Who I represent, and who I don’t

© Justin Ide, Harvard News Office

You – yes, you. Stand still, laddie.

It’s the political season, and we’re hip-deep in scandals and wars. I have views on many of these events, as almost three years of this blog attest. (There’s a midterm election coming in three weeks, and you can bet I have a deep interest in it, particularly in the Senate races — because I’m a political scientist, and also, you know, a former Senate staff member.)

But just where do my views come from, and whom do they represent? If you don’t care about that, you can close this page and move on. But if you’re interested in issues of academic freedom, partisan politics, and national security debates, then keep reading.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t represent anyone but myself.

This bears repeating lately, because it’s become a tactic in debates by people on the right, the left, and at the bizarre extremes to try to smear entire institutions, or to enlist those institutions, in order to silence views they don’t like.

This isn’t new: the first national op-ed I ever wrote, over two decades ago, generated praise from Pravda (urk) and a short-lived letter-writing campaign to Dartmouth College to fire me. (Oh, the days before the internet.) Dartmouth, to its credit, declined to engage in academic censorship.

But this kind of behavior has become particularly noxious in the age of social media. In part this is because of the immediacy and access provided by the internet; people who once had to take the time to write a letter and put a stamp on an envelope now only have to click a “send” button.

Demands to silence the experts are also, however, a sign of the decreased distance between experts and laymen (which I’ve written about before) and the generally vicious tone of modern political debate. So herewith a quick digression about academic freedom, because no one seems to know what it means — including some of the professors and researchers who themselves invoke it regularly.

Let me start with my usual disclosures and disclaimers.

My entire professional CV is available online. I work full-time for a public academic institution owned by the United States Government, and one evening a week for a private educational institution. (It’s a small place in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) I am affiliated in one way or another with at least two other scholarly organizations, one of which is devoted to ethics and international affairs in New York City, and the other an academic association of historians and political scientists in Boston.

I offer my work, talent, and efforts to all of them. But when I speak publicly, I represent none of them.

Like every professor at an accredited academic institution, I enjoy full academic freedom to speak my mind and conduct my research as I see fit, particularly in areas of my expertise. While I see that as one of my rights as a professor, I also try to adhere to my obligations as a professor to observe the corresponding responsibility that goes with that right, as defined by the American Association of University Professors back in 1940:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

This is the part that a lot of academics don’t get. (The plant scientist at Delaware State University, for example, who’s telling Liberians that Ebola is a Western plot to kill Africans is a good example of abusing an academic post. And don’t even get me started about people like Ward Churchill.) To be a member of an academic community is a privilege; it’s also a responsibility.

What does that mean for you, the reader of this blog, and of my books, articles and op-eds?

It means you can be sure that no one in Washington, or New York, or Newport, or Cambridge, or Hanover, or Philadelphia (among the many places I’ve taught and lectured) has ever told me what I can say in a classroom, write on a page, or express in a public forum.

No one has ever told me what not to say in a classroom or from behind a podium, either, except for the obvious restrictions in my workplace on discussing classified material or impeding government operations. Since I don’t teach from a classified curriculum — anyone who’d like our syllabus can have one — and since I don’t plan on leading any sit-ins at USG installations, those are easy.

I have always been asked by the Naval War College to note that I do not speak for the Navy or the government. (I try to remember to do that, but sometimes it’s difficult to get that appended to an op-ed or to sneak it in when you’ve got only a moment on the air.) Those of you who follow me on Twitter can see that the War College re-tweets my articles and my commentary, along with those of my colleagues, not because the Navy endorses them but because we’re a graduate school and this is what faculty do.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t represent the views of the government any more than my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts represent the views of Governor Patrick or the Massachusetts Legislature. If it were otherwise, the entire enterprise of education itself would break down into meaningless training; our degrees would be worthless, our classrooms just rote repetitions of official government positions that would change with each partisan change of administration.

I do limit myself, however, according to my own rules and no one else’s. So here they are, as general principles.

1. I never represent myself as speaking on behalf of anyone but myself. This, you’d think, is common sense, but I mean I also don’t go down the road of pretending I represent even any informal groups, either, the way some retired generals (*cough*Bob Scales*cough*) have done. My views are my views, period.

