Stop playing into right-wing victim fantasies about our city. (Image via pxhere.)
A long and much-honored academic career ended recently at UW-Madison, but it was a bittersweet retirement for history professor John Sharpless, as he explained to Isthmus:
“Openly disagreeing with people here is like pooping in the pool,” says Sharpless. “They turn around and give you this dagger look. I had Republican students in my classes who said they white-knuckled their way through discussions in other classes. They never felt they could say anything.”
So here we have a professor who has spent more than 40 years at UW, has tenure, and has the respect of a good few students and peers, reminding us how very difficult it is to be a conservative in Madison. The story does quote one source who pushes back against Sharpless’ characterization on a campus tyrannized by left-wing orthodoxy, so I don’t want to single out Isthmus or the story’s author. But the narrative that conservatives lead a miserable, terrorized, uncomfortable existence in Madison needs to die.
At best, this trope puts all the onus on everyone else to coddle Republicans, to lavish empathy on a political movement that ever more defiantly refuses to practice it. At worst, it bolsters the pernicious victim complex that makes the right so incredibly dangerous. And like so much of today’s discourse, it privileges hand-wringing about division and civility over the real consequences of our politics.
You do occasionally hear complaints about Madison from Republicans who aren’t in comfortable academic or political jobs. But by and large it comes from folks in academia or who work as legislative staff or for advocacy groups. Either way, the plaint basically goes like this: “I’m afraid to talk politics at all because people here are so liberal!” When Republicans talk in the local press about life in Madison and Dane County, they tend to talk about this.
Most people in a position to make this complaint are doing fine, and at the end of the day they have the same ability as everyone else to enjoy what Madison has to offer. If you’re uncomfortable here because of your politics, it might be because your politics are inherently hostile to those around you. It might be that hitching your star to a movement that peddles race hatred and discredited economic theories is bound to screw up someone’s social life and state of mind.
Believe and say what you want, but your community doesn’t have a responsibility to make you feel good about clinging to a loathsome, pointless ideology. Someone gave you a mean look at a bar or didn’t want to go on a second date? OK, but wait until you hear about actually oppressed people, and also how the rest of us might feel about the authoritarian hell Republicans in DC and in our own state capitol are trying to build.
This whole discussion, much like the ever-escalating right-wing war on a free press, isn’t really about fairness or facts or the open exchange of ideas. It’s about the political uses of playing the victim. In last week’s Isthmus story, political science professor Richard Avramenko demonstrates that people who want to push this narrative will do it in comical defiance of the most basic facts:
“The climate on campus is hostile,” adds Avramenko, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. “Disagreement now turns quickly to dehumanizing, ad hominem attacks. As far as I can tell, there’s either no Republicans on campus, or they are very cautious about expressing this.”
Avramenko has to know that this is a ridiculous statement, especially that last sentence. Avramenko is co-director of the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, whose mission statement includes a focus on “taking ideas seriously that we believe have not always enjoyed sufficient respect on campus. Such ideas include the various strands of conservative political thought and libertarian thought, in addition to thought addressing religious liberty, foreign policy, and the role of the military in American society and on campus.”
UW-Madison has its own chapters of organizations like College Republicans and Young Americans For Freedom. Turning Point USA has gotten involved in student-government elections. The members of these clubs somehow manage to bring nationally known speakers to campus, all while supposedly tiptoeing about like they’re in the French fucking resistance. UW-Madison has an academic institute named after Wisconsin’s most well-loved living Republican, the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, which itself is a product of the idea that academia persecutes conservatives. The Wisconsin legislature created funding for the center even as it slashed away at the UW System’s overall state support.
Given any opportunity to thrive on campus, conservatives will inevitably use that opportunity to talk about how excluded they are on campus. The right-wing Badger Institute, in an April 2018 post about conservative young women in Wisconsin, quoted one Wisconsinite worried that “I could miss out on career advancements and opportunities if I’m vocal about my political beliefs.” So worried, that is, that she spoke on the record for a piece that ensures anyone who Googles her name will immediately know her political beliefs. Conservative commentator Dennis Prager (who runs his own fake university) spoke on the UW-Madison campus in April 2018, about six months after the UW System’s Board of Regents created a new campus speech policy designed to protect speakers from having their First Amendment rights violated by student hecklers. In this context—under policies designed to chill speech in order to privilege right-wing grifters, and with Republicans holding the Presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress—Prager, who is Jewish, compared American conservatives to the Marranos. The Marranos were Jews who publicly converted to Christianity under the brutal persecution of the Spanish Inquisition, but continued to practice their Judaism, bravely keeping their customs alive at risk of being expelled from Spain or burned alive. To compare them to today’s Republicans, you have to be completely dishonest with yourself about who has power and who doesn’t.
Right-wing ideas do have platforms on college campuses. If those platforms aren’t as big as some would like, and if people aren’t very receptive to those ideas, conservatives might at some point need to admit that the problem is with the ideas themselves, and with the increasingly outlandish and disingenuous behavior of what passes for the conservative intelligentsia. Clutch your pearls all you want, but attempts to interrupt and de-platform right-wing campus speakers these days usually reflect a justified revulsion at foolish, dangerous ideas and the malicious frauds who spread them.
It’s interesting to note that Sharpless opposed Republican legislators’ attacks on tenure, and the late UW-Madison journalism professor James L. Baughman opposed state-level funding cuts to the UW System. (Baughman’s former student Michael Penn II affectionately eulogized him for this website in 2016, by the way.) So conservative academics have at least some inkling that Republicans are worse for higher education than higher education is for Republicans.
The truth is that even the most left-wing among us has had ample opportunities to learn what Republicans think, see what Republicans do when they hold power, and internalize a lot of fundamentally conservative ideas that undergird American life. We should be intellectually honest about what we’ve heard and experienced, of course, but at some point we do get to make up our mind about things. It is OK to reject an idea on its merits and not then proceed to keep redigesting it in an endless loop. If your life so far has taught you that conservatism doesn’t have much to offer you—that the outcomes of its policies in fact could harm you—then Ben Shapiro waving a diaper isn’t going to change your mind.
Conservatives keep on performing their victimhood because they’ve deemed it politically beneficial. No amount of power or accommodation will change that, especially in state-level Republican politics, which is addicted to playing Madison and Milwaukee against the rest of the state.
To believe that right-wingers are a persecuted population in Madison, you have to accept that Madison holds no more than a handful of conservatives throughout the city. Yes, it’s empirically true that Madison remains a stronghold of Democratic votes. As much as Republicans pretend they’d like to ignore Madison voters entirely, there are tens of thousands of Republican votes here. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Scott Walker received 69,206 votes in Dane County, 22,437 of them in the actual city of Madison.
We’re not so liberal that prominent local publications can’t deliver the occasional galaxy-brained paean to the town billionaire. A prominent Republican lawyer, Fred Mohs, is one of the most visible people in Madison’s civic life. UW-Madison provided a launching pad for David Hookstead, now of The Daily Caller. A longtime local conservative gadfly is running a downright racist, authoritarian campaign for a school board seat.
Yes, god forbid, such people are outnumbered in Madison by prominent people with nominally left-wing or center-left views. I’d be disingenuous if I said I wasn’t OK with that. People want to live in communities where there’s at least a chance at seeing their values reflected in the public sphere. But if there’s a bubble in Madison, it’s the bubble that class and race divisions create everywhere in America. Here, the folks who benefit from that bubble tend to be more liberal. There are victims in this picture, but they’re not conservative political martyrs.