Liberal Bias 101

A few weeks ago a graduate student whom I oversee (I supervise the Public Administration PhD students who get undergraduate teaching experience in our Political Science courses) wrote me that somebody at the Pope Center for Higher Education (if you are not familiar, try this) had received a copy of his syllabus and wanted to discuss the apparent liberal bias.  John chose to simply not respond.  Well, the emailer has now written up the conservative deconstruction of John’s syllabus on the Pope website.  I really got quite the kick reading this as I soon realized that every single article the writer was complaining about was from my very own syllabus (John had served as my PS 201 TA and I’m happy for them to use the same readings I do when they teach their own section).  A sampling:

Overwhelmingly, the readings blamed Republicans and the Constitution for the country’s problems.

The first article assigned for Strange’s class is “Our Godless Constitution” by essayist Brooke Allen. It opens with a swipe at George W. Bush’s intelligence and character. “It is hard to believe that George Bush has ever read the works of George Orwell,” Allen writes, “but he seems, somehow, to have grasped a few Orwellian precepts.”

Allen goes on to discuss the Constitution, minimizing the influence of religion in the creation of the Constitution by taking a close look at the non-Christian pronouncements of four of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. She seems to be unaware that only one of the four (Franklin) was actually in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. Nevertheless, the point in assigning the essay to students is clear: the Constitution isn’t what you thought it was, having been devised by people whose religion stemmed from a political agenda rather than genuine conviction.

There is no rebuttal in the assigned readings to demonstrate the profound effect religion had on early Americans…

Conservative jurisprudence also takes a rhetorical beating in Strange’s class. For instance, Stuart Taylor’s essay in the National Journal, “Is Judicial Review Obsolete?” complains that conservative jurists who argue for judicial restraint are hypocritical. Although conservatives say they want judicial restraint, Taylor says, “they have used highly debatable interpretations of original meaning to sweep aside a raft of democratically adopted laws.” In a 2006 article for Slate magazine, Seth Rosenthal makes a similar point. He claims that conservative jurists’ restrictions on government involvement in people’s lives are, in themselves, examples of intrusion in people’s lives.

So, I’m not actually going to waste my time getting into a debate on these points with someone who holds a 2010 B.S. in Biology.  I haven’t seen John’s complete syllabus, but to the degree it matches mine, it’s pretty clear that Cheston is cherry-picking and substantially mis-characterizing the basic nature of the class and the main point of these readings.  But, whatever.  I did try to honestly ask myself, though, if I am doing my students a disservice by not having more “balanced” readings in this area.

My answer?  Absolutely not.  And here’s why… it all comes back to the asymmetry.   I have conservative students all the time who are literally 180 degrees wrong on what judicial activism is really all about.  I’ve never had a liberal student make a misguided and uninformed argument about judicial restraint.  I definitely have students all the time who come into class seemingly thinking that Jesus basically wrote our Constitution.  Again, I’ve never had a liberal student try and tell me that the Constitution was written by radical atheists.  Similarly, I’m not sure what would “balance” George Packer’s fabulous article on obstructionism in the modern Senate and somehow deny that it has reached new procedural heights with Republican use of the filibuster, etc.

One of the major things I try and do in PS 201 is disabuse students of ideas they have about government that are simply wrong.  Whether you want to blame Fox News, Rush, or whatever, the simple fact is that my students are way more likely to hold false views that represent a conservative political perspective and I don’t apologize for one second for trying to change that.  There is the occasional very liberal student who might hold very uninformed views on the nature of capitalism, etc., and I’m quite happy to correct them as well.   There’s not, however, a corresponding left-wing noise machine (don’t even try MSNBC) filling them with false information.  Short version: if one of my goals is to correct widespread misunderstanding and misinformation about our government it’s going to look like liberal bias, but that’ s not actually what it is.

I’m thinking maybe I need a new sub-heading for my blog: “It’s the asymmetry, stupid.”

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Liberal Bias 101

  1. John says:

    I like to invite you to visit and share your ideas to this site that I found, http://liberalbias.com, reliable source for exposing numbers, facts, and figures that do not conform to conservative ideals.

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