Are we marching lockstep into the Age of Unreasonable? Daily headlines and hourly Twitter tantrums suggest that we are. And yet, institutions with long histories of defending accuracy and fairness continue to stand up against the rising tide of emotion and deception.
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia is the latest. A nonpartisan organization that studies public policy and history through the lens of presidential scholarship, the Miller Center has for more than four decades been one of the nation’s premier advocates for civil, reasoned debate and discussion. It has built a remarkable reputation for bipartisan inquiry by inviting an ideologically diverse group of talented men and women to join its conversations — and its staff.
The center advanced its mission when it announced last week that it had hired Marc Short as one of its senior fellows. Until the previous week, Short had served as President Trump’s director of legislative affairs, following a long career in public service working primarily for Republican officeholders and conservative advocacy nonprofits. He’s a graduate of Washington and Lee and of U.Va.’s Darden School of Business.
It’s hard to imagine a better choice for any organization dedicated to studying the American presidency and its effect on the nation’s public policies. And yet ...
The announcement of Short’s hiring was met with instant cries of outrage — and with an utterly predictable petition signed by U.Va. professors and students demanding that his appointment be revoked. Their message: Heresy will not be tolerated in this academical village! Defend the dogma and expel any who dare question it! Or words to that effect.
William Hitchcock, a Miller Center and U.Va. history professor, told The Cavalier Daily that “Mr. Short is a very ardent partisan. He is a very skilled, able exponent of President Trump’s policies and views, and therefore he has no place at a nonpartisan, scholarly center such as ours.”
“Ardent partisans” tend to be defined by the eye of the beholder, but it seems that any competent academic concern interested in studying the presidency would welcome a man so conversant in the views of the current occupant of the White House. Apparently not. Who needs inside insights and knowledge when bellicose badgering is so much more satisfying?
Nicole Hemmer, a Miller Center professor writing in Vox, proclaimed that “the people at the Miller Center are particularly well placed to observe that the Trump administration represents a significant rupture in American politics, a break with the general tenets and bulwarks of modern liberal democracy: equal representation, protection of minority voices, respect for the rule of law, a free press and free inquiry.”
Is she saying, therefore, that anyone associated with the Trump administration should be excluded from the public debate? From polite society? Or simply from the lofty clerisy of those possessing liberal arts graduate degrees?
“What do institutions dedicated to protecting an open society do when faced with the forces of illiberalism?” Hemmer asks. Her answer is quite clear: Banish anyone and everyone associated with those forces. Do not allow them into respectable institutions.
So what is to be done with the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, or the 43 percent who tell pollsters, week in and week out, that they still support the president? Where do they go? Are they to be forever excluded from the company of those who see themselves as morally superior?
We salute the Miller Center for staying the course, for working to advance civil debate, for supporting the search for truth and fairness, for placing education above emotion.
The center demonstrates its principles not only by welcoming expertise from multiple points of view, but also by encouraging a culture that clearly tolerates dissent. The professors criticizing the center are at no risk of losing their jobs or their reputations. They are free — as they should be — to express dismay, even disgust, at their employers’ actions. Sadly, though, these academics seem unwilling to extend the same decency to those with whom they disagree. Their intolerance and disdain for reasoned debate poses a far greater threat to American freedom than does an intemperate president.