Academia, Paranoia, and Sock Puppets

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Wednesday, as the likelihood increased that there would soon be a political deal to postpone the debt ceiling crisis and end the shutdown (for now), I spoke with a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the crisis.  One of the things she wanted to know was what would happen to federal higher education spending (i.e., the spending that most directly affects her publication's readership) in the aftermath of the shutdown and hostage crisis.  My answer was not optimistic.

Part of the political deal last week involved an agreement that representatives from both parties would get together and try to work on a 10-year budget deal, supposedly to try to get long-term deficits under control.  Of course, given that the 10-year deficit picture looks quite under control, that is a bit odd.  But we know that Obama and many Democrats are devoted to fiscal orthodoxy, so it is hardly surprising that they would try to prove their bona fides by playing on the Republicans' turf again.

We know that Obama cannot resist attempting to make these kinds of deals.  We also know, however, that the likelihood of anything big happening is close to zero, because Republicans will never vote to increase taxes (even the supposedly "moderate" Republicans, whose moderation consists entirely of not wanting to shut the government down over the ACA, even though they continue to insist that "Obamacare" will destroy the country), and because it still appears that enough Democrats will resist Obama's attempts to give away the store on Social Security and health care spending.

I told the Chronicle's reporter, therefore, that the most likely outcome of this political stunt, which is supposed to be completed by mid-December, would be to take further hacks at the domestic discretionary budget.  That that budget has already been cut deeply in recent years, even before the sequestration cuts that are scheduled to hit harder still in 2014, will not stop our politicians from cutting further, because that is simply the most vulnerable set of spending programs.

I then pointed out that higher education, in particular, is a favorite target of right-wing politicians.  The Chronicle article ended by quoting me as follows: "They're going to find it hard to take whacks at the big programs" like Medicare and Social Security, "so they'll start looking at symbolic ways to cut away at things that are easier.  Other than football teams, universities are not popular with tea-party-type voters."

When I said those words, they struck me as utterly uncontroversial.  The far right has always been hostile and contemptuous of the academy.  Right-wing websites excitedly publish counts of how many professors are registered Democrats versus registered Republicans, pointing to the lopsided results as proof that colleges and universities have been taken over by lefties, Marxists, communists, you name it.  Sarah Palin and Anne Coulter (darlings of the Tea Party) mock Obama for his Ivy League pedigree, and dismiss academics as traitors and not Real Americans.

Heck, even the senior George Bush, a Yale man, mocked Michael Dukakis's "Harvard boutique" connections in the 1988 campaign!  A generation ago, some right-wing money men created a group called Accuracy in Academia, the purpose of which was to "monitor" colleges and universities for supposed liberal bias.  The Cheneys supported this effort over the years.  The degree of anti-higher education fervor in the Tea Party is such that Scott Brown -- the first Tea Party hero, an upset winner in the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts -- spent his entire (losing) re-election campaign in 2012 running against Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren by referring to her with a snarling "Professor" in every speech, commercial, and interview.

It is hardly, therefore, a stretch to imagine that the current Republican Party, which trades on anti-university rhetoric even in its less extreme precincts, would try to target higher education spending.  I also pointed out to the reporter that the state of North Carolina, which has seen its state government taken over by Tea Party activists, has gone after the state university system with a vengeance.  Tar Heel state Tea Partiers will still root for UNC, NC State, and so on in football and basketball, but they are doing everything they can to punish universities for being open to non-conservative thought.

I almost never read the comments boards of other publications' websites.  Dorf on Law has always been blessed with an extremely good group of commenters, so much so that Professor Dorf recently observed that "the closest thing we have seen to a sustained critique of our position [regarding the debt ceiling] has come from thoughtful questions posed by commenters on this blog," and not from other academics.  Yes, DoL has the occasional troll, and a few tendentious readers come and go over time, but our commenters have presented us with a high level of constructive critique over the years.

As anyone who has spent more than four seconds surfing the internet knows, however, our comments board is an outstanding exception to the rule.  The typical board is little more than a food fight, with people insulting each other in the most childish ways.  (Stephen Colbert recently mocked this tendency by noting a repeated comment on one board: "U R Homo!")  I would have expected, however, that The Chronicle of Higher Education would have a different tone on its comments board.

No such luck.  The first commenter wrote this: "Neil Buchanan is hawking the vicious liberal myth that Tea Party backers are uneducated buffoons. As a matter of fact, Tea Party backers tend to be better educated and wealthier than the average American. If they are suspicious of academe, it is probably because of the profusion of characters like Buchanan in universities. Contempt often breeds contempt."  Another commenter claimed that "the higher learning community is irresponsibly unworthy of its own credentials," and a third said that we should "[l]et the little Democrat slugs crawl around in their liberal filth."  I did not finish reading the comments, but I would not be surprised if one of them asserted that I R Homo.  (Or is it I M Homo?  Bigotry is so confusing!)

Of course, I did not say that Tea Party backers are uneducated buffoons.  What I said was that "universities are not popular with tea-party-type voters."  This is, as I noted above, demonstrably true.  The only thing close to a serious argument that I have ever heard along these lines is that conservatives have good reason to hate universities.  (That it is a "serious" argument, of course, does not make it true.)  The evidence is simply overwhelming that the right wing in this country is anything but supportive of the non-athletic parts of our universities.

It is tempting, I admit, to use those readers comments to demonstrate that they are simply proving the point that they purport to be rejecting.  I say that universities are not popular with Tea Partiers, so that the political system is likely to cut the budget of higher education still further.  A Tea Partier shouts back: "We're not uneducated buffoons!"  The comedy writes itself.

But maybe it is not that simple.  On his blog yesterday, Paul Krugman commented on a report that Fox News had set up an operation in the 2000's in which its employees became "sock puppets," that is, they set up false email accounts to bombard comments boards with pro-Fox News screeds.  Even when a blog post was neutral about Fox, the sock puppets would be out in force.

Krugman noted that many comments boards, certainly including his own, are littered with the silliest, most illogical attacks imaginable.  Maybe, however, the people writing those comments are not as stupid as they sound.  He concludes: "In general, if your reaction to some comments is that nobody could really be that stupid, it may be that you are just underestimating the power of stupidity — but it may also be that nobody is, in fact, that stupid, but that someone has been employed to play stupid for fun and profit."

In any event, I will repeat that I am grateful for the high level of comments on Dorf on Law.  I did not need to see how bad it is elsewhere to appreciate how good it is here, but I now treasure what we have all the more.