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Cronon's politics

Mar 28 2011

Let me step away from digital humanities for just a second to say one thing about the Cronon affair.
(Despite the professor-blogging angle, and that Cronon’s upcoming AHA presidency will probably have the same pro-digital history agenda as Grafton’s, I don’t think this has much to do with DH). The whole “we are all Bill Cronon” sentiment misses what’s actually interesting. Cronon’s playing a particular angle: one that gets missed if we think about him as either a naïve professor, stumbling into the public sphere, or as a liberal ideologue trying to score some points.

Most people already know the basics of the Cronon case, so I won’t go into that. I only have two mild corrections I’d make to the standard intro:

  1. Historians might better explain what it means that Cronon is AHA president-elect. That might sound to outsiders like he’s a political animal. The position is mostly honorary; it’s a lot closer to the Nobel Prize in history than it is to the presidency of the National Education Association.
  2. Although Cronon has written two highly respected books, Nature’s Metropolis is a better read than Changes in the Land; that’s what you should pick up if you haven’t read either.

I want to talk about Cronon’s goals in all this. I think we could better understand the nature of his “scholar-citizen” intervention. Hank at AmericanScience just posted about what Cronon means by calling himself a scholar-citizen. (This post started as a comment there, but then, as you can see, got way too long.) Good stuff, but he focuses more than I would on what historians in particular have to offer. Also at the core of the fight is a much broader methodological impulse that isn’t unique to history: a belief in public openness, in civil conversation, and so on, that applies in some ways to all academics. Like politicians, scholars have different public personas than private personas, and underlying both Cronon’s first blog post about ALEC and the later posts is something that feels to me like an 80s-90s academic’s love for deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democracy is a sort of communitarian political project that views the essence of democracy in reached consensus, rather than in conflict and resolution. Deliberative democrats tend to be fuzzy about votes, they like town halls more than parties, and they view jury deliberation as a much more important democratic tradition than political canvassing. Academics love it in part because it makes the political sphere operate a lot more like the academy–little confrontation and few polar opposites, slow consensus around certain points, and an emphasis on civility and constructive criticism. Now, I don’t know anything about Cronon’s politics personally: but I find this a really helpful way to think about his actions and goals.

What happens if we assume Cronon is taking a stance on deliberative democracy, not on the labor question? I think it explains a lot of what some have found funny about his actions. Cronon’s complaint about ALEC, remember, is not that it opposes unions; it is that it deliberately obscures its actions from the public sphere. He’s probably in favor of public-sector unions, but it’s the later point that led a non-partisan academic to leap headfirst into the blogosphere. From the start, he has argued for a particular type of public discourse, and he has stayed basically within its bounds at all times. His elaborate efforts to establish his Wisconsin bona-fides are crucial to his standing as a member of the community. His blog is about entering a public sphere in which anyone (even a state employee) should be able to enforce certain norms of democratic civility; and all his protestations of independence, or centrism, are at the core of the belief that democracy should be about consensus, not conflict between parties. A lot of readers, Republican and Democrat, I think, have either been put off by the points he keeps making about the tradition of Wisconsin Republicanism, or ignored them as boilerplate: Walker’s bill, they think, is a cut-and-dry partisan issue today. But those are actually central to his positioning: he’s trying to intervene in the political debate as a centrist because on some level that’s the only position appropriate for political debate. To make his cause a rally-the-troops moment for democrats as the party of reason (warning: nytimes paywall) would be, in its own way, as impermissible as ALEC’s behind the scenes dealings.

