Politics & Elections

Institutionalizing the Political Theory Project: How an ideological Trojan horse might breach Brown

“Simply put, there is no way to disentangle the proposed center from the [Political Theory Project]’s origins as a component of a well-documented political project to undermine the scientific consensus around climate change and to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Rhode Island News: Institutionalizing the Political Theory Project: How an ideological Trojan horse might breach Brown

November 11, 2021, 12:47 pm

By Peder Schaefer

This piece originally appeared in The College Hill Independent, here. Reprinted with permission.

Last month, Brown University faculty were introduced to a carefully written proposal for the creation of a new Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Center (PPE Center) at the University that would “build upon the current network of faculty” involved with the Political Theory Project (PTP). The proposal is measured in its language, and on its face it’s seemingly benign: a few new professorships, a greater standing for the PTP within the bureaucracy of the University, more funding for post-doctoral students, and a commitment to “advancing inquiry that crosses disciplinary and ideological divisions.” But a closer scrutiny of the proposal and the organizations and people behind it show that the PTP is the tip of the iceberg of a nationwide right-wing ideological offensive, and the establishment of a new PPE Center at Brown would be a dangerous perpetuation of these ideas.

The PTP was founded at Brown in 2003 by John Tomasi, a professor of philosophy in the political science department. Per their mission statement, the PTP seeks to “investigate the ideas and institutions that make societies free, prosperous, and fair.” They stress “viewpoint diversity,” and support three faculty and two staff members, along with a number of student groups on campus. The PTP backs organizations like the Brown Political Review and the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Society, where they pay students to engage in weekly discussions on political theory. They’ve hosted debates via their Janus Forum lecture series on issues like teachers unions, whether or not the United States should support Israel, and inequality, where they seek to invite “established scholars with alternative perspectives to present their research in direct conversation with one another.” The PTP currently receives no funding from Brown, and is paid for only with external donors, including over $3.8 million from Koch-affiliated organizations since 2005. As is, the PTP is small and seemingly innocuous.

However, according to the proposal recently obtained by the College Hill Independent, administrators and faculty within the University are currently working to shift the PTP into the PPE Center at Brown—with the same faculty and mostly the same mission, but under a different name. This shift from being a “project” into a University-funded “center” would further institutionalize right-wing economic and social ideas at Brown by tying the project of the PTP to the British academic discipline of PPE, a cognitive shift that borrows legitimacy from a completely separate intellectual field that models itself as ‘centrist’—to build a hub for for right-wing thinkers for years to come. It’s Dennis Prager of the popular PragerU YouTube channel, but with extra steps.

And with the push towards becoming a PPE Center, the faculty associated with the PTP are geared to make an even larger impact at Brown. A potential consequence of a stronger Koch presence on campus is the spread of a “form of libertarianism that is probably better understood as corporate supremacy or property supremacy,” Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University and a Brown alumnus, told the Indy. In 2017, MacLean published ​​​​Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, a book that investigates in-depth the Koch-affiliated networks that are connected to the PTP. When asked about her biggest worries about the shift from the PTP being a “project” into a “center,” MacLean said that it’s “frightening to me, because that means they are trying to put a bigger Trojan horse on the Brown campus…It’s an enterprise to capture students, to deliver propaganda under the guise of education, and to expand their movement.” Faculty and students are beginning to organize against the institutionalization of corporate power and money at Brown, but if they don’t act soon, it might be too late. 

Where’s the money coming from? 

Tomasi, as well as other PTP-affiliated faculty members, are deeply tied to a web of right-wing donors who, in the words of MacLean, are engaged in one of the “most arch-right political projects you can imagine.” The Kochs—who famously made their fortune in the fossil fuel industry—and the foundations that have upheld their legacies, have financed organizations opposed to government action on climate change, racial discrimination, and regulation of corporations. Recently, these foundations backed groups that have fought mask mandates, and have perpetuated theories of mass voter fraud. They’ve heavily backed the Federalist Society, a law group working to move federal courts to the right, a process which RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has described as “court capture.” The Koch foundations have also made a concerted effort—and have spent nearly $350 million doing so—since 2005 to spread right-wing, libertarian economic ideas across the United States, by supporting academic centers, tenured professorships, and research in line with their ideals at over 300 universities. The PTP at Brown is merely one of many footholds that they have for their economic and educational agenda.

