Eric Kaufmann joins Brian Anderson to discuss progressive authoritarianism in universities, the distorted perception of racism in the U.S., and the genealogy of modern progressive ideology.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Eric Kaufmann, he's an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a professor of politics at Birkbeck College at the University of London and the author of several books. His work focuses on issues of demography, religious and national identity, and cultural politics.

In a recent piece for City Journal, "A Necessary Intervention," he outlines an exhaustive strategy to stem the tide of progressive authoritarianism in higher education. And in a new report, that's getting a lot of attention for the Manhattan Institute, he explains the role that media, cultural, and academic forces play in misleading American society about the extent of racism. So Eric, thanks very much for joining us.

Eric Kaufmann: Brian, it's great to be here.

Brian Anderson: Let's start with your piece for City Journal, "A Necessary Intervention," it was called. There you discuss just how suffocating the environment can be in universities for professors and students who descend from the elite left-wing orthodoxies of the campus. You find in your research that one third of right-leaning academics and graduate students say they've been disciplined for their speech, while younger academics are in fact more likely to support crackdowns on speech and even firing dissenters. So that suggests as you say, that things will get worse rather than better. And justifying in your view, government intervention to ensure freedom of expression on campus. So maybe you could say a little bit about this research and then we can talk about the reforms you advocate. This research was not just the UK, it was also for the U.S. right?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, that's right. It came out in a report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. Based on eight surveys across the UK, U.S. and Canada, focusing slightly more on the U.S. in this report and so they're really two strands that the survey data... and the surveys were mainly of academics and some of PhD students and a little bit on master students. What this really turned up was on the one hand, we have very high self-censorship as you mentioned amongst conservative academics.

But even centrists academics in the U.S. about 35 to 40% were reporting self-censorship and/or also saying that their departments were hostile climates for their beliefs. And so conservatives, it was sort of like 70% saying a hostile climate. In the social sciences and humanities about three-quarters of American and British academics said they self-censored. So we have this powerful lack of freedom amongst conservative-leaning scholars and increasingly amongst centrist-leaning scholars.

Also, asked essentially about willingness to discriminate, so four in 10 U.S. academics would discriminate against a known Trump supporter. And perhaps as a result fewer than only about one in 10 Trump supporting academics and there are only a small number of them but only one in 10 would be willing to share their beliefs with colleagues. And that's something that I think pretty close to nine in 10 sort of Democrat voting academics agreed with. So this is not anything that's down to paranoia amongst the conservative academics. This is something that even the liberal academics understand is going on.

Brian Anderson: And would you say that this... so When you talk about [centrist 00:03:52] academics, you're referring mostly to people in the humanities or is this also in the sciences? In other words, does the opinion that's being suppressed or self-suppressed relate specifically to their work or is it just their private political opinions?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, there were a number of questions that we used to get at this, clearly you have the highest degree of self-censorship amongst people's political opinions. Now, the surveys were heavily focused on social science and humanities, academia, top 100 institutions in the U.S. The sciences, you had somewhat lower self-censorship and they were somewhat less left-wing. That is, the other part of this of course is the political composition of academia.

For social sciences and humanities, it was something on the [order of 00:04:50] 14 on the left for everyone on the right. It's About 70 to 75% left-wing against only about 5% conservative. We saw that in Canada as well, and that tallies with other research, so you've got this very strong monoculture, which is inducing its own pressures along with the administrative the sort of cancel culture being threatened with discipline and so on. But yeah, this is mainly social sciences and humanities that I focused on because these are really the politicized disciplines where the subjects you choose to study, the perspectives that you take are so much more conditioned by norms and taboos and red lines and so on. I mean, it's not the kind of thing that would apply as much to studying butterflies or different kinds of chemical reactions.

Brian Anderson: Right. Now, what are some of the reforms that you... the government reforms that you advocate to reduce this kind of self-censorship and make the campus more accommodating to a variety of different political views?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah. I mean, really this is the policy solutions that I advocate in some respects mimic those that the British government has undertaken in response to one of our previous reports over here for I think [tank 00:06:10] policy exchange, looking at the history of speech restrictions. You can see that even in the 1960s, the student movement already was restricting speech on campus. And so this is kind of a feature and not a bug and I think it's a long running feature of the ideology of the cultural left ideology item left modern modernism, which is a dominant now in academia. And so, because it is integral to that ideology, as that ideology penetrates more and more deeply in these institutions we should expect academic freedom to decline proportionately. And therefore, in addition to the fact that younger academics are twice as likely to favor dismissing controversial academic staff.

