The culture wars are on like Donkey Kong. Among all the Trump-a-rific stuff being considered, here are just two examples out of Texas. A new law just passed will, I kid you not, authorize the placement of “chaplains” into the position of public school counselor. Such individuals would require neither the normal licensure nor training that counselors must possess. I guess God will guide them? But if you were worried that Texas schools might be abandoning the concept of requirements completely, well, fret not. Their state Senate passed a bill mandating that the 10 Commandments be displayed in every classroom, although thankfully it failed to pass the state House. For now. Hallelujah indeed.
In fact, red states all across our country have recently implemented a series of hard-right policies targeting a very long list. There’s abortion rights, education (relating to teaching about racism, sexual orientation/gender identity, and other so-called “divisive topics” in American classrooms from kindergarten to college), gun safety, banning library books, curtailing LGBTQ+ rights, and more, which polls show are generally unpopular.
Could these culture war policies, which impose the views of white Christian evangelical racists on everyone else in the community, lead to a kind of brain drain of people moving out of very conservatively governed parts of the country? We’re already seeing evidence of this among doctors—including those in training, and particularly in OB/GYN (oh well, only half the population needs them!)—as well as college applicants and potential faculty members (with Florida and Texas not at all surprisingly showing the earliest effects) along with K-12 teachers, not to mention queer parents and LGBTQ+ Americans in general.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ right-wing culture war directly caused Disney to cancel a long-planned investment in Florida—turning down a huge tax break that would have subsidized it—and 2,000 new jobs disappeared just like the Little Mermaid’s voice. Does that make DeSantis the new Ursula? Let your imagination run wild there. Back in the real world, Henry Grabar at Slate asked a very practical question, namely “how far Republican governors can go before corporations and their employees begin to reconsider” whether they want to be in red states.
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Many Americans from various backgrounds oppose the whole war on “woke.” Given what we know about the demographics of cultural progressives, opposition is even stronger among the highly educated (including those currently pursuing higher education) and creative people—those most likely to produce new innovations and explore new areas in science, technology, and culture that fuel economic growth. These folks trend strongly liberal, in particular on social and cultural issues, including those relating to civil rights. A good number are likely to simply rule out living in hard red states even more so than they have in the past.
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To be clear, the U.S. population has been moving to red states over the past few decades for various reasons, mostly because of lower cost of living. However, in recent years that growth has largely been concentrated in blue cities within those red states. As the red state governments take away more and more autonomy and impose their hard right policies on those cities (see, for just one example, Nashville), the brain drain we’re talking about here is likely to become more pronounced.
Why does this matter? This analysis from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development details the many harmful effects on economic prosperity, health care, education, and more:
The loss of skilled and innovative people often means the loss of their ideas for productivity and governance and the benefits they would otherwise provide to their co-workers, students and fellow citizens. … The departure of highly educated emigrants … represents an export of human capital in which the [government] has invested. In addition, there is a loss of potential tax revenue. … The loss of key personnel makes the delivery of critical social services, such as health care and education, more difficult.
Speaking of brain drains, there is a historical parallel that can shed light on our reality going forward: the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries that followed the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther. Catholic governments, backed by the Roman Catholic Church, sought to suppress scientific knowledge (exemplified by the imprisonment of Galileo, forced to recant his scientific discoveries because they contradicted church doctrine) as part of their broader efforts to root out anti-Catholic influence. What was the effect? Here’s what Matías Cabello, chair of Economic Growth and Development at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, had to say:
Did [the Counter-Reformation] harm science, unintentionally but enduringly, and thereby depress economic growth, as some historians have claimed? This paper presents vast evidence in favor of this contested narrative. It finds that, across Europe, Catholic and Protestant cities had shared comparable numbers of scientists per capita prior to the Counter-Reformation, but Catholic cities experienced a cataclysmic relative decline precisely when the Counter-Reformation was implemented, especially among more heavily treated units. It then shows that the shock persisted in the long term, largely thanks to the reactivation of Counter-Reformation-rooted policies centuries later. Finally, it exploits this persistence to estimate long-term growth effects and confirms them using alternative variance unrelated to the Counter-Reformation. Overall, the Counter-Reformation appears to be one of the largest shocks to science in human history.
These shocks to science—a brain drain of scientists, if you will—played out all over Europe. In the regions that were “leaders” of the Counter-Reformation, such as Spain, Portugal, what is now Belgium (then called the Spanish Netherlands), and Italy (then ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs in the South, and directly by the Pope in Central Italy, with the North divided into smaller states), “the decline [in the number of scientists per capita] was not just relative but absolute”—it dropped to the lowest level in centuries.
Cabello continued: “Moreover, within these leaders, the decline was more pronounced in cities where the treatment was more intense, such as cities where the inquisitorial tribunals were located. Also average quality was affected: the decline was larger among scientists of higher quality.” The figure below shows how the most highly regarded scientists in particular abandoned Catholic regions during the years of the Counter-Reformation.
