Historians for Obama,Economists for Edwards,Academics for Ron Paul (president of the University of Florida for McCain) -- scholars are coming out of the woodwork to support the presidential candidate of their choice, seemingly earlier in the campaign and arguably more aggressively than ever before. But lest anyone think that the current activity is a phenomenon purely of today's punditocracy, our good friends at The Green Bag law journal have (as is their wont) dug into the archives to show us otherwise.
In preparing its election-themed Almanac and Reader 2008, the editors of the journal, which specializes in articles that are short, readable and entertaining (attributes not typically associated with that particular media form), came across a plea to agricultural economists from "The Non-Partisan Fact-Finding Committee for Hoover 1932."
The request, the brainchild of Edward L. Bernays, whose work laying the groundwork for public relations earned him the moniker "the father of spin," was designed to build support for the premise that the post-Depression economy was on the rebound, which wasn't exactly the prevailing view being put forward by the campaign of Hoover's Democratic opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A September 16, 1932 telegram from Herbert Wachsmann (but charged to Bernays's Western Union account) contained this plea:
"Will you as a leader in agricultural economics let us have, by wire collect, your authoritative viewpoint on Governor Roosevelts [sic] farm relief program announced September Fourteenth (stop) Do you feel that he has specifically grasped the broad principles that you have frequently outlined and that he has dealt with the problem as realistically as is demanded by the situation (stop) Your fifty to one hundred word statement together with that of other leaders will be used for publication to educate public opinion at this time (stop)
The responses were all over the map. Some, like Eliot G. Mears of Stanford University, delivered what the Hoover people hoped. "Underlying American economic conditions have unquestionably improved since spring," Mears, a professor of geography and international trade, wired (collect) to the Fact Finding Committee. "Economic confidence and stability have been fostered by various agencies set up by the government upon non-partisan lines.... The London Economist states editorially that our worst is past."
But some of the replies -- even from those the committee had every right to expect would be friendly -- were almost certainly unwelcome. Wilson Gee, a professor of rural social economics and rural sociology at the University of Virginia, conceded that there were "some signs of economic recovery" in that part of the country, but suggested that they had resulted largely from "propaganda methods." Discussing the plight in which farmers find themselves of paying much more for their supplies and earning much less for their products, Gee said he had "hoped that President Hoover would institute policies calculate to remedy this serious disparity." But he did not, forcing Gee "to the conclusion that agriculture will fare much better under Franklin D. Roosevelt than under President Hoover," adding, in what must have seemed almost gratuitous: "Quite frankly, I think it would have been in very much better shape under Ex-Governor Alfred E. Smith than it has been in the administration of President Hoover." Ouch.
Perhaps the replies most instructive for today's climate, though, came from those academics who questioned the wisdom of the inquiry itself. "I am a Republican and expect to vote the Republican ticket but I take exception in maximum degree to the tactics of those who are undertaking to win the election by picturing all of the wisdom and all of the patriotism as monopolized by the Republican party," wrote Ernest M. Hopkins, president of Dartmouth College at the time. "I think on the whole that there is more wisdom and more genius and more experience perhaps among the Republicans than elsewhere at the present time but I consider it fundamentally disloyal to the country, to say nothing of its being highly impolitic from the point of view of expediency, to wage the campaign that the Republicans have been waging and that you ask me to endorse in a statement that the country is in real danger from a change of administration. I do not believe that it is." (Not surprisingly, perhaps, this note had a handwritten "Don't use" at the bottom.)
Oscar B. Jesness, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, demurred from wiring the requested statement because "I have no desire to express opinions which will be employed for political purposes." At a time that political campaigns and the politicians who waged them seemed more interested in the "popularity of the expressions ... than with their soundness or adequacy," Jesness wrote, "a person whose interest is primarily that of trying to find and understand facts and to analyze and reason clearly would not seem justified in attacking the program of one candidate or one party merely for the purpose of rendering aid to another whose pronouncements may be equally subject to criticism."
Ross Davies, editor of The Green Bag and a professor of law at George Mason University, says the journal's look in the rearview mirror was inspired in part by Inside Higher Ed's coverage of the academics who have lined up behind presidential candidates in the 2008 and other recent elections -- with the goal, Davies says, of exploring what those endorsements mean, and don't mean. "We tend to think of this as being part of the punditocracy and see it as a recent phenomenon, but it has been around since before most of us were born," he says.
What would Obama's historians or Edwards's economists or the Nobel Prize winners who endorsed John Kerry in 2004 "say if they thought about
the roots of their own behavior?" The Green Bag asks in its essay, a PDF of which is available here. "One view is that 'groups of citizens, self-defined by occupation or ideology or ethnic group or religion or gender, have been doing this since the late 19th century,' and scholars publicly plumping for presidential candidates are simply carrying on this important tradition, 'in which voluntary associations thrive and take the obligations of citizenship seriously,' " as Georgetown's Michael Kazin explained of the historians' support for Obama.
"But for good or ill this academic politicking also perpetuates a powerful 20th-century tradition," The Green Bag writes: "the presentation of carefully selected academic opinions as expert consensus for the purpose of swaying public opinion. Bernays’s PR genius lives on."