This has implications for how we talk about what’s at stake. I think Cronon’s defenders should possibly stop focusing on the legality of the FOIA request, and his attackers shouldn’t think they’ve got him red-handed. Will Saletan said that Cronon should spend less time fighting the request, and more time trying to get the law changed—except that FOIA is a good thing. As Lukas pointed out on AmericanScience, that’s a pretty shallow argument even in legal terms: you can make an interesting argument about competing goods of academic freedom and public information. A lot of people are doing just that. But the rabbit hole of public official vs. state employee, confidential records vs. FOIA, takes for granted a legal framework when in fact this about political discourse. I just handed out a bunch of Bs to students who ascribe the core beliefs of political actors in the Early Republic to differing methods of constitutional interpretation. (“Jefferson was a strict constructionist, and therefore he opposed the Bank of the United States”). The really important thing to defend here is not academic freedom or political speech in general, but a particular type of political speech (deliberative democracy, encouraging openness, etc.) against another type of speech (intimidation, etc.)

Cronon occasionally gets called “naive,” but his naivete is strategic. He’s trying to set the terms of debate around political discourse, rather than legalism. If we make this about laws and about rights, we’re possibly letting him down. Cronon hasn’t intimated that he wants this to play out in the courts; he pretty clearly prefers to shame the Republican party into withdrawing their request. That we tend to talk about political issues in a legal way is a sign of the impoverished discourse that deliberative democracy wants to change. Cronon is already a step ahead of that: he’s trying to create the conditions under which there would no political benefit to using FOIA against a professor, because ad hominem attacks would disgrace the deliverer more than the recipient.

The commitment to changing the language also helps explain Cronon’s allusion to “McCarthyism,” which seems overblown to some. Ben Alpers at USIH draws out the comparison to moderate conservatism at length. But I think we should view it as relevant not for its critique of Republicanism today. More important is the other side of the coin: the McCarthy story offers, as its flipside, a tremendous example of civil discourse in American politics. Cronon himself is trying to be Joe Welch: the outsider who bravely called for decency, and who (through McCarthy’s fall) got it. Just as McCarthy didn’t quite realize he couldn’t treat the Army as poorly as he had more political appointees, Cronon is hoping that his own integrity and standing will help lead to more moderate discourse. Will this work? It’s clear, certainly, that the Wisconsin GOP has no idea what a respected figure “Cronin” is, but it’s also possible that Cronon himself is overestimating the sympathy he can generate. His original intervention around the union issue was clearly done with an effort not to be partisan, but Madison has already become such a partisan flash point that it might not work.

The problem with deliberative democracy is that even though its principles seem like they should be universal, hardly anyone behaves in the public sphere like we’d like. Some of this is because of naked self-interest or weakness in the face of exploiting scandals, but a lot may be because individual goals seem more important. Citizens want their representatives to use all the tools at their disposal to expand health coverage, reduce state debt burdens, or to resist overreach by the governing party. And that might not be crazy—although one might, like Centrist Cronon, care about political process and democracy more than anything else, one might also privilege property rights, or distributive justice, above any notion of political civility. (Although in some way that might not be rational: I’m e-mailing to try to get an orthodox Rawlsian account out of Ryan in the comments, since Rawls figures heavily in the intellectual heritage on both sides here.) That is to say, some people may want to defend Cronon from his left; they should be clear, though, that they’re doing their own project, not necessarily his.

Now, Cronon’s not a card-carrying deliberative democrat, as far as I know. As a historian, he’s never been a theory-first guy, and he tends to be pretty eclectic in his influences. He may turn around and say something tomorrow that puts the lie to my reading. Certainly not everything he says fits into the deliberative democracy framework. But I find this a helpful enough way to think about what’s going on that I thought I’d throw it out there.



Anonymous - Mar 1, 2011


To draw out a point we discussed at lunch yesterda…

Jamie - Mar 2, 2011

To draw out a point we discussed at lunch yesterday, too: another reason we are *not* “all Bill Cronon” is that only faculty at public universities have to worry about being subject to this kind of overreactive scrutiny. Paul Krugman joked in his Tuesday column about how he has occasionally used his .edu address for personal business, but he will never actually have to deal with the kind of exposure that Cronon’s being threatened with, nor with the other forms of accounting that come with being an employee of the state.

Of course there’s a real benefit to seeing Cronon’s dilemma as our shared responsibility to have the kinds of conversations that the AmericanScience guys are talking about. It could at least underscore what is a significant gap between the public and private academies.

