(Despite the professor-blogging angle, and that Cronon's upcoming AHA presidency will probably have the same pro-digital history agenda as Grafton's, I don't think this has much to do with DH). The whole "we are all Bill Cronon" sentiment misses what's actually interesting. Cronon's playing a particular angle: one that gets missed if we think about him as either a naïve professor, stumbling into the public sphere, or as a liberal ideologue trying to score some points.
Most people already know the basics of the Cronon case, so I won't go into that. I only have two mild corrections I'd make to the standard intro:
- Historians might better explain what it means that Cronon is AHA president-elect. That might sound to outsiders like he's a political animal. The position is mostly honorary; it's a lot closer to the Nobel Prize in history than it is to the presidency of the National Education Association.
- Although Cronon has written two highly respected books, Nature's Metropolis is a better read than Changes in the Land; that's what you should pick up if you haven't read either.
Deliberative democracy is a sort of communitarian political project that views the essence of democracy in reached consensus, rather than in conflict and resolution. Deliberative democrats tend to be fuzzy about votes, they like town halls more than parties, and they view jury deliberation as a much more important democratic tradition than political canvassing. Academics love it in part because it makes the political sphere operate a lot more like the academy--little confrontation and few polar opposites, slow consensus around certain points, and an emphasis on civility and constructive criticism. Now, I don't know anything about Cronon's politics personally: but I find this a really helpful way to think about his actions and goals.
What happens if we assume Cronon is taking a stance on deliberative democracy, not on the labor question? I think it explains a lot of what some have found funny about his actions. Cronon's complaint about ALEC, remember, is not that it opposes unions; it is that it deliberately obscures its actions from the public sphere. He's probably in favor of public-sector unions, but it's the later point that led a non-partisan academic to leap headfirst into the blogosphere. From the start, he has argued for a particular type of public discourse, and he has stayed basically within its bounds at all times. His elaborate efforts to establish his Wisconsin bona-fides are crucial to his standing as a member of the community. His blog is about entering a public sphere in which anyone (even a state employee) should be able to enforce certain norms of democratic civility; and all his protestations of independence, or centrism, are at the core of the belief that democracy should be about consensus, not conflict between parties. A lot of readers, Republican and Democrat, I think, have either been put off by the points he keeps making about the tradition of Wisconsin Republicanism, or ignored them as boilerplate: Walker's bill, they think, is a cut-and-dry partisan issue today. But those are actually central to his positioning: he's trying to intervene in the political debate as a centrist because on some level that's the only position appropriate for political debate. To make his cause a rally-the-troops moment for democrats as the party of reason (warning: nytimes paywall) would be, in its own way, as impermissible as ALEC's behind the scenes dealings.
This has implications for how we talk about what's at stake. I think Cronon's defenders should possibly stop focusing on the legality of the FOIA request, and his attackers shouldn't think they've got him red-handed. Will Saletan said that Cronon should spend less time fighting the request, and more time trying to get the law changed—except that FOIA is a good thing. As Lukas pointed out on AmericanScience, that's a pretty shallow argument even in legal terms: you can make an interesting argument about competing goods of academic freedom and public information. A lot of people are doing just that. But the rabbit hole of public official vs. state employee, confidential records vs. FOIA, takes for granted a legal framework when in fact this about political discourse. I just handed out a bunch of Bs to students who ascribe the core beliefs of political actors in the Early Republic to differing methods of constitutional interpretation. ("Jefferson was a strict constructionist, and therefore he opposed the Bank of the United States"). The really important thing to defend here is not academic freedom or political speech in general, but a particular type of political speech (deliberative democracy, encouraging openness, etc.) against another type of speech (intimidation, etc.)
Cronon occasionally gets called "naive," but his naivete is strategic. He's trying to set the terms of debate around political discourse, rather than legalism. If we make this about laws and about rights, we're possibly letting him down. Cronon hasn't intimated that he wants this to play out in the courts; he pretty clearly prefers to shame the Republican party into withdrawing their request. That we tend to talk about political issues in a legal way is a sign of the impoverished discourse that deliberative democracy wants to change. Cronon is already a step ahead of that: he's trying to create the conditions under which there would no political benefit to using FOIA against a professor, because ad hominem attacks would disgrace the deliverer more than the recipient.
The commitment to changing the language also helps explain Cronon's allusion to "McCarthyism," which seems overblown to some. Ben Alpers at USIH draws out the comparison to moderate conservatism at length. But I think we should view it as relevant not for its critique of Republicanism today. More important is the other side of the coin: the McCarthy story offers, as its flipside, a tremendous example of civil discourse in American politics. Cronon himself is trying to be Joe Welch: the outsider who bravely called for decency, and who (through McCarthy's fall) got it. Just as McCarthy didn't quite realize he couldn't treat the Army as poorly as he had more political appointees, Cronon is hoping that his own integrity and standing will help lead to more moderate discourse. Will this work? It's clear, certainly, that the Wisconsin GOP has no idea what a respected figure "Cronin" is, but it's also possible that Cronon himself is overestimating the sympathy he can generate. His original intervention around the union issue was clearly done with an effort not to be partisan, but Madison has already become such a partisan flash point that it might not work.
The problem with deliberative democracy is that even though its principles seem like they should be universal, hardly anyone behaves in the public sphere like we'd like. Some of this is because of naked self-interest or weakness in the face of exploiting scandals, but a lot may be because individual goals seem more important. Citizens want their representatives to use all the tools at their disposal to expand health coverage, reduce state debt burdens, or to resist overreach by the governing party. And that might not be crazy—although one might, like Centrist Cronon, care about political process and democracy more than anything else, one might also privilege property rights, or distributive justice, above any notion of political civility. (Although in some way that might not be rational: I'm e-mailing to try to get an orthodox Rawlsian account out of Ryan in the comments, since Rawls figures heavily in the intellectual heritage on both sides here.) That is to say, some people may want to defend Cronon from his left; they should be clear, though, that they're doing their own project, not necessarily his.
Now, Cronon's not a card-carrying deliberative democrat, as far as I know. As a historian, he's never been a theory-first guy, and he tends to be pretty eclectic in his influences. He may turn around and say something tomorrow that puts the lie to my reading. Certainly not everything he says fits into the deliberative democracy framework. But I find this a helpful enough way to think about what's going on that I thought I'd throw it out there.