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There are 9 comments on A Left among Rights: A Progressive Student’s Week at a Conservative Think Tank. What Did He Learn?

  1. To be clear: this was a transcript from an interview I gave and I did not write any part of this article. Though I would not categorize myself as a “progressive,” I do feel strongly about the conclusion of this piece.

  2. Wow. I really appreciate what Zak Schneider did and that he is sharing it with us. Very interesting and compelling. In particular, I was struck by this point:

    I was in a room with other people who shared this intellectual curiosity and genuine interest in hearing other people’s perspectives. None were Trump conservatives. These people are grounded in reality, facts, a shared understanding for liberal democracy. These are not people coming into politics trying to gain for their race, culture, or ethnicity.

    I havre a question about this:

    It was about 25 percent left like myself, 25 percent conservative, and 50 percent middle-of-the-road. They were willing to see the validity in the other side.

    But this doesn’t sound like a conservative think tank. Why were 25% of attendees at the American Enterprise Institute summer honors program liberals? How are people recruited to the AEI? Regardless – of course, as Zak notes, it is a good thing to have diversity of opinion.

    American college campuses have been criticized for not being tolerant enough, making students uncomfortable who are conservative or middle-of-the-road. I received a note from a student (after class was well over) which included this comment: [Note — my class is about the intersection of psychology and public policy.]

    ===
    Politics may be unavoidable in a public policy class, but this was another area where the information provided did not seem balanced. One side of an argument was often assumed wrong. Namely, more conservative policies were “wrong” or “ignorant”. Liberal policies and ideals were clearly preferred in class. As an independent, this really impacted my ability to engage with the class. I felt like the lone dissenter in many discussions, but heard from others outside of class that they didn’t feel comfortable or well-informed enough to question the dominant position. From my perspective, this is problematic. It’s evidence of what many students already feel: questioning liberal ideas is not encouraged, and being openly conservative will make you a social outcast. I should mention this is not unique to your class. Friends of mine across disparate majors have had similar experiences with students and professors.
    ==

    How should I make sure that students who take left perspectives do not drown out the concerns of centrist or conservative students? I can bring up this topic explicitly, but that could stifle discussion because students could be concerned about whether they are hitting the appropriately non-judgmental note.

    1. Hi Professor Cadwell-Harris,

      If I may respond to at least some of that: firstly, this program that I was in specifically recruited a diverse set of political opinions. The scholars who work at AEI are largely, of course, right of center. However, the whole point of the summer honors program was to bring groups together in order to engage with academic material that was quite diverse in and of itself. AEI also prides itself on the “competition of ideas” which is embodies a lot of the liberal democratic norms that exist in society today–irrespective of ones partisan affiliation.

      To address your second point, what I found increasingly salient as I was having these deep conversations was, rather than taking the partisan position at face value, understand WHY one comes to such a value. Most of the time, that leads to a personal experience, or specific psychological characteristic, or “brute fact,” or psychological perceptual cues that are driven by an underlying morality structure (ie religion, or belief in some kind of objective value system vs a relativistic value system–for example). Understanding these partisan attitudes through a much deeper, abstract lens actually takes some of the animosity out of political conversations and allows for deeper analysis. Oftentimes, this is when I come to many realizations about my own political and social views as I see the upstream factors that contribute to my conceptions. This allows me to at least imagine how someone “across the asile” is not plainly wrong, but rather possessing some kind of different life experience that leads them to a different basic ontological conclusion about the world–which, of course, has downstream consequences on their politics.

      1. Hi Zak– I agree with you. It really helps to learn how others have come to their perspectives. Also, conservatives have valuable ideas, like “retaining achieved value.” The US has vast private and public institutions with a lot of value, e.g., the food supply chain. Achieved value can be disrupted or lost if cultural/political change occurs quickly, as happens in an extreme form with revolution and arm conflict.

        Funny, I wrote some years ago for a different BU publication, Bostonia, about learning about the values of conservative ideas, see link. https://www.bu.edu/bostonia/fall13/conservative/

      2. and for all who are interested, my two courses at the intersection of psychology and politics are:

        CAS PS 542 Child Development and Public Policy
        CAS PS 561 The Psychology of Wealth, Poverty and Inequality
        and I also teach:
        CAS PS 560 Cross-cultural Psychology

  3. Hi Zak,

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    What was the demographic diversity at this event and in your discussion groups? Were people from marginalized communities fairly represented in these hours-long conversations? Were there only a few people of color in a sea of white faces? This is very important to me as a liberal Black woman. I fit into the group of liberals that you worry about. The type who prefer not to engage with people who erase their existences because they’ve been privileged to not have to acknowledge them. I hope you recognize your positionality entering these spaces and when you think of the reasons why some liberals do not often speak up. Ultimately, thank you for educating the conservatives whom I try to avoid and having the difficult conversations that will help bridge American politics.

    Best,
    Emery

    1. Hi Emery!

      This is a very important point. My cohort was relatively diverse, however, I would guess that whites were overrepresented as a whole in the program. This has to be taken with a grain of salt, though. Most of the “liberal” or left-leaning members of the program were actually white, so it is hard to pin down an easy prescription of exactly how to make these views more representative. This was not uniformly true, but I do think it is hard to lump any demographic groups into homogenous ideological partisans.

      To go back to what I said above responding to professor Cadwell-Harris, I think political distinctions come less so from simply a racial or class identity and more from a person’s lived experience. Something that deeply troubles me (and doesn’t trouble enough people on the Right, especially) is that the collective personal experiences of non-whites in this country are largely built by systemic racism and inequalities that have impacted their day-to-day lives and those of generations prior. What I struggle with–especially when having conversations with people more hostile to these ideas (This does not include the AEI demographic who are much more aware of these issues than most)–is the inability to cultivate a sense of empathy for other situations. Being a white person myself, it is impossible to know exactly how someone of color experiences the world, but I make a genuine effort to try. I think it is absolutely crucial in order to go into these conversations, especially when involving complex topics like these. This structured cultivation of empathic values key to a thesis that I am working on at the moment on democracy.

  4. I’d like to see BU become a “liberal” school, meaning that we are open to all ideas. I agree with the note from Prof. Caldwell-Harris’ student. I’ve spent time on the far right and far left, but coming to BU as a committed moderate (“liberal” in my use of the word), I was generally regarded as a conservative. There are many ideas that are neither progressive nor conservative, but simply constructive. Maybe I’m just an old-line pragmatist . . . but I don’t think so.

    Here’s why:
    I suggest that we need to stop putting ideas on a continuum. As a geometry student in high school I learned about the X-Y axis and it was a real eye-opener when I learned about the Z axis. The same is true politically, and I should add that the political axis is not the only axis. We need to think in new dimensions — constructive dialogue can help us do that.

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