Skip to main content

First They Came for Harvard

The right’s long and all-too-unanswered war on liberal institutions claims a big one.

Claudine Gay, then dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, addresses an audience during commencement ceremonies, May 25, 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,Steven Senne/AP Photo)

What was right-wing super-saboteur Christopher Rufo up to in leading the conspiracy to get Harvard president Claudine Gay fired? That’s not a tough question to answer. He sees Ivy League universities and their peer institutions as among America’s most powerful bulwarks of liberal power; he and his colleagues consider liberalism evil; so Harvard had to be gutted like a fish.

Can we have the forthrightness to allow that Rufo is one-third correct here? That, however often they might honor liberal values in the breach, liberalism, in its broadest and best sense, is what great universities are all about. Whether it’s pursuing scientific truth as governed by the impersonal eye of peer review; or pursuing critical scholarship and education on America’s democratic prospects; or inculcating cosmopolitan values; or opening opportunity to talent and not just incumbent privilege (that one, alas, is oh, so honored in the breach); or chartering projects to repair injustice—or simply by subsidizing human curiosity and creativity independent of what the capitalist marketplace thinks of the results: These are the things that make liberal education actually liberal. And most of all, universities are crucibles for young adults to forge their own values, try on identities, and choose their own way in life—even if a student comes out the other end as a conservative. Which is perfectly OK, if you’re a liberal, because providing tools for individuals to become themselves is another core value of liberalism in that best and broadest sense.

Dig beneath the surface claims and the sophistry of why conservatives attack universities, and it is this, the liberalism, that they cannot abide. So Rufo was doing what movement conservatism has always done, as long as movement conservatism has been a thing: go after institutions that uphold liberal values. Then degrade their ability to flourish, the better to degrade liberalism’s ability to flourish. For movement conservatism, it’s a political imperative.

Great universities have been a target from the first, the middle, the last: Harvard Hates America, as one right-wing tome put it in 1978. The 1951 book that made William F. Buckley famous at the age of 26, God and Man at Yale, took on not merely the content of what postwar Sons of Eli were learning—anthropology that relativized Christian faith, Keynesian economics—but the very idea that professors should teach based upon their curiosity and conscience: that scholarship should be creative. Instead, Buckley argued that Yale’s curricula should be set by the rich, and presumably America-loving and religiously orthodox, businessmen who sat on its board as trustees. That would denude Yale of its accursed liberal proclivities for good. It would become, as universities were centuries before, a more nearly feudal institution.

Buckley claimed to be writing, as conservatives often claim, a defense of liberal values, which actual liberals (those hypocrites!) supposedly evade. He argued that what Yale calls “academic freedom” (he mostly puts it in quotation marks) is actually indoctrination in an “orthodoxy” (one of the more frequently used words in the book to signify what he claims to be fighting against).

The New York Times, likewise, let Rufo publish an essay calling for “abolishing D.E.I. programs on liberal grounds.” Rufo cares about the actual values that sustain a liberal vision of freedom and justice in same way that Israeli war-cabinet minister who calls for “voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons” actually cares about humanitarianism.

Conservatives are remorseless and creative in deploying that Jedi mind trick. As they are remorseless and creative in the pursuit of the next liberal bastion to degrade. In my first book, I wrote about what happened when they did it to an organization called the National Student Association. In the mid-20th century, NSA’s main activity was holding annual conventions to which student leaders from around the country would tromp to pass symbolic resolutions. These then would be reported in the media as all-but-official X-rays of the Mind of American Youth. By 1960, they were passing resolutions in support of things like the anti-segregation lunch counter sit-ins in the South. So in 1961, via stealth, disguise, and parliamentary cunning, agents of the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom sabotaged the voting on that year’s resolutions, to make it look like college students were not becoming increasingly liberal.

(Ironically, in 1967 the radical magazine Ramparts revealed that the NSA was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Which actually only emphasizes the point: This was a time when displaying to the rest of the world that the U.S. was a tolerant, dynamic, creative, and non-philistine—liberal—society was a central CIA Cold War project. Another story for another time, but in its early years, that was one of the reasons many conservatives despised the CIA.)

Rufo was doing what movement conservatism has always done: go after institutions that uphold liberal values.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

But back to our story.

No bastion of liberal ideals has ever been too large or too small, too central or too obscure, for conservatives to target. In the early 2000s, a clandestine organization called the Institute on Religion and Democracy sedulously sought to infiltrate liberal mainline Christian denominations, planting agents inside individual churches as “members” in order to “divide and destabilize congregations, foment dissent and silence pastors,” as the authors of a neglected 2007 exposé of such “steeplejackings” explained it. They were seeking to build power over the long term to erode entire denominations’ liberal commitments altogether.

