Published April 19, 2017 by Rebecca Goldfine

Professor Jean Yarbrough: 'How I Became a Conservative'

Taking her cue from the Lady Gaga song “Born This Way,” government professor Jean Yarbrough announced at a recent talk about her politics that she “was not born this way.”
Professor Jean Yarbough
Prof. Jean Yarbrough gave a recent campus talk, “How I Became a Conservative”

“I was not born into a conservative family, I was not born into a Republican family, and I am still an outlier in my birth family,” revealed Yarbrough, who is Bowdoin’s Gary M. Pendy Professor in Social Sciences, Government and Legal Studies and an expert in political philosophy and American political thought.

The talk was organized by the Eisenhower Forum, a conservative-leaning political discussion group at Bowdoin. The club says its mission is to promote intellectual diversity on a mostly liberal campus. Yarbrough’s talk, “How I Became a Conservative,” drew an overflow crowd in the Pickering Room of Hubbard Hall.

With humor and self-revealing stories, Yarbrough detailed her journey from student radical to conservative intellectual. She didn’t shy from outlining her beliefs, despite addressing a mixed audience of Democrats and Republicans.

Yarbrough was a first-generation college student who grew up in a blue collar/middle class, mostly Jewish and Italian neighborhood on Long Island, New York. As a college student, she marched in Vietnam War protests, joined Students for a Democratic Society, and even rebelled against distribution requirements at her college, all decisions she later came to regret.

She considered herself a liberal Democrat until she became a mother in her 30s, which is when she voted for her first Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, in 1980. She credits him with giving Americans an alternative form of conservatism, one that pivoted away from the 1950s and 1960s brand of Eisenhower conservatism, which she summed up basically as just slowing down the advance of liberalism.

The Five Pegs of Jean Yarbrough’s Conservatism 

Yarbrough said her evolution from liberalism to conservatism was founded on five pegs: her graduate education, foreign policy, marriage-motherhood-feminism, religion, and economics.

“Having wasted my undergraduate years protesting,” she said the first peg of her conservatism developed when she began studying the “great texts” in her graduate program at the New School for Social Research in New York City. “I read great books, and these books changed my life. They made me think more seriously about the world around me,” she said.

Yarbrough's recommended reading

The books she read during this period pushed her to carefully consider the importance of natural rights, constitutional government, statesmanship, and virtue — its role in society and how it can be cultivated. She grappled with ideas such as how virtue co-exists with liberty, and how to advance liberty and equality. “These are perennial questions, with no simple answers,” she said. “You can have very high-level disagreements with people about [for example] where you draw the line between liberty and equality, whether appeals to self-interest are sufficient to get people to act well, or whether you also need to cultivate virtue. And if you do need virtue, how do you foster it in a republic dedicated to the protection of equal individual rights.”

The second peg, the foreign policy peg, occurred in reaction to the loss of will following the end of the Vietnam war. After the American withdrawal, Yarbrough believed President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, was too pessimistic, accepting a “second-rate place for America, especially where the Soviet Union was concerned.” She didn’t want to see the country accept decline. “I believed that America still had, and has, a great role to play in the world,” she said.

But after voting for President Jimmy Carter, she watched the country “slip into a deep malaise….I delivered my first child during the oil embargo of 1979 and the hostage crisis with Iran.” She cast her first vote for a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in 1980.

A third transformative experience for Yarbrough — who had no brothers — was having two sons. Faced with the prospect of raising two boys, Yarbrough faced a new challenge. “I was of the generation of feminists who said that anything a man can do, a woman can do,” she recalled. “It is one thing to say to a girl, ‘Here’s a fire truck for you,’ but I had trouble saying to my sons — and they had trouble with this, too — ‘Here’s a doll.’”

Becoming a mother, and a mother of sons, “was part of my process of rethinking things,” she observed. She was forced to think about the differences between men and women, between boys and girls, and to what extent these differences were natural or socially constructed.

Thus began the formation of the third peg — questioning of the version of feminism Yarbrough had to that point accepted. Her doubts about feminism intensified when her husband at the time announced, shortly after she had started her new job at Bowdoin, that he wanted a no-fault divorce.