Jamie, Yeah, I had a paragraph about what this me…

Ben - Mar 2, 2011


Yeah, I had a paragraph about what this means for public universities but cut it since it’s too depressing. Thinking about public university faculties as government officials is bad for them; if we’re encouraging faculty who, like Cronon, can pick their university, the slow motion collapse of the great public institutions will continue. (Which is better than what we’re seeing in Britain right now, where the universities are told to concentrate their research on a campaign slogan.)

Hi Ben: You’ve done well to draw out what’…

Hank - Mar 2, 2011

Hi Ben: You’ve done well to draw out what’s behind Cronon’s original (and subsequent) thoughts - and I think you’re right to point out (as you did here) that he’s out in his own limb in certain ways.

That said, I don’t want to let that disaggregation get in the way of the more general thinking this should spur about the boundary between politics (personal or otherwise) and scholarship, on the one hand, and the relationship of all of this to the blogosphere on the other.

All this to say: your point about academics’ way of thinking being well-suited to online commentary and elaboration is well-taken, and I hope we can use this episode to do more thinking along these lines in the weeks to come.

It isn’t clear to me why you think that Cronon…

Anonymous - Mar 2, 2011

It isn’t clear to me why you think that Cronon is a DD. These are what I take to be your major evidence:

  1. “From the start, he has argued for a particular type of public discourse, and he has stayed basically within its bounds at all times.”

  2. “A lot of readers, Republican and Democrat, I think, have either been put off by the points he keeps making about the tradition of Wisconsin Republicanism, or ignored them as boilerplate”

  3. “He’s trying to set the terms of debate around political discourse, rather than legalism.”

None of these points strike me as necessarily or even probably evidence that he is a DD in the way you’ve defined it here. I gather you are saying it is not these points in isolation that mark him as DD, but their overall preponderance. But I think there are a number of other possible explanations.

From what I know of Bill personally, I’d resolve these a different way. He is someone who has a firm commitment to hearing out the other side. He is also someone whose firmly held positions do not always match those of the left-liberals. He is being serious when he touts not the virtues of conservatism, not just positioning himself in the center because “that’s the only position appropriate for political debate.”

I think his main arguments about unions are 2: 1) the Burkean point that public unions have long been a fabric of WI, and to do away with them with the speed and manner that WI has is unwise and foolish, 2) the appeal to Republicans that theirs has not always been a party so given to the crass politics of today. (2) of course is right of the basic historian’s playbook.

UNLISTED CITATION, “disaggregation?” Are you subtly…

Ben - Mar 2, 2011


“disaggregation?” Are you subtly accusing me of being a poor Rodgersian? Let me try to slip the knot by disagreeing with your own fracture of the blogs from political discourse. I want to elide the difference between the blogosphere and the public sphere, because I don’t really see much unique about blogs for historians intervening in debates. This is just a different place they can intervene, and so we don’t need to worry so much about blogs, per se; nor do historians who don’t blog about contemporary politics need to take much fear from this. (I may yet come to regret that sideswipe at David Cameron in my last comment, though).

I certainly can’t argue with firsthand knowledge, but I’ve tried to be clear I’m not saying he is a DD, but that I find that understanding makes more sense of and better justifies his actions than anything else for me right now. Particularly on the blog, though in the NYtimes as well. Even if he’s not one, I think it’s a productive way for academics to think about what his intervention might mean and what academics can contribute to the public sphere: I think it also inculcates him somewhat against charges of political partisanship.

I suspect you’re right that at heart, Cronon is something of a maverick with various strongly held beliefs about lots of things. But you seem to think “just positioning himself in the center” is somehow disingenuous, rather than an important stance on its own. I think that if he actually all over the map in his substantive positions, he’s done quite well for himself by adopting language of democracy as consensus.

