Steven Hayward, a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley, visited campus last week to deliver a talk on “How Liberals Are Failing Liberalism.”
The event was organized by The Eisenhower Forum, a conservative-leaning discussion group that seeks to bring “new voices, and in particular, conservative voices that you don’t often hear on campus,” forum leader James Callahan ’19 said in his introductory remarks. “We decided on Professor Hayward because he’s a first-rate scholar with a remarkable breadth of knowledge,” he wrote in an email after the event.
Hayward delivered his talk to a packed Main Lounge, where students spilled out into the lobby area. He began with a joke about the audience: “I’m impressed with the turnout on a Halloween night. I thought maybe I’d come in costume — a conservative white man, one of the scarier things on a college campus these days. Then I thought about coming as a liberal Hollywood producer, which is pretty scary these days, too. As I always say, why go in for a micro-aggression, when you can go in for a full-tilt macro-aggression?”
He described himself as extremely comfortable in front of what he imagined to be a liberal audience. “I’m currently an inmate at UC Berkeley, but I like, as one 19th-century general said once, fighting surrounded.”
To that end, he explained that his talk was designed to provoke.
The body of his talk focused on how, as he tells it, liberalism as embodied in the American political system poses an existential threat to the abstract notion of liberalism undergirding our democratic institutions – a liberalism represented by Enlightenment ideals like, as Hayward put it, “equality before the law,” and “appeals to reason and truth.” According to Hayward, the role of conservatism in this political moment is to “save liberalism” – those democratic norms of rationality and truth – “from liberals.”
His argument revolved in large part around the actions of what he called “the far left.” He asserted that the far left controls all the levers of society – e.g., the media, higher education, and the court of public opinion – and because of this, concerns over violent white nationalist movements on the right are overblown.
“It’s true, that what we call the alt-right does also reject the liberal tradition,” he said. “But the alt-right controls no universities, no major media outlets, and no institutions of any seriousness.”
Having washed his hands of criticisms of radicals on his side of the political spectrum, he went on to argue that the undefined far left, through its embrace of social constructionism, undermines deeply held liberal traditions. In particular, he criticized the sloganeering he has observed on campuses, in that it “prohibits deliberation” in an academic setting, turning “politics into an outlet for private grievances.” He also argued that the campus left, which he addressed interchangeably with the far left, lacks a coherent vision for society, and is engaged primarily in the work of “social destruction,” rather than “social construction.”
At the end of his talk, Hayward asked for questions from the audience, although it was unclear whether the question and answer session would be used as a platform for debate or not. The questions were posed respectfully, but most were critical. Some addressed the content of Hayward’s talk: the tensions between modern conservatism and rational inquiry; his characterization of the writing of Edmond Burke; and his comments on historical oppression in American society. Others addressed Hayward’s views outside of the talk: his outspoken climate change skepticism and his opinions on the conservatism espoused by the Republican Party under Donald Trump.
The question and answer session drew the most criticism from students, although they were not universally critical. “I’m glad that I went,” said Sarah Walker ’20. “It was really interesting, but the talk was more coherent than the question-and-answer session.”
Other students were less forgiving of Hayward’s answers. “I don’t think he created a discussion,” said Stephanie Sun ’18. “I thought he avoided the questions, and then decided he was tired so it was time to be done,” she continued, referring to Hayward’s choice to end the talk half an hour early, begging tiredness. “Shouldn’t we be expecting more of our speakers? Shouldn’t every speaker like this that happens include a space for students to discuss the talk afterwards?”
Ben Sickle ’18, was more critical of Hayward’s use of political theorists during the talk itself. “I’m in a class right now where we’re reading a lot of the writers he talked about, and I thought his cherry-picking would be obvious to anyone in the class. I thought he was being strategically inaccessible to shield inconsistencies.”
But to Callahan, who organized the event, those criticisms spoke to the success of the talk. The point wasn’t necessarily to convince people, but to spark a debate that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
“The Eisenhower Forum exists to give students the opportunity to engage seriously with often neglected conservative ideas and values on a largely liberal campus. I think we did exactly that by bringing Professor Hayward to speak. Given the strong turnout and the conversations sparked by the event, I think it’s fair to say it was a success,” he wrote.
“I certainly don’t agree with all of Professor Hayward’s views, and I doubt there’s anyone in the Eisenhower Forum who agrees with him on absolutely everything. However, I do think he is correct to point out the troubling ‘illiberal liberalism’ among some college students today,” he continued.
The Eisenhower Forum will continue to provoke debate going forward. On November 14, they plan to bring Henry Olsen, author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, to speak, and they discuss the issues raised in these talks at a weekly dinner meeting.
“Generally, I think Bowdoin student are both curious and eager to hear different points of view,” Callahan said.