“It was really shocking to me that if one person wants a divorce, there is nothing you can do to stop it. It is easier to walk away from a longstanding marriage than to fire an employee,” she noted. The divorce upended her family, and she had to pause her career to care for her children, she said. Remarking that divorce is devastating to families, she added, “That divorce caused me to rethink my commitment to feminism.”

(Yarbrough did admit that her divorce had one very happy result, for she later remarried the late Richard Morgan ’59, who was the longtime and well-respected William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional Law in Bowdoin’s government department.)

The fourth peg supporting her conversion to conservatism came from Yarbrough’s reconnection to her faith. She had not given sufficient thought to this question before she married, and urged students to take the matter seriously. At first, she took her children to church to give them a religious education, but in the process, found her own faith deepening. From this, and being married to a professor of law, “I began to take a greater interest in church/state matters,” she said. She worried that liberal opinion had turned “positively hostile” toward religion freedom, and especially toward Christianity.

The fifth and final peg comes from Yarbrough’s economic views, which tilt toward free markets and away from planned economies, though she is not a libertarian. She emphasized the importance of economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and encouraged students to read them.

At the end of her 45-minute talk, she returned to Reagan, and his importance to a distinctively American brand of conservatism. “Reagan was saying, ‘Let’s get back to our founding principles…the principles of natural rights, limited government, the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the need for character,” she said. “What Reagan did was point us back to the principles of liberalism in the classical sense and suggest that they were not simply anachronistic or outworn, but were vital principles by which a free people can live and prosper. This was a real alternative to the ‘go slow’ conservatism of the ’50s and ’60s.”

A few more take-aways from “How I Became a Conservative.” After her talk, Yarbrough answered student questions.

On Trump and the media:
“You have a media that is so hostile to Donald Trump. It’s not so much that there are alternative facts. What there are, are two different accounts of the same facts, and a lot of spin on both sides. Trump uses tweets to get around the pronounced mainstream media bias — indeed, hostility to him.”

Liberty vs. equality
“This is a broad generalization…but [considering the] two founding principles of liberty and equality — if you come down on the side of more equality, you’re probably going to be a Democrat. And if you come down more on the side of individual liberty, you’re probably doing to be a Republican. No one is renouncing the other principle, but it is the relative weight that you attach to them that underlies our political differences.”

Will Trump succeed?
“The Republicans, being the party of freedom, brawl more, which is not a guarantee that Trump will be a success, but I wouldn’t call him a failure. Not yet. And I certainly hope that he succeeds.”

Is Trump a demagogue?
“Trump has certain demagogic tendencies. He gets a certain amount of energy from performing in front of a crowd. The thing I would say that is more worrisome than demagoguery is that he doesn’t seem to have more than a third-grade grasp of our fundamental political principles. One hopes that he has some advisor who can give him quick Spark Notes, or an even more intensive education on the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. I think it would help him a lot.”

“[A demagogue tries] to arouse people on the basis of passion….Trump was on the softer side of demagoguery in the sense that he tried to speak to people who had not been spoken to — the forgotten Americans — and that is a form of flattery. Hitler was a hard demagogue…when you start talking about how people need to be exterminated — that’s anger, that’s hatred.”

“Let me also add, demagoguery is active on the left as well. It is, as Aristotle warned, always a danger in popular governments.”

On multiculturalism:
“Diversity works best when we have a policy of serious assimilation. I am not a multiculturalist. You have different cultures that live next to each other, and they hate each other. They don’t understand each other. [In the US,] I think you should learn to speak English, I think you should be assimilated into American ways and traditions. In recent years, we have simply given up on that. Multiculturalism has been the order of the day for some time now, and I think it has seriously exacerbated tensions among different immigrant and religious groups in this country.”

On feminism:
“I think women should be free to live a life they want and not be railroaded or corralled by feminists. One of the worst things we can tell young women is ‘you can have it all,’ because something almost always has to give. I have two successful grown children, I had a wonderful second marriage, a very satisfying career, but I was also divorced. I didn’t have it all, I know hardly any women who have had it all. You torment yourself if you make that your goal. You figure out what you most want and then you live it, and you need enough strength and character, to say, ‘I am proud of what I have chosen.’”