You’re right that I can only point to a lucky coincidence of factors. I would emphasize above it, though, that some commitment to deliberation explains the laser-focus in his first post on ALEC better than Burkeanism.
Why did he think that was a better position policy to begin with–if he was actually against striking it down, he might have expressed a stronger blanket condemnation of the bill than he does. The Times editorial, two, refers to the procedural and communitarian reasons as “deeper” than historical ones and emphasizes “openness and transparency” quite a bit more than simple Burkeanism would suggest. Whether we choose to take that as strategic, rather than heartfelt, is of course open for debate. Usually I take such claims cynically (although I almost take Burkean claims cynically too). From Cronon, though, I simply find that I don’t–I think he actually believes the stuff. So I’m saying that if we put that at the center of his claims, it casts his actions in a different light, one that distinguishes him from the Left, as you want, without making him look bad at all. Anyway, I don’t have much at stake here, but I just wanted to throw it out.

I don’t think that his claim to the center is …

Anonymous - Mar 2, 2011

I don’t think that his claim to the center is disingenuous at all. I think it exemplifies what he takes to be his commitment to seeing and hearing all sides of an issue, i.e. the importance he gives to debate and discussion, the belief that we learn from the other side – – let’s call it communicative rationality – and even a desire to hold himself aloof as a free thinker from the failures and fallacies of parties (which in a way is how he made his name in environmental circles – by holding aloof from them in order to critique their beliefs about wilderness, etc). That seems related to DD as you’ve described it, but also stopping short in a key respect, the emphasis on politics as about consensus forming and townhall meetings. I don’t read him putting emphasis so much on consensus, as you do, as on certain ethical standards (the importance of defending freedom of thought vs intimidation, the importance of deliberation and debate vs the Republicans rushing something through that the electorate didn’t even know they were voting on, etc) that would constrain political discourse. An emphasis on openness, transparency, and discussion, that is, doesn’t entail seem to entail DD.

Hesitation about ALEC’s self-obfuscation seems fully in line with such a belief in the importance of communicative rationality for politics, as does the point (really not a Burkean position in any strict sense, though one that I think borrows something from Burke’s emphasis on the importance of the what the past has given us) that one should deliberate and debate before changing a major and long lasting institution. This is someone, after all, who despite having tenure at Yale decided to return to Wisconsin because of the fact that he wanted to be there. Rootedness is clearly important to him in a way that, I think, resonates with the importance of a certain notion of conserving, or at least respecting what the past has bequeathed to the present.

(I don’t have much at stake in this either besides curiosity. And you may be right that to think of him as a DD is more productive when thinking about the role of academics… I should also clarify that I wasn’t claiming strong first-hand knowledge of his political beliefs, I was saying how I imagine him based on my contact with him. I could be totally wrong.)

This is my second attempt at a comment. My first o…

Ryan Davis - Mar 2, 2011

This is my second attempt at a comment. My first one disappeared after I worked hard on editing it!

I do think this is an interesting case for deliberative democrats. As I understand your post, there are at least two reasons for thinking that deliberative democracy can help to explain Cronon’s mix of positions: his prioritization of a certain procedural ideal over any particular set of political outcomes, and his emphasis on changing language. These have been the important causes of deliberative democrats at least since the the Gutamann/Thompson book that you link to.

Why think the values implicated by procedure and language are sometimes more important than substantive political outcomes? As you note, Rawls figures into both sides of the issue here. The early Rawls (circa 1971) believed that justice required extensive changes to the basic structure–redistribution of wealth, equality of opportunity, etc. (However he didn’t talk much about political conditions in the actual United States at the time.) The later Rawls retained those views, but started to think more about procedures. He argued that we ought to treat other citizens as “self-authenticating sources of valid claims.” To do that, we ought to think of them as our fellow co-authors of the law. We should regard our relationship with them as a basically cooperative, even when we disagree in significant ways. The hope is that procedure and language can help secure that relationship against unraveling in the face of political difference.

Regarding the exchange in the comments, it’s worth pointing out that deliberative democrats seldom expect citizens to articulate these values explicitly. But they hope that even if participants don’t identify as deliberative democrats, the theory can still help explain what they are doing. The theory aspires to be something like an idealization of current practice.

