Let’s start with a paragraph from Heather Cox Richardson’s November 3 post, “Letters from an American.” She is reporting on the pushing and shoving that is going on in politics these days.
Meanwhile, the Republicans continue to focus on culture wars like the manufactured Critical Race Theory crisis, claiming that educators are destroying America. This is the formula Youngkin used in Virginia, and they appear to be running with it. Already, it is dangerous. Yesterday, at the National Conservatism Conference, J. D. Vance, who is running for the Senate from Ohio, quoted Richard Nixon’s statement that “The professors are the enemy.”
And, she reports, “Vance’s audience applauded his statement.”
I’d like to make a few observations based on that paragraph. First, it is useful to note that Richardson and I are both professors. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture us both disapproving anti-higher ed rhetoric.
Second, she refers to the “manufactured Critical Race Theory crisis.” I’m not a fan of CRT for a variety of reasons, but it is worth noting that this is an ideological emphasis that progressive academics invented and hung around their own necks. And when they did that, they invited Republicans to hang it around the necks of Democratic candidates. CRT is not a conservative pipe dream. Conservatives will characterize it in ways that will be helpful them them and they will exaggerate what it is trying to teach, but CRT is there and it has implications and I think some of them are scary.
Democratic candidates need to find a way to deal with it. They could support it and all its implications wholeheartedly and criticize conservatives for not doing the same. That won’t work, but it is better than pretending the conflict is not there. Or, they could separate the business of governance from the value that theorizing adds to academic discourse. Democratic candidates don’t want to get caught saying it is just a theory—“just” is the hate word there—but they need to return attention to the business of governing.
Democrats will lose a fight that sets up as racists v. anti-racists. We will lose a fight that is set up as racists v. non-racists. Democrats need to be about fairness for all Americans. If it is played right, that is a fight they can win. And it has the virtue of being about governing, which the Republicans, taken a a whole, have shown no interest in at all.
Here is a reason that is important. Richardson correctly noted that in saying what he did, Vance was quoting Richard Nixon. That is true, but the difference in context makes a difference in meaning. Here is the context in which Nixon’s remark was made.
”Never forget,” he tells national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig in a conversation on December 14 1972, “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.”
This is from the recently released trove of Nixon tapes. This was a pre-Watergate meeting with two of his closest advisors. Nixon would never never have preached that at a campaign rally, which is what Vance was doing. To my mind, that indicates a significant change that is not caught by noting that Vance is quoting Nixon.