Brooklyn College and CUNY Distinguished Professor of Political Science Corey Robin has been sharing his views on modern political thought and theory in classrooms, books, and other published works for decades. His last book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (2019), received the Best Book in American Political Thought award from the American Political Science Association, and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011) was hailed by The New Yorker as “the book that predicted Trump.”

This year promises to be a busy one for Robin. He is hard at work on a new book, King Capital, and he was just named one of Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Visiting Scholars for 2024-2025—an appointment that will take him across the country to meet undergraduate students in classrooms, lectures, and seminars.

Throw in the 2024 presidential election, and it is the perfect time to ask Robin about his book, the Phi Betta Kappa nod, and what might be next for America, politically speaking.

 What are your thoughts on political polarization in the United States and what are the opportunities to bridge the ideological divides?

As a political scientist, I’m aware of a significant irony in this lament that the country has grown polarized. Back in 1950, the American Political Science Association wrote a lengthy report, arguing that the main problem of American politics was that we were not polarized enough! The authors of that report believed that to address society’s most difficult challenges—Jim Crow, industrial capitalism, and so on—you needed parties to organize and divide the electorate based on belief, policy, and program. The problem with America was that our parties had failed to do that. Taking this longer historical view, I’d say that the United States has made the most progress when it has been polarized. Where would we be without the abolitionists who polarized the country over slavery? Or without Martin Luther King, who, many people forget, was a very polarizing figure in our society. The problem today is not polarization but the weakness of our political parties, neither of which can deliver or act on that polarization.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your latest book, King Capital?

Like most of my books, this one began in a classroom at Brooklyn College. I was teaching an undergraduate course on conservatism and realized how little I knew about conservative thinking on the free market and capitalism. After immersing myself in the conservative tradition, I became more interested in how political theorists and economists, more generally, from Adam Smith to Marx and Keynes, have thought about capitalism. I began teaching another undergraduate course on the political theory of capitalism. My lectures formed the basis for my book, which Random House will be publishing.

What are some important points you want to highlight during your academic tour as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Visiting Scholars program?

While I’m excited to share my past and current research, I’m most excited to talk to undergraduates about the importance of the kind of reading and writing we do in the humanities and social sciences. I have a firm no-screens policy in my class; we just have the text, the paper we take notes on, and our pens. I’ve increasingly come to think of the classroom as a sacred space, not unlike Shabbat in the Jewish tradition, where we suspend the noise of our daily lives to have a different kind of experience of the world. That experience, of close reading and reflecting on our reading in prose, is an increasingly imperiled one, and it’s critical that we, as educators, fight to preserve it.

In what ways is populism a threat to American democratic institutions?

There are two problems with the way that question is posed. The first is that populism, historically, has been one of the mainsprings of American democracy. The Populists, or the People’s Party, pushed for democratic reforms like the direct election of senators, which became the Seventeenth Amendment, and the initiative and referendum, which is how feminists often put the issue of women’s suffrage before the people. The second problem with that question is that it elides how it is our institutions, including those authorized by the Constitution, that pose the greatest threat to democracy. Today, the most anti-democratic forces in our society depend upon the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and the Senate to help them to power and to hold on to their power. These forces are the opposite of populist; they are counter-majoritarian and anti-majoritarian.

Hear what Corey Robin had to say about “What Liberals Get Wrong About the Right” on the “Factually” podcast.