The Illiberalism in Our Institutions

In attempting to please their narrow client bases, they treat due process and open inquiry as values that can be sacrificed.

We have come to expect a set of deeply illiberal behaviors from traditional liberal media and universities: firing staff for wrongthink, caving into indignant mobs, and blithely mocking the values and interests of large swathes of the United States. 

The increasingly common interpretation of these behaviors is that these once mainstream institutions are destroying themselves out of a mixture of weakness and stupidity. As a humorless, identitarian ideology began to grow amongst students, the narrative goes, university administrators indulged the madness, lacking the spine to refuse all the crazy demands. When these same students found their way outside the campus and into the upper echelons of the national media, middling careerist journalists noticed an opportunity to hop on the ax-wielding bandwagon. As the cultures of our institutions are overcome by this ideology, they will condemn themselves to irrelevance and eventually be replaced. 

This narrative has a certain amount of truth to it, but it is also somewhat misleading. It suggests that everything could have remained the same if only institutions had resisted the illiberal activists and carried on serving their old purpose. The truth is that the internet placed extraordinary economic pressures on publishing and higher education before the turn of the century, and the institutions that succeeded in responding were those who explicitly chose to give up on serving a general audience. 

There are no better examples than Harvard University and the New York Times, whose choices so often set the tone for other elite universities and publications. Both institutions may have declined in their overall control over American life, but they have remained culturally influential and economically viable by pandering to the tastes of a small subset of their previous audiences. This strategy has left them vulnerable to illiberalism, because, in attempting to please their narrow client base, they treat due process and open inquiry as values that can be sacrificed. But it was also a necessary strategy, because gathering an army of loyal subscribers is the only way to survive in a world where mainstream organizations are no longer protected by the privileged status they once had.

Throughout the 20th century, the dominance of traditional print publications like the New York Times rested upon geographic monopolies. If you wanted to know what was going on beyond your local community, then you needed to buy the newspaper that was available on the street corner. Those newspapers made money by selling advertising in the classifieds section—since the papers had the power of distribution, they were a great way for companies to find potential customers.

This meant that the New York Times didn’t need to make an effort to please a particular set of readers. The opinions of Times journalists were considered “mainstream opinion” by default, and they effectively acted as gatekeepers, preventing conspiracies from reaching the masses. Their filter was often a deeply problematic one—stories about racism and sexism were often swept under the carpet—but it also meant that a significant amount of the population shared a common spectrum of views. Some of us might call this “proper journalism,” but it was really something more like monopolistic journalism. 

The advent of the internet has turned journalism into a very different business, because the newspapers are no longer the only public square in town. Millions of articles are published online every day. It costs nothing to copy and paste text, and news is transient: the moment it is reported, it can be reproduced and distributed for free, rapidly losing much of its economic value. Since there is an abundance of content, the real task is separating the good stuff and the bad stuff—and that’s a task best fulfilled by social media and news aggregators like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple News. Newspapers depend on these platforms to ensure that readers can find their articles—but since the platforms concentrate an unparalleled amount of consumer demand, the advertisers are far better off spending all their ad dollars there than on newspaper slots.

After seeing their revenues steadily decline from 2006 through 2014, the Times transformed its editorial approach to survive in this new economic world: they pivoted focus to a subscription model. They like to frame this one way: “We believe that the more sound business strategy for The Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it,” states their 2017 business report. But I might frame it differently: they’re no longer selling the product of “being informed”—they’re selling the identity of being an “informed person”. 

If you’re trying to get readers sufficiently invested to part with their cash, it pays to pander to their tastes. The Times is aware that the number of people who will actually pay money for their paper is far smaller than the number of people who used to read it; but that doesn’t matter, because the Times makes far more per subscription than they do in ad revenue per reader. They may not have a monopoly on truth, but they can at least try to have a monopoly on being the paper that right-thinking young liberals pay for. This results in plenty of good journalism, but it also means that the paper is ultimately at the mercy of its tribe.

At least for now, this all seems to be working well for the Times: most of their revenues now come from subscribers, not advertisers.

Like the newspapers, elite universities are reorienting themselves to cater to a new and narrow customer base. Schools like Harvard once operated as a patronage system for the white male upper class, most of whom were drawn from a tiny set of New England prep schools. This system was certainly restrictive in terms of who could get inside, but it was not so restrictive in terms of what could be taught or thought. As that patronage system started to disappear, so too did Harvard’s commitment to liberalism and open inquiry. 

I’m a student at today’s Harvard, and I’m no stranger to the campus illiberalism so well-documented in the American media. This manifests in many forms: canceling speakers, trigger warnings, firing professors, and widespread self-censorship. I’ve previously argued that the prevalence of support for these actions amongst the student body is exaggerated by media outlets—most of the madness is executed by a small minority on campus—but I do think the illiberalism is getting worse, and that it needs to be properly addressed.

I don’t think the root of the problem is that Harvard undergraduates have made a wholesale conversion to the woke religion. Rather, that a vocal minority has done so—and the college caters to that minority, working terribly hard to avoid offending those who belong to it. This isn’t stupid, and it isn’t weak-willed. But it is deeply problematic, and I see two main causes for it: 

Firstly, the old patronage system is mostly gone. Entrance to Harvard is open to anyone in the world, and finding your way through the door is taken as a sign that you are deserving of being listened to and catered to. Since most of the students who get in come from liberal, upper-middle-class families, that is the culture and politics to which the college caters.

Second, most students simply have no incentive to honestly express their opinions, especially if they aren’t aligned with the vocal minority. Harvard freshmen arrive at the most prestigious university in the world and are reluctant to do anything that could threaten their newfound level of social status. Campus debate is dominated by the most privileged students, who have spent years climbing at elite prep schools, learning the vocabulary of microaggression, trigger warnings, and intersectionality—and they bring that language to seminars, club meetings, and town halls. Everyone else just tries to keep their head down and get by without feeling like an impostor. There's no social reward for standing up to the woke minority, so the woke minority are the only students that the college administration is forced to appease. 

And so, Harvard has gone from defending free inquiry among a tiny crop of the upper class, to now catering to its loudest students and doing everything it can to avoid offending them. In both situations, Harvard was focused on pleasing a tiny base of customers—but now, those customers demand ideological, rather than demographic, uniformity.

The evolutions of Harvard and the Times point towards a transformed economic reality for institutions in the media and education. Catering to fashionable ideological tastes has become the only way to survive in a market far less oriented around geography. The protests, the firings, the crazy student demands—these are the habits that rise to the surface when institutions are forced to pander in order to survive.

You could paint this as decline, but you could also paint it as an opportunity. Today, the presence of the internet provides the groundwork for smaller institutions to find their niches. But it also means that any common fabric is eradicated in a deeply fractured digital landscape. I expect that we’ll see more institutions, each representing a different sliver of the population. Instead of lamenting the decline of our old institutions, then, we should turn our attention towards building the ones that could never have existed before.

Sahil Handa is a contributing editor at Persuasion and is working on a book about the campus conformity crisis.