Resisting the Democratic Agenda on Higher Education: A Hill Worth Dying On by Joseph Prudhomme

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I just returned from a panel discussion in San Francisco on the Republican Party in the era of President Donald Trump. A seasoned colleague on the panel mentioned that the Democratic Party increasingly sees the New York governor Andrew Cuomo as the torchbearer of progressive reform, a political maestro in the spirit of Bernie Sanders—yet a salable Sanders, a nimble politico unburdened with hoary age, a socialist self-identity, and a checkered past (of honeymoons in Communist Russia and rape fantasy porn fiction). Cuomo, my colleague averred, is a younger and fresher champion of the policy perspectives espoused by the Warren-Sanders wing of the Democratic establishment.

A core of the appeal of Cuomo is the New York policy on higher education he shepherded through the state assembly: free college education for all, an agenda the national Democratic party hopes to adopt across the country. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. There may well be genuine downsides to this new policy: quality could soon be sacrificed as the system becomes bloated, regulations could prove excessive, and the taxes needed to support the program could prove detrimental in a myriad of ways. These are each worthwhile questions and deserve our serious and careful review.

However, I hold what I believe to be a sufficiently damning critique on its own, a criticism that becomes apparent once the fine print of the New York statute bubbles to the forefront: this government give-away is only for students attending not merely in-state colleges and universities (a sensible proviso since the tax burden is borne only by New Yorkers) but for those attending a state college or university: no in-state private college or university is supported by the Governor’s vaunted legislative victory.  

This will cause a wave of destruction of small denominational colleges who simply will no longer be able to compete in a crowded higher education marketplace.  It can only lead to a tremendous “crowding out” (a term economists use to refer to state funding displacing private capital). Indeed, crowding out is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom and on the European continent. There are no longer any small denominational colleges in these regions—they are impossible to run in light of state-funded secular education.

A string of corpses will litter the New York landscape in the wake of Cuomo’s legislation. For how can Hilbert College, Canisius College or Iona College (all Catholic), or Davis College (non-denominational Christian), or Concordia College (Lutheran) survive Cuomo’s tidal wave of undercutting competition, his brutal battery of what trade economists call unfair dumping?  Many simply can’t. All will struggle.

I do not know whether the end result on denominational colleges was intended —although I would not put it past the Democratic party which labored for the bill, given the stentorian secular voices in the party’s political base. But whether intentional or not, the net result is the same: a government war on religious higher education.

A simple solution to this egregious problem is voucherizing any subsidized higher education program.  Students could receive a grant (equal to the average cost of in-state tuition) and they could apply this amount to attend any accredited in-state college of their choice. This, in fact, was precisely what was good enough for the Greatest Generation through the much-celebrated GI Bill. I hazard to say, it should be good enough for us, too. Furthermore, such a policy would leave unscathed America’s rich ecosystem of denominationally grounded college education.  At least, common sense would seem to say so.   

But reality is a bitter mistress, and common sense her hapless victim far too often.  It is just very hard to stop the government from giving people “freebies.” And the Left is culturally and politically ascendant (sensing blood in the water from a weakened president, and seeing a rapidly diversifying and secularizing society erode core foundations of the Grand Old Party); a common sense voucher program might no longer carry the day—given the identification of vouchers with the now reviled Religious Right, and a lack of concern for religion skyrocketing among core components of the Democratic political establishment.

My common sense proposal, therefore, may well prove to be a last stand, indeed.

The Democratic party’s educational policy, however, is just so plainly wrong–and a voucherized alterative just so plainly right—that I am led merely to proclaim in the words of a great man who inspired the founding of so many now-beleaguered, regional liberal arts colleges:

“here I stand; I can do no other.”

Joseph Prud’homme is a professor at Washington College, and founder of the school’s Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture. He lives with his wife and family in Easton, Maryland. 

Reflections: Beware What You Wish For by Professor Joseph Prud’homme

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Editor’s Note: Reflections is a new column by Joseph Prud’homme,  professor in political science and religious studies at Washington College in Chestertown.  Joseph is also the founding Director of the College’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture . Meant to stimulate reflection and facilitate critical discussion, each short essay examines the kinds of issues explored in depth through the multi-faceted programming of the Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture. For more information on the Institute go here

“Beware what you wish for” is a sage reminder tested by the centuries. The old chestnut is especially apt in the era of President Trump. A number of our fellow citizens have felt called to a resistance movement its most passionate advocates liken to the heroics of Jean Moulin and Charles de Gaulle. No matter what one’s views of our crisis-riddled president, the anti-Trump “resistance” movement has defended positions that, following the World War II metaphor, are more in line with Vidkun Quisling (the Norwegian turncoat) than Johanna Solf or Dietrich Bonhoeffer (noble examples of German resistance). Let’s be careful of what they espouse—and what an Anti-Trump sentiment might impel one to hope for.

Indeed, some in the “resistance” wish for the federal courts to police the campaign histrionics of candidate Trump and to find all measure of suspect motives informing facially legal executive orders and administrative decrees—and to strike these orders down solely on the basis of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. No matter what one thinks of the temporary suspension of immigration from terrorist hotspots, there has never been a rule in our constitutional law that campaign speeches and vote-seeking rally-mongering can justify the awesome exercise of judicial review by unelected legal elites.

Leaders of the “resistance” should recall that the rule they now espouse would have sounded a death knell for much done during the Obama administration—including its signature health care legislation much debated today. We need to remember how the junior senator from Illinois, in the primary campaign against Senator Clinton, intoned in stem-winding sermons in African American churches across the Palmetto State that his administration would “restore faith to public life” by “building the Kingdom here on earth.” (See http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/10/08/obama.faith/index.html.)

How could the executive orders and legislative enactments of the Obama presidency have survived constitutional inspection were a legal eagle to have ventured the same inquest of campaign rally-making some resisters now seek against President Trump? The Supreme Court (whether one agrees or not) has repeatedly ruled that laws must have a secular purpose (an element of what lawyers call The Lemon Test, from the 1971 decision of Lemon v. Kurtzman). But Obama made clear to the African American churchgoers he desperately needed to secure South Carolina in the hotly contested Democratic primary that he meant to build God’s kingdom on earth—scarcely the stuff of secular legislation.

Happily, no one dared apply the same rule resisters now seek to unleash throughout the federal judiciary. And that’s a fact of which resisters must take heed.

For what kind of mischief would be unsheathe were we to take this view seriously? Every judge an inquisitor. Every campaign stump speech a mine layer. Every campaign a lawsuit. Every candidate blackmailed by political opponents.

Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly trampled under toe.

Beware what one hopes for, indeed.

For more information about Washington College’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture, please go here.