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The System Is Rigged
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The System Is Rigged

The Ivy president debacle is a huge victory for populism.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Pamela Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, and Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“We have reached a level of saturation coverage of campus anti-semitism that is slightly hard to fathom,” Jonathan Chait wrote on Tuesday, marveling at how many stories the New York Times has devoted to the subject lately. “It feels like a strange form of cultural reversal in which the reporters who were staking out diners in Trump country have all been reassigned to the Ivy League beat.”

That’s a good line, but it doesn’t feel like a reversal to me. Rather, there’s a clear through-line between grandpas in red hats babbling over burgers about how Trump tells it like it is and the president of Harvard hedging on whether calling for Jewish genocide should warrant official discipline.

Certainly Chait is right that a lot of attention has been paid to campus antisemitism since October 7, as one would hope after the worst pogrom since World War II somehow led to ghoulish cheerleading for Palestinian victory “from the river to the sea.” What pushed the coverage toward saturation levels was Elise Stefanik interrogating the presidents of three Ivy League universities about their policies on genocidal sloganeering toward Jews and those presidents responding with, shall we say, something less than perfect moral clarity.

If you believe Stefanik—and I don’t normally advise believing Elise Stefanik—the footage of that questioning has now been viewed a billion times globally across various platforms. Whether that’s true or not, it’s indisputably an international news story, one with enough cultural resonance to have inspired the opening sketch on Saturday Night Live last week.

Further proof that a proverbial nerve was struck comes from the variety of commentary the episode inspired. Our own Jonah Goldberg saw it as a lesson in how “only the preferred narratives are privileged” on campus. Graeme Wood at The Atlantic touted it as an opportunity for institutional leaders to revive resignation as an act of civic hygiene. Chait, meanwhile, insisted that the presidents were right to distinguish between threatening speech and threatening conduct. 

My own view, in keeping with the running theme of this newsletter, is that the backlash to the incident amounts to the most sensational political victory for populism in years. Possibly since 2016.

And so no wonder that Times reporters on the populism beat would shift from staking out diners in Ohio to staking out dining halls at Harvard. If you’re looking for evidence of “two Americas” separated culturally by class and education, the action has shifted abruptly from Youngstown to Cambridge.

To some extent it was sheer shock value that caused Stefanik’s questioning of the Ivy League presidents to capture the public imagination. Normally you need to travel very far toward the end of the ideological horseshoe on either side to find someone willing to shrug at genocidal rhetoric, yet here were three prominent scholars indulging during a televised hearing with Congress.

But the real driver of public interest, I suspect, was the astonishment at seeing a cartoonish cultural stereotype vindicated in an unusually vivid way.

It was all there. The startling moral obtuseness to which the extremely well-educated seem curiously prone; the absurdity of a cohort known for policing esoteric affronts to sensitivity like “microaggressions” waffling on something as blatant as genocide; the favoritism in giving speech that supports leftist causes the benefit of a doubt that less “progressive” speech doesn’t receive; and the condescension, laid bare in the smirking that Jonah wrote about, from a class of credentialed mandarins that sees itself as accountable morally only to its intellectual peers.

It was a ridiculous caricature of Ivory Tower sensibilities come to life, all your worst suspicions about higher education confirmed. It would be like thinking “Only the faculty of Harvard could rationalize an idea as ludicrous as ‘we should all eat babies,’” then turning on C-SPAN to find a professor at Harvard being asked whether it’s okay to eat babies and smugly replying, “It depends.”

Populism is most potent when the gap among its enemies between sanctimony and righteousness is widest. It’s one thing for the “elite” to moralize when they’re setting a good moral example; it’s another for them to fail morally while not presuming to lecture others about morality. But when one of the most sanctimonious cohorts in American life whiffs on a moral test as basic as whether genocidal rhetoric belongs on campus, even my inner populist starts muttering about “the ruling class.”

Not just any ol’ wing of the ruling class either. As Michael Brendan Dougherty noted last week, these institutions are shaping the young intellects that’ll eventually govern America, politically and culturally. When microaggressions committed against the left are treated as orders of magnitude more serious than major aggressions by the left, the best and brightest will draw predictable moral lessons from it.

