In 1932, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that one of the benefits of a federal system was "that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory," experimenting with programs without harming any other states. States have ever since been praised as "laboratories of democracy," though Brandeis would have been just as right to condemn them as laboratories of illiberalism, living as he did in an era when Jim Crow laws were strangling black freedom in states across the nation. And Americans are again seeing illiberalism brewing in these laboratories. A recent study showed North Carolina, a state where the legislature has worked hard in the past few years to block black voting rights and strip power from duly elected Democratic officials, is no longer a democracy.
The state of Wisconsin is experimenting with its own illiberal homebrew. One of the bedrocks of an open society is education. In Wisconsin in the 20th century, the public university system was the state's crown jewel, a model of how to pursue free inquiry in service to the public. If the Republican legislature has its way, that system will be swiftly dismantled – not because the lawmakers stand oppose to education in theory, but because they see the university system as a political threat.
Over the past several years, Republicans running the state have attacked the Wisconsin system, slashing funds, rewriting the university system's charter and chipping away at tenure. But the most recent attack has a more overtly political edge. Seeing a course offering for 2017 called "The Problem of Whiteness," two state legislators have called for the class to be canceled and the professor fired, threatening to cut funds to the university unless their demands are met.
University officials have responded with a robust defense of academic freedom, but the threat hangs in the air, a chilling presence in a state where legislators are targeting universities because they disagree with the politics of the ideas expressed (or rather, what they think are the ideas being expressed, because state legislators likely have no idea what a class called "The Problem of Whiteness" actually covers).
Open political attacks on higher education and academic freedom are part of the DNA of modern conservatism. McCarthyism shuddered through the academy in the 1950s, sweeping out scholars who refused to cooperate with investigations. Around the same time, in 1951, William F. Buckley Jr. penned his first book, "God and Man at Yale." The subtitle's scare-quotes hinted at its conclusions: "The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom.'"
Buckley was less concerned about the infiltration of communists and more about economic departments teaching Keynesianism and advancing liberal ideas. He believed that academic freedom was far narrower than commonly believed, and that universities, led by their alumni, should take the lead in deciding which orthodoxies students should be indoctrinated in.
In recent years, conservatives have continued to take aim at colleges and universities, because they believe higher education is a source of liberals' institutional strength. In doing so, though, they have been more likely than their midcentury counterparts to embrace the language of academic freedom as part of a call for balance in the classroom, bringing more conservative professors in rather than kicking liberal ones out. The foundational logic, though, is the same: that ideological alignment should be a primary way of evaluating the quality of a professor.
And that is the primarily problem with these attacks on universities. By seeing colleges and universities as incubators of partisans rather than educators of citizens, these anti-higher ed activists have eroded the shared public purpose of these institutions, making it easier to push through the kind of cuts that have been undermining public education for more than a decade now.
The consequences of these attacks are even more meaningful now. As we've seen over the past year, American civil society is far more fragile than we could have imagined. Shared commitments and ideals turn out to be not so shared after all.
Institutional destruction is a real and serious threat. Americans enshrined democratic processes and values in institutions – in schools, in statehouses, in courts – so that those processes and values could be naturally replicated: mandatory schooling, checks and balances, the presumption of innocence.
It has taken centuries to make those institutions reflect the promise of equality, and none has fully realized that promise yet. The unraveling of these institutions in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina pulls that promise further out of reach. For those wondering what the collapse of democracy in the coming years could look like, they will find the prototype in these laboratories of illiberalism.
Originally published in U.S. News & World Report.