This morning the New York Times published a story about the “epistemic closure” debate that I commented on earlier. Unfortunately, there was a small error in the Times that I wish to correct. It says that I was fired by the Heritage Foundation for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s abandonment of conservative principles. In fact, it was another conservative think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis that fired me, which the Times reported when it happened in 2005.
That said, I don’t mean to imply that Heritage is innocent of enforcing a doctrinaire approach to conservative thought that is at the heart of the epistemic closure debate. Let me mention three incidents.
First, back in 2006 Heritage had a big dinner honoring the 25th anniversary of the Reagan tax cut of 1981. To my knowledge, every living person who played a significant role in the development and enactment of this legislation was invited with one conspicuous exception: me.
Heritage was perfectly well aware of my deep connection to the Reagan tax cut because I was a senior fellow at Heritage for three years in the 1980s. (For the record, I left on amicable terms in 1987 to take a job in the White House.) In 1977, while on Jack Kemp’s congressional staff, I had primary responsibility for drafting, promoting and getting cosponsors for the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which Reagan endorsed in the 1980 campaign and submitted to Congress, virtually unchanged, in 1981. I should note that my colleague here at CG&G, Pete Davis, was a big help while he was on the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation back in 1977.
Yet despite these facts, I was deemed unworthy of inclusion in the Heritage anniversary celebration. When I heard about it, I complained about not being invited and got some mealy mouthed response. I knew perfectly well that the only reason I was unwanted at the event is because of my criticism of George W. Bush. Of course, it goes without saying that it was perfectly entitled to invite whomever it pleased. But it was at least ungracious and unworthy of an institution I previously respected.
Incidentally, Heritage hosts an annual event for its former staff to which I was always invited before my Impostor book came out. I haven’t been invited since.
Another example of how social pressure is brought to bear against dissident conservatives occurred shortly after this incident and also involved Heritage. Ryan Sager, then a columnist for the conservative New York Post, published a book in 2006 called The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. His argument, similar to the one I made in my Impostor book, was that the Bush White House had abandoned the historical libertarian position of the Republican Party on many issues in pursuit of votes among anti-libertarian evangelicals.
Sager had been invited to talk to a group called the Prosperity Caucus, a loose-knit private group that meets about once a month in Washington to discuss economics and politics over pizza and beer. Usually, the group borrows a room on Capitol Hill or at a conservative think tank. As it had done often before, this particular month the Prosperity Caucus had booked a room at Heritage.
Even though Sager’s criticism of Bush was far milder than mine, he was deemed radioactive by Heritage, which canceled the Prosperity Caucus’s reservation and booted them out of the building when it came to its attention that Sager was speaking. (Here
is Sager’s comment on the incident.) This led to some discussion among conservative bloggers that presaged the epistemic closure debate. Prominent conservative blogger Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds called it
the “Kos-ification of the right.” (The reference is to “Daily Kos
,” a web site often accused of enforcing the left-wing party line among Democrats.)
from conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan and others, Heritage issued this statement
about the incidents involving Sager and me: “Failure to invite a non-member to a members-only event is not an exercise in blackballing. Declining to host an event when an alternative venue is available is not blackballing.”
I say, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it’s probably a duck. It’s obvious that Sager and I were blackballed.
Finally, there was another incident in 2006 that also demonstrated Heritage’s enforcement of party discipline. According to a report
in the New Republic
magazine by Spencer Ackerman, John Hulsman was fired as a foreign policy analyst at Heritage in July of that year for not toeing the party line on Iran and Iraq. Afterwards, Hulsman said, “I was a walking corpse” in the conservative community.
Once again, it goes without saying that Heritage had a perfect right to fire a staff person who was unable or unwilling to support its position on key issues. But the enforcement of such party discipline is unhealthy for any ideological movement and shows that think tanks can violate the intellectual freedom of their analysts in ways that would be unforgiveable at a university. It is for this reason that I recently suggested
that conservative think tanks have more in common with lobbyists these days than academics.
I don’t mean to pick on Heritage—other conservative think tanks, publications and organizations are guilty of similar sins—but as the biggest and most powerful conservative institution in Washington it has outsized influence within the conservative community that bears on the epistemic closure debate. These incidents show that the enforcement of intellectual and political conformity among conservatives takes many different forms, sometimes subtle. They often involve purely social pressure—not being invited to receptions, dinners and conferences. As a virtual recluse, I am pretty much immune from such pressure, but many others are not. They would rather hold their tongue when they have issues with the party line than risk social estrangement from their friends and coworkers. At least in Washington, that’s a big part of what epistemic closure is all about.
These unhinged right wing attacks prove my point (here
). Andrew Sullivan comments here
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