The problem is not that these schools have speech codes; it’s that these speech codes are enforced by means of an unwritten, controversial, and idiotic “woke” ideology that alienates the vast majority of people in this country. In fact, this ideology casts the vast majority of people in this country as contemptible and irredeemable villains deserving of violent comeuppance.

In other words, these institutions are breeding a profoundly unfit leadership class that will bring civil strife and ruin to this country. Protecting the First Amendment requires that we preserve civilized discourse from being drowned out by the yawping of barbarians. The Ivy League is producing an idiotariat; everyone could see that this week. Asking it to change is not hypocrisy. It’s the bare minimum of civilizational self-defense.

American meritocracy is a system and that system is rigged—in many ways, to be sure, but morally too. The hearing with the Ivy League presidents revealed that more succinctly than any episode I can remember. It was proof of concept for populists that the elaborate and sometimes inscrutable enforcement of “sensitivity” norms on campus is really just intellectual window dressing to create political space for progressivism radicalism. The most esteemed institutions run by their cultural adversaries have been perverted to the point that even genocidal sloganeering like “from the river to the sea” is a shades-of-gray matter for excuse-making.

It was a gift to the diners in Youngstown. The fact that Harvard’s board of trustees has decided to stand by the school’s president, Claudine Gay, in the aftermath is a gift to them too.

Penn’s president, Liz Magill, was out in less than a week after her exchange with Stefanik at the hearing. Gay was thought to be next, especially after evidence suddenly emerged that her previous academic writing contained passages that closely—too closely—resembled passages in some of the scholarship she had drawn upon.

After mulling the matter over, Harvard’s board declared that she’s staying.

Why did Gay get to stay when Magill had to go?

“She apologized for what she said at the hearing,” you might point out, and that’s true. “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” Gay told the Harvard Crimson a few days ago, lamenting that she had failed to make clear that “calls for violence against our Jewish community—threats to our Jewish students—have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

But Magill also apologized, sort of, once the pressure on her began to mount. It didn’t save her.

“Donors at Penn had begun to revolt,” you might counter, and that would also be true. Investor Ross Stevens pulled the plug on a partnership with the school worth $100 million after he watched Magill’s testimony. A school might tolerate a little light genocidal sloganeering on the merits, but when the bottom line starts to suffer because of it? Unforgivable.

The problem with this theory is that Harvard has also been hit in the wallet by graduates over Gay’s testimony. Hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, an alumnus, claimed recently that he’s “personally aware of more than a billion dollars of terminated donations from a small group of Harvard’s most generous Jewish and non-Jewish alumni.” Harvard won’t go broke—the school’s endowment stands north of $50 billion, more than twice the value of Penn’s—but even the richest institution will think twice about taking a billion-dollar hit for the sake of keeping a single not-particularly-stellar employee on the job.

The likeliest reason Gay survived when Magill didn’t, I think, is … those diners in red hats in Youngstown.

Nate Silver summarized the logic in a short Twitter thread. Once Magill was pushed out and right-wingers began clamoring for more scalps, a full-fledged battle in the culture war was declared. And Harvard’s powers-that-be concluded that they’d rather alienate some donors short-term by keeping Gay than alienate most of their community by surrendering in that battle to the right by getting rid of her.

Republicans aren’t the only ones capable of spitefully rallying behind a leader who’s under siege from a political enemy, you know.

If the goal was to get Gay fired, Silver argued, the right did a poor tactical job of it. They looked “trigger happy,” for one thing; Stefanik actually declared “one down, two to go” following Magill’s resignation. The fact that some of the left’s least favorite people pushed their way to the front of the parade calling for Gay’s head also backfired. Christopher Rufo, the populist culture warrior, led the charge by accusing Gay of plagiarism. Ackman, the billionaire, claimed to have been told by reporters that Harvard’s trustees didn’t want to be seen as “kowtowing” to him by firing her.

The fact that it was Stefanik, of all people, who asked the fateful questions about genocide at the hearing may have also rallied the board behind Gay. Stefanik is an alumna of Harvard herself; the university effectively disowned her after January 6, dropping her from an advisory board after her Trump sycophancy led her to vote against certifying Joe Biden’s electoral votes. For many at the school, terminating Gay at Stefanik’s behest might have amounted to effectively choosing the latter over the former. And at an institution dominated by leftists, Stefanik prevailing in that choice would have been unthinkable.