2. During election season, I have plenty of views on candidates. Some I like and some I don’t. I do not work with, for, in coordination with any partisan campaigns. My views tend to be more critical than supportive, because that’s just how I am, but I also don’t endorse candidates in public. And I do not advocate for or against candidates in any classroom public or private, because it violates my beliefs about teaching.

Some of you think this is a Hatch Act restriction, because some of you mistakenly think the Hatch Act is a pervasive ban on any political activity by government employees. (Spoiler: it isn’t, except for a prohibition on using government resources, or trying to solicit funds on Federal property. Those are no-nos.) But I don’t do it at Harvard Extension or anywhere else.

My political affiliations, of course, are not a mystery: they’re part of my professional resume, and thus a matter of public record. I have worked as an aide to both a Democrat and a Republican, and while I am now an independent, in national politics I am conservative (if not always predictably). One might guess this as well from multiple appearances in The National Interest or National Review, and very few — okay, none — in The Nation. I have voted for candidates from both parties over 30 years.

3. I do not speak of the President or other U.S. national leaders with disrespect (as I see that term), nor do I encourage others to do so. In part, I think it’s gauche: no matter how much I might have disliked Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of Defense — and I did — I turned down opportunities to criticize him in public while I was in his chain of command because I think it’s bad form. (Once these figures are private citizens, they’re fair game.)

I have no reservation, however, about criticizing the public activities or the policies of U.S. political leaders. In general I think this is a good approach: criticize policy, not people. It’s a fine line, I grant you, but reasoned discussions of the quality of presidential leadership are different, in my view, from Clint Eastwood insulting an empty chair.

If the U.S. doesn’t enforce its own “red lines,” I think it has consequences and I’ll say so. If our nuclear policy seems stuck in 1981, I’ll write about it. And yes, if the president plays a round of golf minutes after discussing a beheading, then yeah, I’m going to comment on the optics of that situation, too, and what I think it portends for damage to our credibility in the world. That’s not only my right as a citizen, it’s what I do in general as a foreign policy analyst and as part of that group of people known as “defense intellectuals.”

None of that means it has to be disrespectful, and I do not allow, in any of my classrooms in Newport or Cambridge, any overtly disrespectful or grossly insulting discussion of any sitting President. (Previous presidents and leaders, once you’re out? You’re on your own. And yes, I mean you, Jimmy Carter.)

4. Finally, I try to stay out of things that are not my area of specialization. (I can see a few of you rolling your eyes at me. Stop it.) I have strong opinions on a lot of things, and blog about some of them here, but in my professional activities I do not write, lecture, or speak on those issues at length.

Sure, I have some strong feelings about a lot of things.  Like a lot of people, for example, I have some pretty definite views on the Affordable Care Act, and I haul off the occasional zinger about it on Twitter. But you won’t see me writing long articles on it, because the fact of the matter is that I’m not an expert on the economics of health care. I have some views on government programs in general (having worked with a few at the state level, especially), but my opinions on the ACA are just that: opinions. Informed, perhaps better informed, than most other folks, but far less so than the wonks who do it for a living.

Finally, I approach politics in general as a contact sport. (I’m from Massachusetts, for crying out loud.) I cut my political teeth in a mayor’s office while my mother was over across the way as a city council member — the enemy! — and then for over two years in the halls of the State House before heading off to Capitol Hill and the Senate later. So, hell yes: I enjoy politics.

I was betting on elections with my professors at Georgetown — I got crushed by Bob Lieber in the 1986 elections — and then carried on my huge 1-dollar bets with my own kids at Dartmouth later on, where I was one of the hosts for the Dartmouth Election Network on radio for the 1996 election. (I was one of the first people to congratulate a then-unknown new governor named Jeanne Shaheen on winning her race in an interview.) These days, I only bet with other political scientists, one of whom is going to owe me a C-note in November.

In general, I try to keep it all above the belt, but sometimes I let my language get a little salty – that’s just a bad habit of my youth – and sometimes I let my own cleverness or sarcasm get the best of me. At those times, I do try to remember that I am part of a community, a “learned profession,” and that I have an obligation to explain myself in longer writings that are public, accessible, and carefully sourced. This blog is, by its nature, far less formal — which is why I never allow students to cite it as a “source” — which is why I keep it around.