Tomasi has been linked to these right-wing donors for decades, and he’s continued to reach out to them to help fund the PTP during his time at Brown. His PhD at Oxford was funded by the John M. Olin Foundation, a conservative American grant-making foundation which donates heavily to conservative-leaning causes. In 2010, he won the aptly-named Charles G. Koch prize, awarded to a prominent alumnus of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, a Koch funded academic initiative that they poured over $45 million dollars into from 2005 to 2018. Tomasi is also linked to the Ayn Rand Society, the Heritage Foundation, and Libertarianism.org, all right-leaning organizations with ties to big conservative donors like the Koch-associated foundations. All of this information Tomasi displays publicly either on his CV or on his Brown-run website. Tomasi, after multiple inquiries, was not able to be reached for comment on this article. 

The most recent data available shows that the Koch-associated foundations have directly donated $3.8 million to Brown from 2005 to 2019, including almost $1.5 million in 2018 alone. According to IRS 990 forms, $653,442 went directly to the PTP in 2016. It’s unclear where the rest of the money went. In their “Proposal to Establish a Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics,” the authors write under the “Funding” subheader that “the PTP strictly adheres to Brown University’s gift policy, which separates academic programming decisions from any particular donor interests or grant requests.” However, tracing the politics and theories of the project and its associated faculty shows that the right-wing logics of the Koch-associated foundations is inextricable from the PTP, despite Brown’s gift policy. 

When asked about this gift stipulation, MacLean said “she would laugh cynically in [the] faces” of academic administrators who think they can keep Koch foundation money separate from the academic programming decisions within the University. “I would like them to release all the donor agreements, because time and time again, contrary to what they tell students and faculty, they come with strings that matter,” said MacLean.

Ideas matter

Although the PTP will hold up their invitations to speakers like Noam Chomsky when accused of upholding one-sided viewpoints on markets and the economy, it is overwhelmingly true that its academic projects revolve around work which promotes and spreads right-wing ideas. Tomasi, for example, teaches classes on prosperity, libertarianism, and market democracy in Chile. His syllabi, while they contain a small taste of leftist ideas in thinkers such as G.A. Cohen, are chock full of economic libertarians like Freidrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and, strangely enough, Stephen Moore, who helped write Donald Trump’s tax cut bill he passed in 2018. 

To be more specific, the concern with teaching right-wing libertarian economists is that their ideas are used as justification for the perpetuation of policies that favor the rich and powerful, in part by utilizing market-centric economic theory to divorce the lived experiences of precarity from the results of their studies—a process that, ultimately, leads to policies that harm marginalized populations. This is also known as neoliberalism. Libertarian economics centers the idea that the welfare state needs to be dismantled and public services need to be replaced with private entities. Economists affiliated with the University of Chicago, such as Milton Friedman, began pushing the idea in the 1960s and 70s that governments needed to deregulate industries and remove antitrust laws, and instead only intervene in the economy via changes in monetary policy. The spread of these ideas has led to the gradual deconstruction of the welfare state in America in the past 50 years, leading to increases in poverty, people experiencing homelessness, and economic insecurity for millions of Americans. The PTP is merely another node from which these ideas propagate, and that propagation would increase if the PTP became a fully fledged center. 

Going mainstream at Brown via the formation of a “center” would hold special prominence for the Koch-affiliated movement, as no other Ivy League university has a center founded with Koch-affiliated money. While most Ivy League schools take some money from Koch-affiliates, MacLean emphasized that “it is so valuable for them to have a center at a place like Brown.” 

A close scrutiny of the professors currently involved in the PTP, and who would be involved in the PPE Center, shows that they’re spreading far-right ideas. “These are not normal professors,” MacLean told the Indy. “These are foot soldiers in an ideological project.” 

