Political Entrepreneurship Is Damaging American Democracy

Higher Education Is in the Best Position to Address It

political entrepreneurship

Political encroachment into the education sector appears to be at an all-time high. We are inundated with stories of trustees, parents, and school boards influencing and advancing votes and curtailing faculty’s ability to manage course design independently. The notion of shared governance seems to be waning as a small yet vocal (and sometimes powerful) subset is drawing hard lines in the sand about their limited vision of how educators should teach. It seems like many people are perfectly okay teaching educators what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, despite educators spending decades cultivating core competencies to do their jobs well. 

As a 50-year-old Black woman, I have watched the gradual erosion of civic values and respect for educators’ expertise, including librarians, with a degree of surprise and horror. I vividly remember the time when educators were revered. Now, it appears that essentially the opposite is true.

There is a profound shift that has taken place in American culture from respect for educators to blatant disrespect and, in some instances, disdain. One anecdote that comes to mind took place while I was living in Greater Cleveland about five years ago. While attending a social gathering in my former townhouse development, a former banking vice-president thought it appropriate to challenge me on the tuition costs and dollars spent on library resources. He was unaware that I was no shrinking violet and was startled by the fact-focused clapback he received from me. 

I bet many of you will correctly guess the demographic characteristics of this former banking vice-president. For those who are not able to, he is an older white male in his 60s who frequently espoused the need for America to return to its greatness again (paywalled). (It is a long story as to why I continuously engaged with this former neighbor, but I did.) When I probed him for his operational definition of “America’s greatness,” he recalled the height of the nation’s industrialism (the 1950s through the early 1970s), traditional family values, and a greater sense of personal safety. I pushed him to think about how his opinions of greatness are formed around white dominance and, as a white male, being accustomed to being the voice of authority—irrespective of whether or not his statements were borne out of facts. We wrestled with these concepts for years.

How does my story of engagement with this person inform what is happening with the attack on modern-day educators? 

A great deal. 

This belief system of America’s previous greatness and the attempted suppression of any historical counternarratives that challenge these opinions is what I believe is driving this unrelenting attack on education—from K-12 through higher education. This includes pushing back on teaching facts that are mischaracterized as critical race theory and stripping critical parts of the history of American slavery from courses

Tom Nichols, author of Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Our Democracy (2021), shares my opinion. From Nichols’s vantage point and mine, it is not the so-called educated elite driving intolerance that erodes academic freedom and democracy. It is unchecked narcissism coupled with grievance culture. Yet, Nichols calls out another phenomenon experienced by all of us but rarely discussed—the rise of political entrepreneurs (paywalled). This subset within the US seeks to gain profit by orchestrating a series of seemingly politically motivated circumstances that stoke divisiveness. 

These political entrepreneurs flourish financially from this divisiveness. It is puppeteering to profiteering in the most sinister fashion. And to continue to profiteer, these political entrepreneurs align and support (and in some instances become) elected officials, TV pundits, school board representatives, and higher education trustees. While their goal is to pad their pockets, their methods are draconian. If democracy stands in the way of their grift, then it must be dismantled. 

Political entrepreneurship is a problem in the US. It engineers negativity through propaganda and by catalyzing rage. Political entrepreneurship as currently expressed is another spoke in the Big Lie “wheel” that fuels attacks against critical race theory, props up revisionist history as truth, and is supported by the strongman trope.

I urge higher education colleagues to begin discussing, studying, and theorizing political entrepreneurship in the US through a DEIA lens. By applying this approach, we will equip ourselves and others to address the unrelenting attacks on academic freedom, an essential pillar of American democracy.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.