice, then so be it.
Edit: Added “(to him)” in paragraph 9 for clarification.
 In fact, there were two strikes during their time there: one in April 1995 and one—the larger one—from December 1995 through January 1996. You can read Robin’s contemporary account of the strike here.