So, this problem is only going to get worse, that we've seen that it's persisted. It started with speech codes in the late 1980s. So this has been going now over three decades, it's been getting worse. There, are still people incredibly who somehow believed this is just a phase but it's not, in my view it represents a sort of deepening. So what has to happen, the only way the universities can be reformed they can't reform themselves, you need outside intervention. The only credible intervention is government regulation.

Even relying on the courts to sue is in my view a capitulation because what that means is even if you're exonerated, which often is the case the process... as one University of Texas professor put it, the process is the punishment. So you going to learn next time not to actually open your mouth because you don't want to have to go through all that expense and time. So we need the government to essentially proactively apply the law to universities to say that academic freedom takes priority over reputational questions over subjective definitions of harassment and emotional safety.

When your policies come into conflict the academic freedom one must supersede or if it doesn't, you're going to be fined and made to change that, essentially an activist regulator. That's the model that the UK is pioneering and we're going to see what happens going forward on this. But if you don't have that in place the incentives are just not there because the people who have the ear of the administration are the activists whether in committees, whether on social media and it's just too easy for the administrations to bend to them.

Brian Anderson: Now there's always a risk when you create a new government agency that there's going to be institutional capture and that usually tends to be by the left. How would you propose guarding against that possibility in this kind of arrangement?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think this is where I mean, people have to realize that the status quo... doing nothing is essentially having a hostile government on the other side who's against academic freedom. You couldn't get much worse than it already is, it can get a lot better so there's really only upside in many ways. And so those who think that somehow if you get the wrong government things are going to go bad. Well, they could go bad but then if your people get in they can turn things around. And I think what we see say in Britain now is there's a real attempt for the first time that I can remember the government is trying... you have to get your people onto these committees, into these regulatory bodies. You have to install people who will push the agenda of trying to reform things and move back towards free speech.

If you think that you can sort of have a hands-off approach and somehow cut your way out of this problem I think you're going to be disabused pretty quickly. So, what I'm saying in a way is that the risk of government intervention is in my view very low. I think it's in a way what we're talking about is just as the Supreme Court for example, in the US both parties try and get their candidates in. We know that people's political beliefs affect their legal judgments. So it's probably right that there's a certain amount of politicization of that process.

Similarly, with these higher education regulations in universities, they are also politicized but they've been able to hide under this banner of not being political. And what's happened is under that radar you've had this creeping politicization. So we've actually got to open that up to more scrutiny democratic contestation to my mind that's just much more democratic. Yes it may switch from one set of political hands to the other but over time hopefully as this is exposed to normal politics and media I would hope that a kind of bipartisan norm around academic freedom would emerge because that's really where most people are.

Brian Anderson: Sure. Toward the end of your piece you mentioned another possibility and I have to think of this myself as the way to go, which is to create alternative institutions that don't subscribe to this kind of censorship or political monoculture. And you mentioned Stanford's Hoover Institution as one such example. And there's schools that resist the left-wing [indoctrination 00:11:30] like Hillsdale and Grove City College. What about this institution building alternative model? Do you think that's plausible? I guess one problem with it is it takes a lot to build an institution.

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah. I think that the universities are amongst the most longstanding institutions. There are many network effects and reputational and legacy effects donor, money. There's so many resources that are controlled that in my view it's not a realistic scenario that you'd be able to build alternative institutions that would have the reputational clout. That would draw people who are interested in the status considerations that drive people to universities. And really it's the top 100 that have a lot of the influence in the culture. I mean, pure indoctrination is not really in my view something that is as much of a problem. And the studies don't tend to show that student views shift a lot. It's much more about influencing in the broader culture. So, I guess it's a bit like saying, can we build another Google or another Twitter?

I just think that when something gets large enough the network effects are such that you just... it becomes essentially like a monopoly and you can't really do it. So I guess my view on this is that the sort of idea that you can exit and build an alternative universe is not in my view very realistic. You need to try and disrupt and reform the existing institutions with quite intrusive. Getting your people onto these committees and quite intrusively well tweaking laws. So for example, the British government now with their new academic freedom bill are going to be essentially specifying in very close detail which university policies take precedence whenever there is a clash, that is left loose right now.

