On April 9, Dr. David Lebow, Associate Director of the Law, Letters, & Society (LLSO) Department at the University of Chicago, announced the Charles Wegner Essay Competition Prize with “voter suppression” as its inaugural theme. Entries will be considered for a $500 prize, and the winning paper will be published in the Law, Letters, and Society Review. In the prompt, the LLSO Department maligns Republicans and casts Democrats as heroes, illustrating that the department is egregiously partisan under Lebow’s leadership.
The prompt for the essay contest is quoted in-full below:
The prompt discredits conservative narratives by placing them in scare-quotes, while readily accepting Democrat assertions at face-value. According to the prompt, Republicans are “[a]nimated by a widespread belief that Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory was ‘stolen,’ [leading] state Republican parties [to make] ‘vote integrity’ a signature legislative priority.”
Rather than encourage students to come to their own conclusions regarding “voter suppression,” the prompt unabashedly promotes Democrat talking-points: “Countless bills restricting ballot access are now moving through state legislative pipelines. Many see these efforts as forms of voter suppression designed to protect the political power of the Republican party or even to lock out Democrats permanently.” Republicans obviously aren’t attempting to permanently disenfranchise the Democrat party population, but the prompt ignores this fact, in order to engage in unfounded fear-mongering.
The prompt proceeds to assert that “nothing short of American democracy [is] on the line” and that Democrats are its sole defenders:
“National Democrats have crafted extensive measures to widen and protect the franchise, but as long as the filibuster exists, there seems to be little hope of making these into law. Meanwhile, local activists around the country have made some significant inroads in their campaigns against felon disenfranchisement.”
According to the prompt, National Democrats are the most prominent defenders of American democracy, the filibuster is an undeniable impediment to progress, and felon disenfranchisement and voter ID requirements are barriers to the democratic process.
The prompt’s CNN-inspired list of potential writing topics also encourages students to consider white supremacy, conspiratorial thinking, and Stacey Abrams’s political operation in Georgia (Fair Fight), among other subjects.
Readers wouldn’t know it from the prompt, but Republicans like ourselves sincerely believe election reform bills are enacted in good faith and seek to protect the franchise. The contested Georgia election law actually promotes election integrity by requiring voter IDs for mail-in ballots. It further guaranteespoll hours and provides for additional time if necessary while increasing the number of ballot drop boxes compared to the last normal election year: 2019. This isn’t radical, it’s logical. And despite all the hysteria, those who don’t have voter identification in Georgia will be given IDs free of charge.
Democrats like to suggest that it’s racist to prevent non-citizens and unregistered voters from committing election fraud, but there’s nothing racist about protecting voter integrity. What is racist is the erroneous idea that African-American and Hispanic voters who don’t have IDs are somehow incapable of obtaining them. According to polls, voter ID laws have long been supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans, including black Americans, by margins of 4-1.
Meanwhile, Democrat Bill H.R. 1 is a direct attack on free and fair elections. The bill will mandate insecure voting processes and subject voting tallies to partisan manipulation. Its provisions include unconstitutionally giving Congress primacy over state elections, mandating unreliable universal mail-in balloting, and eliminating voter ID election security, among many other initiatives.
Does the LLSO Department’s prompt even consider the merits of Republican voter ID laws or the dangers of Democrats’ assault on election integrity? No.
When asked for comment, Lebow stated that the essay prompt “endeavors to describe the salient facts of the current controversy over voting rights in order to invite student engagement.” According to Lebow, the prompt “includes summaries of the positions of both parties.” He emphasized that “it also highlights the fact that both parties engage in partisan gerrymandering—hardly a Democratic talking point.”
Lebow’s response completely misses the point. It’s not controversial to suggest that political gerrymandering is perpetrated by both political parties. Simply acknowledging this uncontroversial truth doesn’t make the prompt bipartisan.
The issue with the prompt is that it engages in overtly left-wing assumptions when “summarizing” political positions. The prompt shamelessly portrays Democrats as defenders of democracy and Republicans as evil conspiracy theorists who are purportedly trying to disenfranchise voters. In sum, the Democrat Party is defined under its own terms, while the Republican party is defined under the Democrats’ terms.
When asked whether he thinks the LLSO contest is in line with the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, Lebow ignored the question. The Provost’s Office champions the 1967 Kalven Report as “one of the most important policy documents at the University of Chicago.” The report itself states that the university “must […] maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures,” and “must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community,” as “It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.” As it stands, the LLSO Department appears to be violating university policy with its partisan essay contest.
Lebow has made no bones about where he stands on the political spectrum. He is the author of a 2019 paper titled “Trumpism and the Dialectic of Neoliberal Reason,” in which he uses “the thesis that fascism was the outcome of a dialectic of instrumental reason” to argue that “Trumpism is the result of a dialectic of neoliberal reason.”
Shortly before he assumed his position at the university, Lebow posted a Twitter thread condemning those who promote “sensible reforms” and desire an end to rioting. According to him, such individuals are hypocrites numbed by the “‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism.’”
Lebow continued by calling Trump the authoritarian personification of “the whole parade of terribles in society today.” He ended by stating that Democrats who are not willing to pay the price of a “juster world” are “standing a lot closer to Donald Trump than [they] are George Floyd.” When creating a good-evil dichotomy, Lebow places Trump—or anyone else who challenges his radical narrative—at the evil end.
Lebow told the Thinker that “essays that challenge the framing of prompts are often the most original and energetic responses,” and that he “would be very happy if a student tendered a submission that thoughtfully reframed the controversy and convincingly challenged any assumptions that he or she found implicit in the description.”
This is not stated in the prompt, which, as currently written, clearly seeks predetermined, left-wing answers. Moreover, Lebow’s own research and Twitter activity show that he is personally hostile to even middle-of-the-road opinions, let alone ones that challenge his own.
Lebow became associate director of LLSO, and an assistant senior instructional professor at the university, on July 1, 2020. He currently teaches the “Legal Reasoning” and “Introduction to Law, Letters, and Society” gateway courses that are required to complete the major.
According to a July 1 departmental email obtained by the Thinker, Lebow is LLSO students’ “first point of contact as [they] work [their] way through the major. He [answers] questions [that students] have about the curriculum and program requirements, he [handles] course petitions, and he [offers] his advice on law school applications and career paths in law. [Alongside Faculty Chair Jonathan Levy, Lebow is] also […] responsible for programming events and charting LLSO’s future in the College.”
Students who graduate from the LLSO Department often enroll in top law schools and then work high-level, high-paying jobs at big firms. Unfortunately, UChicago fails to prepare its LLSO students to think creatively and critically when it allows such a hyper-partisan associate director to literally offer money to students who engage in groupthink.
By elevating such a rabid partisan to a position of authority and allowing him to exchange authentic academic inquiry for his own radical, left-wing agenda, the LLSO Department undermines its own prestige. More than that, it lets down students. They deserve better.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the authors, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Matthew Heck is the Chicago Thinker's Chief Newsletter Author and Senior Editor. As a senior at the University of Chicago, he is majoring in History and Public Policy. He loves law, languages, space travel, and ancient history. His deep interest in politics dates back to when he first saw the Star Wars Prequels when he was little.
Evita Duffy is the Chicago Thinker's Managing Editor. As a senior at the University of Chicago, she studies American History and Creative Writing. She loves the Midwest, lumberjack sports, writing, & her family. Follow her on Twitter at @evitaduffy_1 or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.