The American Political Science Association (APSA) is the main professional organization for academics who work, teach, and research in the area of political science. It hosts an annual meeting that draws thousands of academics, students, journalists, editors, and authors. APSA is the umbrella organization of hundreds of smaller groups with a dizzying breadth of interests and subjects, which in turn organize the various panels, roundtables, and workshops that take place over the four full days of the annual meeting. In addition to serving as a locus for academics to exchange ideas and research, the annual meeting is the most important professional networking gathering of the profession. APSA’s annual meeting is the place where many young academics first meet the eminent faculty they admire, where aspiring faculty make connections that will help them gain a foothold in the profession, where aspiring authors pitch book ideas to editors in academic and trade presses, and where many interviews for academic jobs take place.
APSA claims to be a non-partisan organization whose main purpose is to advance the academic study of politics. Given the inherent contentiousness of its subject, for many decades it has been—for the most part—admirably open to the variety of approaches and perspectives that the study of politics inevitably attracts. However, in the wake of the Trump years and the rise of “cancel culture,” the organization recently made a decision that bodes ill for the integrity of the academic study of politics. Bowing to the demands of a small but vocal number of political scientists, APSA effectively banned the Claremont Institute—a right-liberal (by the light of the profession, “conservative”) organization, some of whose members had expressed support for Donald Trump—from hosting its section’s panels at the most recent APSA meeting, just concluded this past weekend in Seattle.
Several hundred political scientists signed an open letter that called for rescinding the Claremont Institute’s affiliated status with APSA. This demand was based on the membership and participation of Professor John Eastman, a former Chapman University law professor who serves on Claremont's Board of Directors. Eastman was slated to appear on two of the Claremont Institute’s panels at the meeting. The open letter called for his expulsion from APSA for his role in drafting “a memo to President Trump and Vice President Pence that ‘war gamed’ alternatives for installing Trump as President by invalidating the Electoral Count Act through Vice Presidential fiat.”
APSA’s subsequent actions suggest that the organization recognized the peril of banning Claremont on the one hand, and of letting its panels proceed on the other. If they rescinded Claremont’s status, they would open the door to demands to do the same to any affiliated group. Such a precedent would have been a direct threat to the integrity of the academic enterprise. But if APSA did not act, it would bring down anathemas from an overwhelmingly left-leaning professoriate, some of whom might indeed have engaged in protests, and would in turn encourage the media’s klieg lights to be turned on an institution that prefers to operate in the background. APSA would be accused of giving a platform to a fascist, a charge that would surely find its way to the content-hungry programmers at CNN and MSNBC.
APSA chose a cowardly course: In the name of safety, it moved all Claremont panels online, barring any of its panels or even its reception from taking place in person. In response to this decision, the Claremont Institute elected to cancel all of its panels rather than agree to effective banishment from the annual meeting.
According to the president of the Claremont Institute, APSA provided no substantiation of any threat to safety posed by an in-person gathering. If there was a credible threat, would it not have been important to share this information with those who were considering attending the meeting? At the very least, should not the organization have endeavored to arrange the necessary security to make possible the thing that APSA constantly claims is its raison d’etre—the opportunity for the exchange of vital and sometimes controversial ideas? If there was a threat of protest against a panel discussing BLM or feminism or LGBTQ issues, would APSA have required those participants to meet virtually in the name of safety? Or would it have done its utmost to ensure that those exchanges could have taken place in person, and proudly broadcast this courageous decision?
Of course, it’s obvious to everyone involved that there likely was no genuine threat aside from APSA’s fear of being tainted by association with a pro-Trump institution. Instead, it achieved the ends demanded by some of its members—banishment—by means of subterfuge. While I have no crystal ball, APSA’s decision will likely embolden the open letter’s signatories to seek the actual expulsion of what is arguably the largest remaining group of conservative academics from the profession’s main association.
To be clear, it was effective banishment. Most academics cannot afford the travel and lodging (not to mention the registration cost) associated with the annual meeting, and rely on their home academic institutions for conference support. However, most institutions will only provide such support when its faculty or students are officially listed for a presentation that meets in person at the event. While we have grown used to claims that Zoom presentations can be “just as good” as in-person events, none of the most important professional activities that occur at the APSA meeting—networking, pitching a book over a drink, greasing the wheels for a job or post-doc—can be replicated online.
APSA’s decision—egged on by some of its members—was a political purge. It used one of its unpopular members as the proximate cause for banning an entire organization, the overwhelming majority of whom are focused on their academic work and had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of January 6. APSA cleverly devised a means to submit to the baying of their loudest members without apparently taking a political stand. But the reason, and implications, of the decision should be clear: The professional organization was making a political choice, one designed to banish a political perspective that has been deemed unacceptable.
What are the consequences? Some are obvious: the further narrowing of perspectives within the academy and further damage to the professional prospects of non-progressive academics. The claims to political purity met the self-interest of other members in winnowing potential competitors from a shrinking profession.
Perhaps most alarming is the damage that has and will continue to be done to the study of politics. Academia is—or was—a unique space for the exploration of sometimes unfashionable ideas, ideas that often escape those who must toe whatever contemporary orthodoxy happens to reign. Those who successfully banished the Claremont Institute from APSA’s annual meeting did so in the name of “democracy” against “fascism.” Concepts that are inherently subject to intellectual examination and debate have now been given definitive content at the pain of ostracism. Will there be an academic who will raise a voice asking, by what measure are we a democracy? Aren’t those granted favor by multinational corporations, the corporate media, tech monopolies, the permanent bureaucracy, Hollywood, and the elite universities themselves better described as a kind of oligarchy? Might the control, surveillance, and power wielded by such institutions be something more akin to fascism than what passes for that name according to academics (who are supposed to be the champions of “critical thinking”)? Is there to be no space in academia for inquiry into these kinds of questions, since the answers are now defined by the main professional organization by means of expelling those who might disagree?
Most important, a fundamental question has been presumptively answered before really being discussed and debated: Is APSA and its membership required to support liberal democracy, as many members seem to have concluded is a self-evident proposition? Is our regime itself beyond challenge by those who claim to be its most serious students? Calls to bar Claremont were based upon claims that it posed a threat to liberal democracy. Does APSA henceforward require its members to support a particular political arrangement, and if so, doesn’t it necessarily preclude the genuine study of politics?
The study of politics is, at base, the study of regimes. While every age believes it has satisfactorily answered the question of the best regime (whether in theory or practice), the study of politics does not lend itself to exact or irrefutable answers. The Claremont Institute actually shares with APSA the presumption that there is a best regime—the theoretical project of the American founding (by its lights), a view with which I am known to disagree—but, to its credit, it is aware that it is making a theoretical claim against other potentially legitimate contenders. APSA and much of the academic profession of political science appears to have shut down any such inquiry. It operates under the presumption that we live at the end of history, with those most responsible for studying politics having rendered themselves incapable of asking the most important questions with which any genuine study of politics must begin.
This inquiry into the nature of the good regime within existing imperfect regimes is an inherently precarious undertaking, and has almost always taken place at the edges of society—a tradition dating back to Socrates’s challenges to democratic Athens. Today’s academics claim to be the heirs of Socrates, but far more resemble the mendacious Sophists who sought his imprisonment and death by claiming that his questions were too dangerous for the regime to permit. If one wishes to examine our deepest and most pressing political matters, don’t bother with APSA or much of what remains of academia. This past weekend, the discipline of political science declared itself to be a distinctly partisan arm of liberalism, not a genuine venue for political inquiry.
Patrick J. Deneen is Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
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