"When I talked to them about why they wanted to do it, they both told me something really interesting — and it's kind of the idea that got me thinking about building this Political Theory Project," he says. "They told me that they'd become really effective spokespersons for an inherited point of view."
They could, in other words, articulate the party line. But they hadn't been able to truly explore the ideas behind the talking points — at least, not on the conservative end of the spectrum.
The courses they'd taken at Brown spoke, at least implicitly, to the foundations of liberal ideology. But they couldn't find a course that investigated the ideas that, Tomasi says, "might make an intelligent person want to be a Republican."
Bringing some balance to Brown's political conversation had its appeal, no doubt. But for Tomasi, there was a broader concern.
As he was starting the Political Theory Project, with a grant from the conservative Donner Canadian Foundation, he spoke to a Brown alumnus who suggested he faced a crucial decision.
Tomasi, who is a libertarian, could build a nakedly conservative entity — a sort of plant-the-flag, self-conscious corrective to Ivy League liberalism that would have little trouble attracting right-wing money.
Or he could create something else, he says, "an entity that encourages broad-minded, serious, brave conversations about the premises of both sides" — the sort of conversations that might push higher education closer to its oft-ignored ideal as haven for robust debate.
He took the latter course. And it was, clearly, one that fit his temperament. Colleagues of all political stripes say the professor has a genuine fever for exchanging ideas — and challenging orthodoxy.
This spring, in a typical flourish, he wrote a series of posts on the "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" blog arguing for a combination of the "un-combinables" — the libertarian insistence on economic liberty and the lefty concern for social justice — in a new approach he calls "free market fairness."
But Tomasi suggests that even those who would cling to a single tradition, be it socialist or libertarian, have a duty to engage with the ideas at the heart of their beliefs — and at the heart of competing creeds. Indeed, one of the central aims of the Political Theory Project, he says, is to create what one of his postdoctoral students called "responsible ideologues."
So, after the initial "Knowing Right" course, the project never offered another class that focused specifically on conservative thought. The courses it developed on capitalism and prosperity offered plenty of Adam Smith and Hayek, to be certain, but there was a healthy dollop of Karl Marx, too.
SHIFTING THE FRAME
Tomasi, then, resists any suggestion that PTP leans conservative — or even libertarian. "I do not run the project as a servant to any single ideology," he wrote, in an email. Fair enough.
But to teach classes on capitalism and prosperity is, in some way, to shift the frame to the right.
And while Tomasi insists that PTP's programming is not influenced by his donors — the project develops classes and events and then seeks out funders willing to back them, he says — the thrust of that programming makes for a snug fit with the strategy of the project's prime backers.