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Establishment Institutions, Reputation Laundering, and Reactionary Authoritarianism

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I am “attending” the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association next week. By “attending” I mean that I am cancelling my tickets and my hotel room and participating online. My only panels that haven’t collapsed are either online or hybrid. On top of that, I’ve spent the last few days sick with something that could be influenza, or a common cold, or even – albeit unlikely – COVID-19.

APSA is about as establishment as it gets in political science. That’s not all bad, but it does mean a certain lack of nimbleness when it comes to changing political circumstances.

For example, there are a number of think tanks that reserve panels at APSA. I’m on a panel – “Turning Restraint Into Reality: Connecting Grand Strategy to Policy Change” – that’s a production of the Cato institute.

Another of those think tanks is the Claremont Institute, the current “intellectual” center for American reactionary authoritarianism. John Eastman is the Director of its Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. You may know him as the guy who wrote the roadmap for Vice President Pence to prevent the peaceful, democratic transfer of power to Joe Biden, the winner of the 2020 election.

I bet you’ll never guess what this has to do with the Claremont Institute’s 2021 APSA panels.

Needless to say, a number of people are displeased about this.

I’m not convinced that APSA should pull Eastman from the program at this juncture. The Claremont Institute purchased its membership status – which is how it has the panel, and the right to fill it, in the first place – before the 2020 election. I assume it’s been doing this for years and no one thought twice about the matter.

It’s clear that APSA should, after the 2021 meeting, sever its relationship with Claremont. It should do so not only because Claremont provides sinecures to people who want to turn the United States into an autocracy in the form of a “managed democracy.” It turns out that Claremont has been selling access to its panels as a fundraising tool.

It’s one thing for APSA to allow this panel to go forward. It’s another entirely for establishment institutions to continue to launder the reputation of those who – however much they aim for plausible deniability – supported Trump’s efforts to subvert U.S. democracy.

Enter the major institutions of the U.S. foreign-policy community, which seem to be simply incapable of letting little things like antipathy to democracy get in the way of maintaining access to people who are, or may become, influential.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has invited ELBRIDGE COLBY, author of “The Strategy of Denial,” to join a Sept. 15 panel to discuss his work and U.S. policy toward China.

The backlash has been fierce. “I continue to be disappointed in how the foreign policy community polices its own on a number of fronts, but particularly when it comes to attacks on democracy in the United States. We can do better,” tweeted LOREN DEJONGE SCHULMAN, a former NSC official in the Obama administration.

“This is disappointing, especially from an organization with a strong track record of working on and supporting the development of democracy,” added JON WOLFSTHAL, a nonresident scholar at Carnegie and former Obama NSC official.

Bridge, as those who know Colby call him, is a prominent voice advocating for a tougher policy against Beijing. He clearly has the respect of many folks in Washington, based on the who’s who of endorsers of his book. But since his tweet about the election challenges, Colby’s reputation has taken a hit in town, especially among Democrats. And the negative response to the Carnegie event demonstrates that anger against him hasn’t subsided. Neither Carnegie nor Colby responded to NatSec Daily’s request for comment.

There are clearly some people in the U.S. foreign-policy community who understand the stakes. But strong norms push against withholding deference from the anointed – or otherwise rocking the boat. At heart, these norms are rooted in self-interest. Angering the wrong people can be a quick way to scuttle a promising career. This is one reason why there’s so little accountability for getting things disastrously wrong.

The sociological dynamics of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment aren’t without intellectual cover: politics, after all, is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. Foreign policy is distinct from domestic politics. No matter how vicious partisan battles get – including in the context of foreign-policy disputes – everyone, the logic goes, shares an underlying commitment to advancing the interests of the United States.

The separation between foreign and domestic policy isn’t what it used to be. Actually, it was never what it used to be. But holding onto that separation is actively dangerous. This is true across a lot of issues, including climate change, but it’s also true of the matter at hand. Trumpism is linked up and causally interconnected with broader, transnational reactionary networks. The biggest threat to the integrity of U.S. democracy is both domestic and international.

No amount of cross-partisan foreign-policy glad-handing will change that. The anchors of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment have to make a decision about what they stand for. They may think that a commitment to bipartisanship allows them to float above the fray, but what it really means is that they’ve already decided to throw American democracy under the bus.

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