It’s always hard in politics for people to take their opponents’ views seriously, but it has become ever harder in Trump’s America. People are more engaged with politics, but only because they want to beat the other side, not understand it. This means scholars have a greater responsibility than ever to help ordinary citizens understand how the people with whom they disagree think, and what their political opponents are actually doing.
Most scholars get this. For example, political scientists and historians, who tend to range from the political center to the left wing, have written extensively about the origins and development of American conservatism. Rick Perlstein, the left-wing historian, has written intelligently and sensitively about the Barry Goldwater movement and the rise of the modern US right. Jefferson Decker at Rutgers University has carefully tracked how reaction against the role of the federal government in Western public lands gave rise to conservative public interest law.
Angus Burgin has thoroughly dug into the history of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Friedrich Hayek in 1947, showing how a transnational network of free market thinkers helped change the global conversation on political economy. One of us (Teles) devoted years to making sense of how conservative foundations helped shape the academic discipline of law and economics, build the Federalist Society, and, more recently, support criminal justice reform. And this barely scratches the surface of high-quality scholarship across multiple disciplines on conservatism.
This kind of work is not just important because it involves scholarly objectivity and generosity — although that is true. It’s also important because even when it doesn’t promote agreement, it promotes smarter politics. Intelligent partisans want to understand what truly motivates their opponents, so that they can learn from their adversaries, and even steal their good ideas. Superficially pleasing scare narratives about the other side may make us feel good, but they can drive poor strategic decision-making.
Read the full piece at Vox.