So a lot of the legislation is not properly specified and any wiggle room is going to be exploited. You could have shut down all of that wiggle room by legally and also through proactively enforcing these policies and also political discrimination sort of coming down hard on that. And I'm quite encouraged to see what the conservatives have been able to do here on many fronts whether it's racial equality, whether it's schooling, whether it's universities that they're trying to push back of the creeping takeover by left-modernism has been going on activist driven within these institutions. I think that is the only way to take them back. I don't think in any sort of lifetime of ours or probably even in our century we're going to be able to build an alternative infrastructure.

Brian Anderson: I'd like to turn to your recent report, The Social Construction of Racism, which has come out from the Manhattan Institute. You note there very powerful point that racism in the United States has declined by any objective measure yet Americans seem oblivious of this fact. Indeed, you show that many Americans are deeply misinformed about some of these controversies, eight in 10 African American survey respondents you point out believe young black men are more likely to be shot to death by the police than to die in a traffic accident and six in 10 white liberals agree with that point. What is going on here? Why is there such a distorted perception of the state of race relations in America?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, it's a bit like in the same way the academic freedom is being eclipsed by this new ideology, this new ideology is also affecting people's perceptions of reality. I mean, essentially the ideology that sacralizes race, gender, and sexuality which then means that people aren't able to get an objective story from the press or from educational institutions. So in this case yeah, I mean, we have a very clear fact which is that young African American men are about 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a policemen's bullet. And so I was interested to know who actually is going to get this question right on a survey and is that affected by their ideology?

Lo and behold yes it is only 15% of white Trump supporters but six in 10 whites by the supporters are getting this question wrong and eight and 10 black Biden supporters. So what this is really essentially saying is that people's ideological priors and which will affect to some degree the media that they consume and the networks that [inaudible 00:16:19] shapes their view of reality. And in this case, their view of a simple statistical fact but I go throughout the report and you can see that in fact people's perceptions of how much racism there is whether it's risen or not, even their personal experiences of racism heavily colored by their ideology.

Brian Anderson: But in your view this is really being driven in part by the media and political leads. Right?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah. I mean, you can see for example, starting in around 2014 what Matthew Yglesias calls The Great Awokening, which is that major legacy newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post but also newer websites part more partisan websites all made a big shift towards using terms like racism and white supremacy and white privilege and all of these sorts of things in a much more concerted way. And this is partly due to just activist discourses on social media which was emerging strongly and also new partisan websites like BuzzFeed and Vox. And so all of this then feeds into this huge increase in mentions of the term racism in the media and also in English language books and you can track that in big data pretty easily as that Goldberg has done.

And what that then means is people who are on these media are getting exposed to these stories at greater frequency. And so what you see is that this share of white liberals saying that racism is a big problem in America kind of roughly doubles between 2014, 15 and 2020 from about 40, 50% up to about 80%. And it stays the same for Republicans in around 30 to 40%. So we've now got this 50 point gap in perceptions some opened up over the last five years or so and that's very much that's entirely a media phenomenon. It's got nothing to do with reality.

We know that interracial marriage is continuing to increase. We know that attitudes to interracial marriage have become more and more tolerant. We know that the number of police shootings of African Americans has dropped 60 to 80% since the late 1960s. So all of the kind of attitudinal behavioral basics that we've been tracking for years are all looking up but somehow people perceiving things getting worse particularly if you're a Liberal and that's the striking thing is the divergence between reality and perception.

Brian Anderson: It's worth I think talking a bit about the history, the roots of this kind of mindset, this ideology or describing. Some would see it going back to the 1980s and the early critical race theorists people like Derrick Bell, others go a little further back to the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno Herbert Marcuse who's thought was influential with the new left of the '60s and '70s. But in your view this kind of new progressivism has roots that go even further back still to what you describe as left modernism which began with about Bohemian Intellectuals all the way back in the early 20th century. So I'm wondering if you could discuss this history just a little bit today and why you think it's relevant to understand it.

Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think, yeah because the ideology that's dominant today which some call wokeness which is really about the sacralization of historically disadvantaged race, gender, and sexual minorities and that has its roots with a fusion of liberalism and socialism. So you have liberalism traditional concern with racial minorities, gender minorities, religious minorities such as Jews and Catholics. And that had been going since the early 19th century emancipation of Catholics for example. Then that is then transposed onto a socialist mindset, oppressor oppressed type mindset where the view there is that you have one group of people that are oppressors and one that are the oppressed. And so it's now instead of the class fraction being oppressed it's racial and gender minorities oppressed. And that kind of comes in the '60s. But the origins really I think go back to Randolph Bourne and essentially the Bohemian so-called young intellectuals, Greenwich Village in New York area in the 1910s.

And for them, they saw the WASPs the Anglo Protestants really as a boring somewhat oppressive group and they saw newer immigrants Jews as Southern Eastern Europeans and to some extent African Americans as full of life, exciting, interesting, et cetera. And so that then begins this orientation of seeing majorities as evil and negative and minorities as virtuous and positive. And what we've been seeing I would argue is simply a turning up of the volume on that.

So that now it's sort of whiteness and whites and male and all of that which is negative and perhaps even toxified and minorities and particularly blackness or African Americans or Muslim groups or other kinds of sexual minorities. Any minorities tend to acquire a positive valence and are seen as the oppressed and you've got the majority as the oppressor. So that kind of structure I would argue goes back to the early 1910s when you had immigrants.

And to some extent, to a lesser extent African Americans in the role of the sort of virtuous minority and the WASPs as in the role of the kind of oppressor. And once that structure is in place I think it's just a matter of turning up the volume and then we get to where we are today. Now of course, we've had a big increase in scale with the expansion of universities and television and now the internet, so I think a lot of what's happened say since the '60s is more about scale and scaling up than it is about the actual fundamentals of the ideology which I think have been in place for quite some time.

Brian Anderson: What's your view of the long-term hope of reversing some of these trends? It's easy to get pretty pessimistic when you think of the power of the forces behind this woke ideology right now which now includes a lot of business elites. What's our hope for some kind of return to sanity?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think that the younger generations are if anything more invested in this ideology and so I don't think the idea of letting things go or somehow withdrawing letting the market take care of it good ideas drive out the bad I'm afraid that is not going to work. This is not a 1980s problem that you just want to deregulate and cut your way out of it. It's got to be a new approach which I would call kind of a reformist conservatism which actually uses government power in a way. I mean, J.D. Vance mentioned this recently but it is a new kind of conservatism that needs to happen. That is about bringing democratically elected opinion and also the law and precedent behind the law into these institutions.

So if we think of society, it's not just government... the typical libertarian view of government oppressing individuals you've actually got three layers you have government but then you have institutions like corporations and universities and media and then you have individuals. And it's the oppression, the canceling, the political discrimination that's coming out of the institutional layer and so what we need actually is the government has to go in and regulate the institutional layer to free up the individuals.

So it's a bit like in a way the federal government telling universities in the U.S. south in the '60s that they had to desegregate or if a gang of peoples is outside my door I don't get my freedom back until the police show up and arrest them or chase them away. Right? So it's about thinking in terms of three layers and not two we need to have governments come in and actually get their people into these institutions, essentially compel them to prioritize the liberty over emotional safety and subjectivist.

The woke definitions, which is to [sacralize 00:25:07] minority groups and so that anything that can be interpreted as being offensive to the sacred groups is cause for cancellation. I think we've actually got to intervene to the point where these institutions simply have no room to actually bend to these pressures. And so that's going to take a much more kind of activist approach that gets into the weeds also around what is the definition of harm, the definition of racism and transphobia. All of those things need to be nailed down in very fine detail and these institutions have to be prevented from making up their own definitions and enforcing their own authority that's really what has to happen.

And then I think the culture can begin to change. I always say Cass Sunstein work on conformative where seat belt laws and smoking laws actually then lead to new norms around seat belt and smoking. And I think the same thing could occur with political discrimination and free speech that both of those things could be shifted if we get eventually. If even for example, if the Democrats are in this country the Labor Party tries to put in the speech restrictions. If that's politicized in an election campaign they're going to pay an electoral price for doing that because it's very unpopular and so eventually my hope is it will settle down as a new norm.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Eric. Don't forget to check out Eric Kaufmann's work on the City Journal website and on the Manhattan Institute website. We'll link to his author page in the description, address is You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi and as always if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Eric. Thank you very much. Very interesting discussion.

Eric Kaufmann: Thanks so much, Brian.

Photo: NirutiStock/iStock

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