In Jane Meyer’s book on the pervasive impact of money in politics, Dark Money, she writes that Tomasi “slyly” told a reporter for a conservative magazine that “after a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years,” and that Tomasi is one of the Koch’s “pet professors.” MacLean added that bringing undergraduate students into the Koch foundation fold as early as possible was central to their mission.

Correction: A paragraph on the research of professors affiliated with the PTP was removed from this article. Due to publication deadlines, there was not enough time to fully research their academic work. 

“If you dig into what the actual ideology that is being taught, you are looking at the radical right of this country,” MacLean told the Indy.

The move to “center”

Understanding the PTP as an outpost of right-wing economic thought conjured into being by the Koch-affiliated foundation’s money—and not as a entity engaged in genuine “viewpoint diversity,” as the public relations wash would make it seem—reinforces the impact that transforming the PTP into an academic “center” would have on Brown. The authors of the “Proposal to Establish a Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics” stress their desire to combat specialization by bringing an “interdisciplinary approach to education and scholarship.” They write on page two that merely naming the center a center of “political theory” would not do justice to the work of scholars who are trying to understand the origins of social institutions that are “free, prosperous, and fair.” On page four, the authors express excitement about greater course offerings and a PPE concentration, aiming to increase the number of students they engage. There are also hopes for more faculty appointments, an increase in the number of graduate fellows, and an increase in seminars to foster “interdisciplinary excellence and produce engagement.” 

Also troubling is the proposal’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement. The center claims that they’ll diversify faculty hiring by posting on diverse job boards like “WorkplaceDiversity.com” and “VeteransConnect.com,” all with the goal of finding candidates from “historically underrepresented groups” who also have research interests that “align with the mission of the Center.” Finally, in their emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their course catalog, the authors stress that classes taught by current PTP faculty like Tomasi’s “Prosperity” and David Skarbek’s course “Crime, Mafias, Prisons” “have in the past, naturally dedicated specific lecture space within their respective seminars to address topics of diversity and inclusion.” This claim is also questionable, as as the core thinkers that most members of the PTP engage in are white, male, right-wing political economists, such as Hayek and Friedman, who push a view of the world that justifies the presence of the wealthy and the few at the expense of the poor and the many. 

Faculty resist

Faculty at Brown are actively organizing against the expansion and institutionalization of the PTP. An internal faculty petition obtained by the Indy writes that “Our objections reflect deep concerns that are both local to Brown and that extend far beyond our campus. Simply put, there is no way to disentangle the proposed center from the PTP’s origins as a component of a well-documented political project to undermine the scientific consensus around climate change and to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.” The letter, which is addressed to the Academic Priorities Commission (APC) at Brown, asks them to better “scrutinize the proposal now under consideration” and make public the funding that PTP has received over the past two decades, as well as question the DIAP claims made by the authors. The letter continues, saying that “Brown is one of several campuses nationwide where these ‘dark money’ investments have culminated in the creation of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics programs. Indeed, to make this endeavor “permanent” on campuses like ours has always been the desired goal of this project’s funders.”  

Naoko Shibusawa, associate professor of History, American Studies, and Ethnic Studies at Brown, told the Indy that, “The reason why faculty would be opposed to [the PPE Center proposal] is how this would be attached to furthering the Koch agenda, in ways that would be contrary to the very values and mission that Brown is trying to promote. Feminism, reproductive rights, anti-racism, science. These are things that matter to faculty and this is why we think it is a step-backwards… It would contradict and undermine the very goals that we are trying to reach.” 

What’s next?

The PTP’s transformation into the PPE Center is not yet a done deal. There’s still time to organize against its approval. Faculty sources say the University’s internal APC is taking faculty input until November 15, and after that the proposal would go through a series of internal votes before going to a full faculty vote sometime this academic year. 

If students and faculty take a stand, they can stop the Koch foundations’ right-wing outpost from getting a stronger foothold at Brown. But if they fail, and if Brown decides to transform the PTP into a full center, with the full backing of the University behind it, Brown will become another node in an ever expanding array of right-wing economic thought.