We saw a similar result in areas where large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants lived, namely Switzerland, the Holy Roman Empire (a decentralized polity, much of which is now Germany, and which was at that time largely divided into states ruled by either Catholic or Protestant rulers), and the Netherlands. In these areas, Catholic and Protestant cities had essentially identical rates of scientists living amongst their populations, but then, once the Counter-Reformation kicked in, scientists fled Catholic cities for Protestant ones. When military victories or dynastic changes led to a sudden implementation of oppressive policies in a previously Protestant area, the brain drain began right away. Conversely, when the heavy hand of anti-science lifted, the scientists returned.
The paper also provided evidence that this shock had a lasting effect on both scientific development and the economic growth that flows from it. The Counter-Reformation’s policies “are associated with depressed science until the late 18th century.” Furthermore, Cabello explained that “in the hardest-hit territories … negative association has endured even until today.” He continued: “This persistence remains significant after controlling for plausible confounding factors, including developments in income and education, spatial proximity, natural endowments, languages, states, and institutions, among others.”
In the graph below, look at the sudden separation between the red and blue lines that coincides almost perfectly with the period of the Counter-Reformation, and which persists to some degree even centuries later.
The predominant factor behind the brain drain, Cabello noted, wasn’t Catholicism per se, but the power wielded by religious conservatives. He found that when clerical power increased within Protestant areas, a similar decline in scientific activity followed. In the end, the key was “censorship laws and religiously-legitimized politics.” Sound familiar?
REconstruction and beyond
The Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South in the decades following Reconstruction offers another, more recent brain drain that parallels the one following the Counter-Reformation:
Driven in part by economic concerns, and in part by frustration with the straitened social conditions of the South, in the 1870s African Americans began moving North and West in great numbers. In the 1890s, the number of African Americans moving to the Northeast and the Midwest was double that of the previous decade. In 1910, it doubled again, then again in 1920. In the 1920s, more than 750,000 African Americans left the South—a greater movement of people than had occurred in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
Although Jim Crow wasn’t the only cause, it certainly was one of the primary motivations for the Great Migration. This movement resulted in a brain drain and significant loss of talented, hard-working people from a region that, given its relative poverty compared to the rest of the United States, could certainly have benefited from their presence. (Interestingly, there’s been some reversal in recent decades, as Black Americans have been returning to the South in significant numbers for reasons including job opportunities as well as a desire to shift the politics in states where they, allied with Democrats of all races, are within reach of a majority.)
Instead, the post-Reconstruction South’s extremely racist policies drove millions to seek a better life than they could find under a particularly harsh set of laws. (The North was not paradise for African Americans, but by comparison it offered more economically and in terms of civil rights as well as a share of political power.) The last thing I want to do is denigrate the accomplishments of Black Southerners in this period economically, intellectually, or culturally; they did, for example, birth both jazz and blues. Nevertheless, there's a reason the Harlem Renaissance happened in New York City, not Mississippi. Likewise, even before Nazi Germany started killing Jews en masse, the regime’s harsh discrimination against them lead to a significant brain drain, with Albert Einstein being the most impactful among many, many other examples.
To return to the present, Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University (my alma mater), dissected the efforts of these Christo-Trumpist radicals in a terrific New York Times op-ed piece:
The proponents of these laws are on the wrong side of history. They are acting out of political expediency, exploiting convenient political wedge issues. They are mounting a direct and dangerous attack on America’s longstanding commitment to free expression, democracy and education. ...
The proponents of censorship and repression all had one thing in common: they were on the wrong side of history. … In the long run, misguided laws that censor ideas and suppress the advancement of knowledge fail, and their architects fail with them.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, more than any other right-wing extremist, serves as the face of censorship and repression in 2023. He’d be proud to claim the mantle of the movement’s leading architect, often bragging that Florida “is where woke goes to die.” Of course, that remark represents little more than gibberish. For something clearer and far more accurate when used to describe DeSantis himself, I prefer this other clip from Mel Brooks’ brilliant (and radically anti-racist) classic “Blazing Saddles.”
In all seriousness, the American Association of University Professors’ Special Committee on Academic Freedom in Florida wrote in their preliminary report: “Sowing confusion and fear among faculty members about what they can and cannot teach may be the underlying and main goal of the curricular legislation as a package.” The report quoted one Florida professor, who put it even more bluntly: “It’s expensive to engage in litigation, but cheap to scare people and make them leave.” Maybe the brain drain is the point. After all, without all those pesky free thinkers in the way, the right-wing can accomplish everything they’ve long dreamed of.
If history is any guide, the culture war DeSantis and those like him are carrying out right now—today’s equivalent of the Counter-Reformation—will come to be seen as no less destructive, not only to the people directly targeted, but to everyone living in the places where they were implemented.
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Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)