Of course, I also feel I have the obligation to be funny on occasion, but that’s a different problem, and up to you to determine when it succeeds.

So for now, just remember: when I write and tweet and bloviate and opine, I am resting my views of nearly 30 years of research, work, political experience, and education. I am capable of being wrong, wrong-headed, or completely off the rails. But those are my flaws, and not those of the institutions which pay me to think as clearly, to teach as effectively, and to write as accessibly, as I possibly can.

And for heaven’s sake, if you don’t like what you read here or on my Twitter feed, you got what you paid for. It’s a free country, and there are many other fine blogs and Twitter feeds you can follow.

I can’t really be much clearer than that. Now back to our regular programming.



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  1. Hello, Professor Nichols,

    A regular follower and interlocutor here. To put it mildly, my views on most things are far removed from yours and the majority of your followers/readers. You are (to my mind) a liberal interventionist who holds right-leaning views on most domestic matters. I tend to be a progressive/liberal on most domestic matters and sway towards the realist spectrum on foreign affairs, so naturally, I disagree with (and maybe even dislike) most of your tweets, comments, writings and the likes, at least as far as the things about which I hold at least a reasonably informed view.

    That said, I enjoy reading your work as well as that of others I disagree with, because hey, why not? You can’t defeat an enemy if you don’t know what (s)he’s doing. Kidding 😉 But on a serious note, I do not expect the NWC or any other institutions you are affiliated with to be held responsible for your views, as should be the standard. I would hope that your fellow tribesmen on the right are held to the same standard.

    • Chris – You made my day! Not only have you (mostly) pegged my politics, but I agree: we get nowhere if we only read the stuff we agree with. When I worked in the Senate, I had my own subscriptions to stuff you’d expect (like National Review) but also to things from every possible other side, including Mother Jones and The Nation. How could I brief my boss on what the other guys think if I didn’t read them? I also appreciate that you get that I don’t speak for my institution; you’d be surprised how often it happens (and happened at Dartmouth) that people try to hang the school around your neck, or vice versa. Thanks for writing.

  2. I love your blog. I am a conservative domestically and what I would interpret as a realist in foreign policy. I think we may have had some disagreements in previous comments, but I find your blog quite illuminating. As someone advocating for some, limited intervention in global events, I think you are a strong, and yes, independent voice.

    I would greatly like to see your thoughts on a new meme I have seen lately from Richard Haas to Henry Kissinger on the Middle East being embroiled in something akin to a Thirty Years War. I actually wrote a piece in the National Interest in April making this case due to both the sectarian and geopolitical implications (fascinating and perhaps disturbing to watch Erdogan sit back to let Kurds be crushed by ISIS).

    If it is similar to this, then what actor (imperfect analogy I know) should the U.S. seek to emulate? Richelieu and France? Olivares and Spain? I assume not Gustavus Adolphus…

    I am very interested in your thoughts.

  3. I enjoy your blog and the fact you one of life’s characters (the world needs more characters), where you hold strong opinions, that are well thought through.

    I don’t agree with all that you write (who agrees with everybody on all things?), but do appreciate that you take the time and effort to write this blog and regularly comment on Twitter as it adds to my knowledge base. I like to absorb facts and opinions from many varied sources for my academic hobbies of weather / climate, economics and 20th / 21st military history and geopolitics and current affairs. These are all a combination of facts and the interpretation of those facts to form a diverse range of opinions and often wrong future projections (humans are very bad at predicting the future for the very simple reason of chaos theory, In 2008 the flap of the butterfly’s economic wings was when a banker realised and told the world that AAA CDO’s were anything but, followed by 5 years of economists hopeless growth (or lack of) predictions!). Climate and economics actually have much more in common than most people realise, where they are a combination of fact, calculus, statics (each day’s weather and trading are collectively climate and economics, history and opinion and in any particular cycle the common misconception of: ‘this time it is different’.

    In return when I do comment I try to add my thoughts to your blog and if I do disagree then set out why. Comments like poor article or worse from trolls, don’t add to yours or your readers’ knowledge bases and are worthless. Likewise professional (Normally Russian) trolls who are often rude and insulting or deliberately base what they write on false facts and disinformation are not worth a penny (or cent (I’m a Brit)).

