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Would David Duke Really Say That?

Over the Fourth of July, a board member at Adolescent Counseling Services pinged me with a tweet. It read, "Hey @rickhess99 can you walk down the hall and log David Duke out of the @AEI twitter account?" Given that the AEI twitter account tends towards the high-brow, I was curious about the offending quote. So, what did it say?

The tweet said, "The birth of the United States was unique because it was a nation founded not on blood or ethnicity, but on ideas."

Well. If that sounds like David Duke to you, I'm not sure what else there is to say. I find it true, uplifting, and unifying. You disagree? You think the nation was founded in blood or ethnicity? Okay. That's a longer discussion and all, because there's always room for competing historical schools of thought. What I can't fathom, though, is the gaping difference in worldviews when a respectable person dismisses that anodyne sentiment as alt-right, racist lunacy.

After all, I was teaching high school in Louisiana when David Duke wound up in the gubernatorial run-off against Edwin Edwards in 1991. I remember the (ironic) pro-Edwards bumper stickers: "Vote for the crook. It's important." I remember President George H.W. Bush denouncing Duke, Republicans rallying against Duke, and Duke going down in flames. And, I'll tell you: there's no chance that David Duke would have said, "You know what, guys? America isn't about race after all. It's about our idealistic attachment to liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness."

Unfortunately, the kind of bipartisan rallying against extremism that helped bring down David Duke is in short supply today. We now have the online Trumpian brigades, emboldened by a president who seemingly tries his best to inflame our worst impulses. But it seems to me like the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, MSNBC, CNN, Saturday Night Live—and every university in the nation—have got that covered.

For my part, I can't help thinking that the center has come undone, in no small part, because mainstream, time-tested, once uncontroversial conservative sentiments have been labeled offensive by the same voices who wonder what happened to the responsible right. As many serious conservatives have noted, the push to delegitimize reasoned conservatism has done its bit to enable more extreme views.

Example: I was at Columbia University earlier this year talking about Letters to a Young Education Reformer when, in response to a question, I suggested that many schools have gotten squeamish about teaching values. An audience member asked what I had in mind, and I said I was thinking about things like respect, personal responsibility, and timeliness. She had a particularly strong reaction to "personal responsibility" and said, "It sounds like you want to blame students if they don't succeed." She said that she found the very phrase "personal responsibility" to be offensive—the kind of thing that David Duke might say. When I brought that up in other venues this spring, I was struck by how many others were similarly uncomfortable with something I regard as foundational. When polite culture frowns on talk of personal responsibility, those who believe in it may feel impelled to turn to impolite culture.

In the world of academe, social policy, and education culture, it's routine to assert the primacy of implicit bias, structural racism, white privilege, and inequitable spending. Even when the research cited is less than compelling—or downright dubious—those on the conservative side of our public debates are expected to engage carefully and courteously. If conservatives don't, they risk being dismissed as a racist and a menace—and banished by funders, universities, conferences, and "polite" society. This leaves conservatives in something of a conundrum when they fear that progressives are fighting for practices and policies that undermine religious liberty, personal responsibility, property rights, or social cohesion.

On the other hand, at least in the education milieu that I inhabit, conservatives have grown accustomed to being routinely caricatured without consequence. The head of the Education Trust, a former Obama official, denounced Trump's proposed budget (which called for trimming national K-12 spending by something less than one percent) as "an assault on the American dream." The head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a former Obama education appointee, declared that a return by the Department of Education to its historic routines constituted an unprecedented assault on civil rights (for a sense of how outlandish this attack really is, peruse this Wall Street Journal op-ed or this piece in Education Next).

Each morning, my inbox fills up with editorials and reports from various education publications and newsletters—with complex policy decisions consistently reduced to Manichean tales of justice v. iniquity (and inequity). Remarkably enough, those on the political right are, almost invariably, depicted as being on the wrong side of the line. Those worried about maintaining safe schools are dismissed as defenders of a racist disciplinary regime. Those concerned about high taxes or the impact of reforms on their own children's education are deemed selfish. Those who want American history to be more than an assemblage of warts are denounced as ideologues. Those concerned about the sensibilities of children when it comes to transgender locker-room access are labeled bigots.

Now, it's a free country; progressives and conservatives are free to think and say what they will. But when they reject time-tested values or reasoned views out of hand, it has consequences. For those sincerely concerned about the polarization of American life, this may be a good place to start.

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