The Slow Tactic of Personnel 

October 25, 2021 Updated: October 25, 2021

Commentary

Anyone who has spent many years in a cultural/educational institution has observed a process unfold that might be called “Inching to the Left.” By “many years,” I mean decades, not just three or four, or even six or seven. It’s a slow process, very slow, and if you’re not vigilantly opposed to the direction it takes, if the subtle movement to the left that unfolds doesn’t alarm you, but only irks you now and then, you have a hard time registering the full measure of change that proceeds over time.

Here’s how the process works, in one example that should make it clear to people who’ve never been employed by one of these institutions:

It’s 1985, and some people in the history department at State U have become concerned about the low number of women and minority professors there. The faculty meeting shows white males outnumbering everyone else by a large factor, and that’s a problem. The department has done a little diversification of the curriculum, dropping a Western Civ survey requirement in the Seventies, adding courses focused on non-Western subjects and women’s movements, and putting more female and black authors on the syllabi in several courses. But the faces around the table signify that there’s a lot more work to do.

That sounds like a familiar complaint, but at this time in the mid-Eighties, the concerns are shared by only a few people on the faculty, and they tend to be younger professors, not the senior colleagues who earned their doctorates back in the Fifties. When the three or four “identity” professors call for the hiring of more women and minority teachers and graduate students, nobody objects to the desirability of the result. But when those few urge that the department reserve spaces for those underrepresented identities, the proposal goes nowhere. Not only does it violate Federal law (the profs don’t worry too much about that), it also robs the professors of free and open judgment in the hiring process. The others in the room don’t like it, a few of them bristle, and the majority firmly backs the going meritocratic ways of judgment. They hire applicants and admit graduate students on impersonal grounds, choosing the best talents, and they want to keep it that way. If two candidates are perfectly equal, well, perhaps the department will choose the female, not the male, but the department shall not enter the territory of quotas. The issue is dropped.

Two years later, though, it comes up again. Maybe the department has done a job search and the hiring committee has selected a white male as the number one choice, and the department as a whole meets to approve the ranking. A full discussion follows. Our four identity professors are still around, and they take turns expressing their dismay. Also, a new assistant professor hired the year before adds her objections to the others. Meanwhile, one of the older professors in the strong meritocratic group has retired, and another one left the year before for another institution. The balance of identitarians versus meritocrats has changed—not much, just a little, enough, however, to alter ever so slightly the air in the room.

It’s important to note that the identitarians haven’t changed their argument at all. They push the exact same thing as before: more underrepresented groups, more representation and proportion and diversity. On their part, the meritocrats have no new points, either. They hold to academic norms, period, and academic norms forbid identity considerations. Once again, we have a debate that ends simply by numbers: a vote is taken, and the identitarians lose.

But one senses, nonetheless, a shift of momentum. This time, the identitarians speak with a little more strength, the meritocrats with a little less, and not only because of that small adjustment in the numbers. The identitarians have a bit of impatience now, an undertone of indignation. Losing hasn’t discouraged them; it has energized them with the fires of injustice. They have a moral position, you see, and it gives them moral courage. They believe they have the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation behind them. They’re an extension of those reforms; they’re on the offensive; their professional lives have an added meaning. A few of those identity professors despise their senior colleagues.

On the other side, what sources of resolve do the meritocrats have? Rather dry ones, in comparison to Martin Luther King and visions of women released from the kitchen and the bedroom. Academic standards can’t compete with the social revolutions of the Sixties—that’s obvious as the meeting continues. Meritocracy makes ideals of objectivity and neutrality, and the morality of them pales before the righteousness of anti-racism and anti-sexism. As a moral contest, the game is over.

Which means that this is just a matter of personnel. If the identity politicians can reach a critical mass, if they can get a cadre of colleagues large enough to steer department policies their way, the battle is won. They don’t have to win the war of ideas, just the vote in the committee room. If some of those stuffy old scholars would retire, then, or if the ones who resist identity politics can be stigmatized sufficiently for their softer meritocratic colleagues to take a little distance from them, things can move forward. The identitarians don’t even need a majority, in fact. I have seen units and committees and organizations be led in a leftward direction by a group of individuals who weren’t close to making up 50 percent of the whole body. But they had enough force to draw the squishy liberals in the room over to their side.

And that’s precisely what occurred. In the ensuing years in our history department, the exact same contest was repeated. The department added a few more identity profs, and then a few more, and a few scholarly purists drifted away. The tide was turning. Again, it didn’t happen quickly, but it did happen steadily. Remember, the leftists in the department would only vote in favor of another leftist candidate, while the purists were willing to accept anyone with sterling academic ability no matter his or her politics. As the camp of the meritocrats thinned, the remaining ones sunk into regret and dismay, no longer voicing academic principles confidently. They saw where things were headed, and they knew the identitarians would never be convinced of the damage their identity politics were doing to the disciplines. The differences between the two groups were too fundamental for constructive debate or compromise. And they disliked one another too much. We hear a lot about polarization in America today, but for those of us in academia, it’s no surprise: humanities departments in the 1990s displayed it in miniature. By 1999, the slow creep of leftism had gone far enough to dictate department policy. The institution belonged to the left.

This takeover of cultural/educational enclaves by a process of personnel-first-and-policies-next-and-skip-the-debate unfolded in just about every major institution out there. It was, yes, a “long march,” and we realize today how clever it was. The error of conservatives and classical liberals was to believe that a defeat here and there would stop the left, would make them give up. They didn’t understand the kind of Cold War the left was playing. They couldn’t imagine an identity prof leaving a meeting having lost the vote by 33-to-5 saying to herself like Arnold, “I’ll be back.” They assumed that winning a colloquy equaled winning in practice. They didn’t know the rules of the long haul; they underestimated the stamina of their opponents. It was forensics against ruthlessness, and the outcome was all too predictable.

President Donald Trump understood the mentality. That’s one reason he was so reviled. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and similar Republican personalities do not. This is what has frustrated so many conservative voters. Somehow, those ordinary Americans outside the institutions have experienced the identity mentality. It happened as they interacted with school systems, human resources managers, or some other instrument of Woke, and they felt the impact of its imperiousness. When, at a later time, they saw their Republican leaders making nice with the left, as when Romney marched with Black Lives Matter, they couldn’t believe it. They felt unrepresented, betrayed.

It got worse when they witnessed these principled conservatives launching more anger at Trump than they did at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Why?

Republicans who don’t fight back have failed to do so because they’ve been softened by the trend I described above, the slow spread of leftism within the walls, deep in the institutions they occupy, not in public space. They’ve been conditioned to countenance it, a little bit one year, a little more the next … It’s been a very long campaign by the left, and only a hard line right now, immediately, will stop it.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.