You note that most people often don’t act this way because other goals seem more important. That seems true to me. Something can be said for the theory, though. Political scientists seem to believe there are better and worse ways of facilitating toleration for opposing views. So relationships with other citizens might be at least one thing that people care about.

Anyway, after reading your links I feel sympathetic to Cronon’s project. But I do wish other parts of life were more like the academy, so I could be biased.

UNLISTED CITATION, Fair enough–maybe I am putting too much e…

Ben - Mar 3, 2011


Fair enough–maybe I am putting too much emphasis on proceduralism and less on communicative rationality. I agree that communicative rationality and rootedness are probably just as important for Cronon as consensus-building. For myself, I’ve always thought of all those thing–Habermas’s communicative rationality, Gutmann’s canonical DD, even communitarianism (which would be my spin on ‘rootedness’)–as hanging together in a kind of sphere of post-Rawls, 90s academic Liberalism (big-L). That might just be because I haven’t read much of the stuff seriously since college–shoving communitarianism in may be particularly egregious.

Relatedly, though, let me try to pull on Ryan’s point that DD was an attempt to theorize a set of implicit idealized practices. I still think at least one of the strands, and an important one, in Cronon’s actions is that he’s appealing to those ideals perhaps a bit more strongly than other ones. That idealization of practice sketched out in the 90s academy is a useful way of justifying his actions. Of course, all that stuff tries very hard to read like common sense anyway, when colloquialized, so it’s hard to prove.

I’m waffling between three arguments here, and I don’t know which one I like best:

  1. he actually is consciously drawing on these arguments but not making them explicit;
  2. he’s hung around universities enough that he’s interiorized these methods of argument as self-evident. Maybe, even, he assumed that they’d actually give more cover than they seem to for intervening in political debates.
  3. He’s never heard of Amy Gutmann, and this just happens to be a case where DD’s might find a chance to see their efforts at stake. (Although it might ‘just happen’ so because Cronon’s drawing on good means of Academic debate–back to Hank’s notion of the scholar-citizen–and so were the deliberative democrats)

Ryan- Hi! Anne was worried you wouldn’t respond because “Ryan the Rawlsian” might compromise your anonymity too much. One question: how strong is the tie between Political Liberalism Rawls and Gutmann & co.? And thence to communitarianism?

Ryan! I was just about to email you to goad you in…

Anne - Mar 4, 2011

Ryan! I was just about to email you to goad you into posting! This is fun! I feel like I’m back in our tile-floored Lawrence. Ooops now I’ve given another piece away. Ryan the Rawlsian once lived in Lawrence. Now I’ll read your post.

Hi Ben! I hope that your (1) is right. It would be…

Ryan Davis - Mar 4, 2011

Hi Ben! I hope that your (1) is right. It would be nice to think that political theory sometimes made a difference to what people actually do. I see Gutmann and Thompson as basically orthodox Rawlsians. In their opening chapter, they suggest that even a complete endorsement of the Rawlsian view does not yield determinate answers to all relevant political questions, so there still needs to be a way of addressing what remains. Enter deliberative democracy.

Several communitarians presented their views directly as objections to Rawls. Starting with Sandel, there was a lot of debate about whether persons could voluntarily choose features of their ‘identities’. I know you don’t like that term, and this debate may be a case in point for you. I think most people in the field today feel it was not a productive detour. For my part, I think liberals won.

Gutmann herself has an early review of the communitarian literature, in which she argued that Rawls does not need the metaphysical commitments communitarians had attributed to him. Instead she interprets the Rawlsian view as supported by the overlapping consensus of a pluralistic society, rather than by any comprehensive moral doctrine. That is too concessive for my taste, but it did presage Rawls’s own thinking on the issues.

Anne–Hi! I miss those times in our tile-floored Lawrence apartment! (I’m not worried about my anonymity, although it does make me feel vaguely more important to entertain the thought that someone might try to figure it out.) Hope you are well!