In fact, it was Stefanik more so than the witnesses she questioned who functioned as the butt of the joke in SNL’s sketch about the hearing last weekend. That was an early tell that partisans had begun to polarize around the incident. If Stefanik, an admittedly execrable character, is too much of a villain for liberal comedy writers to take her side in a fight, it was a fait accompli that her enemies at Harvard would feel the same.

Even if that fight happens to be about whether universities should make an enormous exception for Jews to their usual rule of letting victims of “offensive” speech decide whether that speech is offensive or not.

So it’s the diners in Youngstown—as represented by allies like Stefanik, Rufo, and (to a lesser degree) Ackman—who, ironically, may have saved Gay. As the opposition to her became more identifiably populist and right-wing, as Silver pointed out, it became easier for Harvard’s trustees to cut her a break and side with the left. A smarter GOP activist class would have sat back and let the pressure on Harvard build organically from the American middle—if, again, the goal was truly to get her fired.

But what if it wasn’t?

I think populists are fine with Gay surviving, the same way they’re fine with Republicans losing elections. Defeat is useful in some circumstances, and may sometimes be preferable, because it proves the moral corruption of their enemies.

They got their scalp at Penn. That’s a victory for populists, circumstantial evidence of political muscle. But it also complicates their point about “the system” being rigged: The hallmark of a rigged system is that its superintendents aren’t accountable for their misdeeds. Magill was.

Having Gay survive at Harvard revives their thesis about a corrupt system. The system is so rigged that ambivalence toward genocidal sloganeering aimed at a vulnerable minority plus compelling evidence of plagiarism isn’t enough to get an administrator with the right politics fired from her job—even if it’s more than enough to get students guilty of similar offenses tossed out.

Demonstrating that is a victory for populism too.

And there may be more victories to come. Harvard’s refusal to punish Gay opens the door to arguing that if the school won’t hold her accountable, other institutions must. As I was writing this newsletter, in fact, yet another prominent Harvard alumnus piped up with an idea:

The endowment isn’t quite tax-free, thanks to a bill Ted Cruz voted for in 2017, but the taxes on it could certainly be raised considerably. The touchstone of populism is using state power to punish the right’s cultural enemies. Harvard letting Gay off easy provides a handy justification for Cruz and others to do just that and further normalize that political ethos.

This episode does one more thing to aid the populist program: It encourages cancel culture.

“Populists hate cancel culture!” you might counter, but that’s not actually true. They hate being the targets of cancel culture, which they often are because the most influential practitioners of that culture in American society are socially liberal corporate managers and educators. But they quite like the idea of institutions, beginning with government, bringing pressure to bear to silence their enemies. It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that that’s what the post-liberal project is all about.

It’s classical liberals who might rightly blanch at the thought of students being punished for chanting slogans about “intifada.” Peter Savodnik imagines how Magill might have replied to Stefanik’s questions:

The bold thing—the right thing—for Magill to have said in response to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s question was: “We’ve been doing things wrong here at Penn for a long time, telling people they can’t say things that someone else might not like. Starting today, we’re done with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and microaggressions, and we’re dismantling the whole DEI complex at Penn, which, let’s face it, is all about censoring wrong-thinkers and actually foments antisemitism on campus. What’s more, I’m putting our students on alert: if you’re uncomfortable with being subjected to speech that upsets you, you should go to school somewhere else. We put a premium on debate and argument at Penn, and that demands free expression.”

Populists would doubtless prefer a system like that to one in which they’re forever being hassled by administrators for “offensive” speech while the dregs of progressive radicalism operate with impunity. But if you view political and institutional power as little more than tools in waging a culture war, the system you truly crave is one in which “cancellation” is accepted and the right, not the left, gets to decide who’s canceled.

Cancellation is a little more acceptable on the American right after the episode with the Ivy League presidents than it was before, I suspect. The consensus is that the “from the river to the sea” crowd should be punished by administrators; Magill was rightly pushed to resign; and Gay should resign too or be fired. The fact that she hasn’t been only proves how right the right is about the depth of corruption in higher education, and how much more work needs to be done to smash that institution before it can be reformed.

“Left-wing discourse norms” will gain a degree of bipartisan consensus in time as post-liberalism surpasses classical liberalism as the right’s dominant ideology. “Un-rigging the system” will simply come to mean more evenhanded application of those norms, not undoing them. No wonder populists are excited.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.