    IMO the reason dictators tend to get things very right or very wrong is that it is ultimately a one brain with at best a small inner circle (of all to often people with matching views) decision making process, where in democracies we tend to muddle through using many people’s brains, thoughts, experience and frames of reference which is much slower, more muddled, but much more often right from the use of collective experience, ideas and the overall multiple, collectively higher amount of, brain power that is used to solve the problem.

    My politics tends to be mainly right wing, but not exclusively as I believe that one of the major failures of politics is party ideologies which cloud and / or stop the best solutions to problems as what really matters is not only, what works, but also what works best. There is also nothing more politically charged than health and welfare systems, where the US and UK probably have the west’s two worst health systems. The US health system for its poor value for money, the UK for its ‘Stalinist’ monopoly with over 25,000 unnecessary deaths per year, both countries could learn a lot from better systems, which includes Hong Kong, Singapore and France.

    All I can say is keep up the good work as I find your thoughts informative, interesting and entertaining where you have a very good writing style.

  4. Hmmm… seems I’ve found the Tom Nichols Fan Club forum. So in keeping with the USNWC tradition of the counter-argumentative style of writing, Tom Nichols—you stink. You made Bill O’Reilly cry, you’ve bled red ink all over the thesis papers of countless students, and I’ve heard rumor that you’re an infamous, if not inveterate, Red Sox fan. I know all of these points are unrelated, rambling and incoherent but hey… I didn’t say I graduated with honors from the Naval War College!

    All kidding aside, you were a timely and refreshing breeze in the stagnant pond of government. My world views had certainly matured by the time we met as professor and student at the NWC in 2009. In the post 9/11 era I was very much a part of the administration’s “you’re either with us or against us” group. By 2009, though still largely conservative in most respects, I found I was part of a minority amongst my military peers in questioning our epic policy failures that resulted in the erosion of good will that America had previously enjoyed. I was dismayed with the distorted and routine use of military force as the first step in diplomacy rather than as a measured and well constructed option of last resort. I was dispirited with the endemic “brown polyester pants syndrome” where our government officials could reign without consequences. (For those that don’t know, this syndrome refers to the idea that you can completely lose control of your bladder and bowels in brown polyester pants and no one will notice, but at the end of the day you still stink and peed yourself.)

    Entering the NWC I expected a pedantic experience rigorously aligned with the viewpoints of whatever administration held the White House and in accordance with the Prophet Petraeus. Mercifully, that was not the case. In you, I found a kindred spirit for what I aspired to become—willing to argue sometimes unpopular but educated points of view. You didn’t always agree with your students’ arguments (educated or not), but you were never dismissive or disrespectful. The comments you made in red pen in the margins of my papers dripped with sarcasm and not only made me laugh out loud but challenged me to clarify my argument and become more accepting of another perspective. And while your comments remained tactful, you embodied what Winston Churchill was speaking of when he said tact was “the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”

    I was also inspired by the Greek tragedy story of your life (and no, I don’t mean to disparage your Greek ancestry but rather “Greek tragedy” in the sense of a story that swings from one extreme to the other and brings the audience along for a cathartic experience.) Who else earned their way through an Ivy League education driving taxis only to find you made less money with your degree than you did with your livery license? Or the fact you invested your entire education to become a Sovietologist only to see the Evil Empire crumble a few years after earning your doctorate? (Damn you Gorbachev!) And let’s face it, being a Red Sox fan was a near century-long Greek tragedy! But by spirit, hard work, determination, force of personality, and sometimes just dumb luck, you’ve landed on your feet and you’re still refreshing as ever.

    As always, thanks for pointing out what should be so obvious and common sense but alas proves the notion that life is indeed more difficult for stupid people. (And for the record, I sometimes like Bill O’Reilly but he could take a few life lessons from your perspective.)

  5. … and the “stupid people” I’m referring to are the blowhard extremists of every ilk that are intellectually dishonest enough to ignore reasoned alternative points of view. Not you!

  6. I agree totally with what your article says. Though I’ve not read enough of your stuff to know how much and how vigorously we’d disagree on political matters, I’ve read enough to know that your opinions are backed by reasoning rather than prejudice, so that alone makes them rare and worthwhile.

    Perhaps more importantly though, the caption to the picture generated a genuine and heartfelt laugh out loud, particularly as I was listening to Roger Waters at the time.