"Scholar as Sitting Duck": The Cronon Affair and the Buffer Zone in American Public Debate
Amid the ongoing struggles over the collective bargaining rights of public employees in the state of Wisconsin, one incident stands out for what it reveals about the current status of intellectuals in the United States. This is the public controversy surrounding University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, whose March 2011 posting on his blog Scholar as Citizen elicited a swift reprisal from state Republicans. Cronon argued that the Wisconsin budget repair bill should be understood as part of a long historical pattern of state legislative action coordinated by a network of conservative interest groups, particularly the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a free market advocacy group that drafts “model legislation” for conservative legislators. Days later, Wisconsin Republican Party officials, citing the historian’s status as a state employee, submitted an open records request for e-mails sent to and from his university account. The incident made national headlines and prompted pointed responses from University of Wisconsin administrators and the American Historical Association.
Writers on the Left interpreted the Republican Party’s actions as a “vindictive,” McCarthyist smear tactic meant to intimidate Cronon.1 More broadly, some argued, the move constituted an assault on academic freedom itself. Without dismissing either of these charges, I would submit that the “Cronon affair” is better understood, not as indicating a pervasive threat to academic freedom per se, but as an object lesson in the marginality and ineffectiveness of intellectuals in American public debate. In particular, the incident highlights some of the formidable obstacles faced by scholars who wish to carry out a civic-intellectual mission. To grasp this point, however, requires setting aside momentarily the episode’s ideological dimension and locating it within the wider history of struggles over the proper role of experts and intellectuals in American life.
American Intellectuals and the 1960s Critique of Technocracy
Broadly speaking, the first half of the twentieth century was marked by a tremendous growth in the political role of experts in the United States. By the start of the 1960s, experts of various kinds had secured for themselves key roles in the management of the economy, the creation and implementation of the social programs of the welfare state, and the expansion of the defense industry. As the New York Times put it in 1963, “Never before have so many scholars and scientists been in the business of giving the Government advice.”2 When it came to military advice, for example, the Times noted that “the most important fount of strategic wisdom is what the lingo calls the ‘think factory,’ like the RAND (Research and Development) Corporation.” In economic affairs, the leading supplier of policy advice was arguably the Brookings Institution, which had assisted in the development of the Marshall Plan and the Kennedy administration’s wage and price guideposts of 1962. In foreign policy, the Council on Foreign Relations had become the leading supplier of diplomatic advice and talent since its founding in 1920.3
The relevance of these distant precursors of the Cronon affair lies in their influence on the political upheavals of the 1960s, which in turn contained the seeds of the Wisconsin controversy. During the 1960s, activist movements of both the Left and the Right were motivated partly by suspicions about the growing power of technocrats. The connection was signaled, for example, in the double-sided development of “new class theory,” which originated among Marxists but later came to be embraced by neoconservatives. Of course, conservative and progressive suspicions of experts took different forms and had different targets during the 1960s. Conservatives were especially wary of the New Deal bureaucrats who managed the welfare state. To a greater extent than the Left’s, their suspicions centered also on the university, which they had come to regard as hostile territory. The latter skepticism was apparent among conservatives already in 1951, when William F. Buckley Jr. issued his famous condemnation of his alma mater in the book God and Man at Yale.4 Buckley’s view was that the American university system had been overtaken by liberal faculty members who imposed their political beliefs on students under the guise of academic freedom.
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I thank Eric Klinenberg, Marissa Laham, John Skrentny, and Susan T. Ye for helpful editorial feedback on this article.
- Paul Krugman, “American Thought Police,” New York Times, March 27, 2011.
- Arthur Herzog, “Report on a ‘Think Factory,’ ” New York Times, November 10, 1963.
- On the history of RAND, see Bruce L. R. Smith, The RAND Corporation: Case Study of a Nonprofit Advisory Corporation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966); Paul Dickson, Think Tanks (New York: Atheneum, 1971); and Louis Miller, Operations Research and Policy Analysis at RAND, 1968 – 1988 (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 1989). On Brookings, see Charles B. Saunders, The Brookings Institution: A Fifty-Year History (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1966); Donald T. Critchlow, The Brookings Institution, 1916 – 1952: Expertise and the Public Interest in a Democratic Society (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985); and James A. Smith, Brookings at Seventy-Five (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1991). On the Council on Foreign Relations, see Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977); Robert D. Schulzinger, The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs: The History of the Council on Foreign Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); Peter Grose, Continuing the Inquiry: The Council on Foreign Relations from 1921 to 1996 (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1996); and Inderjeet Parmar, Think Tanks and Power in Foreign Policy: A Comparative Study of the Role and Influence of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1939 – 1945 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
- William F. Buckley Jr., God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (Chicago: Regnery, 1951).