NEW YORK—Charles Murray was the featured guest at this year's Disinvitation Dinner, an event put on each year by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale since 2015 in response to the trend of college students preventing controversial speakers from giving talks.
Violent protests greeted Murray when he came to Middlebury College in March of 2017: A mob forcibly shut down his talk and injured his interlocutor Allison Stanger, a liberal professor who ended up in the hospital. Murray, now an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and still regularly protested on campuses, focused his talk at Yale on how political and social polarization pervades American society.
"It turns out people with strong political feelings don't want to be around someone who disagrees with them," he said Wednesday night, noting that politics increasingly determines where people get information and choose to live.
Murray also said he believes that the American project of limited government is dead, but he still seeks reasons for optimism. Americans should be positive, he argued, because people across the political spectrum are simply sidestepping the government and thereby limiting its overreach, even though his desire is for the government to adhere to the Founders' vision for human freedom unencumbered by the state.
"The American project as it was originally conceived is dead and it's never coming back. I truly believe that," he said. "But that's what old guys are famous for: The world is falling apart, the good ole days, get those kids the hell off my lawn."
He explicitly said no election or party is to blame for the federal government drifting so far from the Founders' intended purpose; instead, he pointed to larger developments such as the administrative state and Washington's increasingly plutocratic mode of governance. He even expressed agreement with economist Mancur Olson's claim that democratic governments tend to become sclerotic without strict legal limits on entitlements.
Discussing the collapse of constitutional limits on government as well as cultural setbacks on campus and around the country, Murray nevertheless cautioned against reacting with outrage. More than bad presidents and ineffective Congresses, Murray took issue with America's polarized culture.
"I'm thinking partly of political polarization, the kind whereby it is obligatory to think those who disagree with you politically are not simply wrong but evil, which is just as much a problem on the right as it is on the left," he said. "But I'm also thinking about the class polarization I wrote about in Coming Apart."
Murray did not have easy solutions to that class divide, saying the prospects for bridging it are especially remote. But he said he hopes for a "new incarnation of the American project" based on shared preference for private sector activities.
Students from Yale voiced concerns about polarization, saying not only that conservatives are mistreated but also that political discussion is hampered across the board. They cited clashes around the renaming of John C. Calhoun College in 2016, as well as controversies over offensive Halloween costumes.
To some conservative students, this provides some opportunity to defend conservative ideas by setting a better example for discourse. A student in the Buckley program, Leland Stange, downplayed the opposition conservatives face, saying he would rather focus on how to make the most of their freedom of inquiry.
"We often forget the message of free speech rings hollow without a meaningful exchange of ideas as its end," Stange said.
This is in keeping with Murray's own message as well as the Buckley program's founder Lauren Noble's advice to fight back with "organization, not outrage."
Murray did not hesitate to tell the audience—largely Yale students and alumni—that they should not settle for merely having the government out of their own business.
"Elites throughout history have had that ability," he said. "The whole point of the American founding was that we, alone among the nations of the earth, broke with history. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness were to be no longer the privilege of the few but available to all."
Ultimately, he called on his listeners to make good on the American promise in their own "new and creative ways." In time, this could help renew American civil society, which Murray said is "alive and well" despite the setbacks it has faced.