Small beer, considering how politically feeble this world is these days in the grand scheme of things. More ambitiously, they’ve sought to erode the dangerous Enlightenment idea of disinterested inquiry into reality itself—what Steve Bannon revealed he was going after in his infamous 2018 quote: “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

Democrats do things differently. The people with the most power in the party act as if long-term strategizing to degrade institutional conservative power is something that is downright distasteful. When Roger Ailes launched an entire cable network transparently devoted to advancing conservative Republicanism, and cynically announced “fairness” and “balance” as its foundational values, activists on the left pointed out that all it would thus take to disintegrate its self-arrogated credibility was for Democrats to refuse to participate on its programs; then it couldn’t continue to claim said “balance,” and Fox News would be discredited as what it actually was: a propaganda factory. The activists calling for this were mocked or ignored.

Until, a dozen years on, the Obama administration belatedly tried just that: “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” White House communications director Anita Dunn announced. “As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t have to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”

What happened next?

The policy lasted approximately 15 seconds, in the teeth of a twin-barreled hue and cry from both Republicans and mainstream media bigfoots, who defended the honor of their Fox peers by arguing the patently absurd notion that Fox, outside of its evening opinion-host lineup, was just another legitimate news organization. Out of the kerfuffle, Ailes won one of the Obama White House’s vaunted “summits” of reconciliation—then bragged that the network’s ratings went up from the controversy. The New York Times’ account, meanwhile, led by accusing the White House of undue quarrelsomeness. The Gray Lady framed Fox as just an ordinary news organization: “Attacking the news media is a time-honored White House tactic but to an unusual degree, the Obama administration narrowed its sights to one specific organization.” As if they had picked Fox at random.

Next, Glenn Beck twisted an anodyne quip from a speech Anita Dunn gave in a church—“The third lesson and tip actually comes from two of my favorite political philosophers: Mao Tse-tung and Mother Theresa [who both said you had to ] figure out how to do things that have never been done before”—to claim that Mao was her “hero,” that she “thinks of this man’s work all the time,” and that she advised fighting “like Hitler did.” Wouldn’t you know it, Anita Dunn was soon White House communications director no longer. Fox News, rightly or wrongly, claimed the scalp.

Round these parts, we call that the Infernal Triangle: ruthless Republicans, a mainstream media that accommodates their frames, and a Democratic Party whose timidity lets them both get away with it time and again.

Your own beloved liberal institution might be the next target of opportunity. Or the next one after that, or after that.

Then there are those myriad moments when liberals weaken their institutions themselves, at the Republicans’ bidding—as Harvard just did. But we’ll have to save an account of that part of the game for another week. For now, just this conclusion: For the Democratic Party, institutions that sustain liberal values and liberal power simply aren’t seen as political ground worth defending. You can make your own list, from decades of taking the labor movement for granted, devoting the barest minimum of political capital to policies to sustain and grow it, to letting the voter registration juggernaut ACORN die the instant Republican bad actors hustled up a scam to unfairly discredit it.

Acorns. Metaphorically speaking, that’s just the sort of thing that certain sorts of Democratic mandarins despise: anything that seeds long-term potential for the party to truly grow its power.

When it comes to Harvard, the Democratic Party doesn’t, and can’t, technically, have anything to do with the mission of keeping an individual 501(c)3 like a university healthy. My point is that it’s just about inconceivable that they would try. Conversely, if some liberal activist went after, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, for its systematic cover-up of its epidemic of sexually abusive pastors (in a way, actually quite consistent with its rigidly patriarchal values), do you not think that Republican politicians wouldn’t figure out a way to turn it around into an attack on its attackers? Even given how the SBC was nailed dead to rights on sins a thousand times worse than Claudine Gay’s ambiguous offense?

I’m no huge Harvard fan; the opposite, really. I have classic Midwest populist opinions about that Hedge Fund With a College Attached by the Charles. Indeed, when I was an editor in New York in the 1990s, I would occasionally come across conspicuously uninspiring people in surprisingly prestigious jobs, which was how I learned about the power of that special brand of affirmative action attaching to networked Ivy League connections—not all that liberal a state of affairs.

But … First they came for Harvard, and I said nothing, and all that. Your own beloved liberal institution might be the next target of opportunity. Or the next one after that, or after that. Because they won’t stop. The fever will not break until we make it break, by no longer acceding to their oh-so-predictable game.

Rick Perlstein is the author of a four-volume series on the history of America’s political and cultural divisions, and the rise of conservatism, from the 1950s to the election of Ronald Reagan. He lives in Chicago.

The American Prospect is devoted to promoting informed discussion on public policy from a progressive perspective. In print and online, the Prospect brings a narrative, journalistic approach to complex issues, addressing the policy alternatives and the politics necessary to create good legislation. We help to dispel myths, challenge conventional wisdom, and expand the dialogue.  American Prospect, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation headquartered in Washington, D.C.  You can support our mission with a subscription or a tax-deductible donation.