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December 08, 2004

academia as a liberal bastion

A lot of people are talking about the dominance of liberals in academia. (See, for instance, Timothy Burke). Some of this discussion was prompted by campaign finance data suggesting that professors at prestigious universities had preferred Kerry by huge margins and, indeed, represented the Democrats' single strongest financial base. Not only comp-lit professors and ethnographers tend to be leftists. The eminent Harvard biologist (and left-liberal) Richard Lewontin writes:

Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time.

My own observations of social scientists and humanists support Lewontin's claim about natural scientists. But why should liberals predominate in academia? I'll offer five hypotheses for your consideration and invite you to think of more:

1. Faculty discriminate (consciously or unconsciously) against conservatives when they hire and promote peers. This is a widespread charge from the right; it usually provokes an ad hominem reply from liberals, namely: "How can you believe that decision-makers in a competitive, decentralized business routinely discriminate on the basis of political ideology (even in fields like molecular biology), yet you deny that employers discriminate on the basis of race and gender? If they do discriminate on these grounds, then don't we need affirmative action for women, minorities, and (possibly) conservatives?" That's a good debating point, but it doesn't rule out the possibility that there is some ideological discrimination in academic hiring. The next question is whether some of that (alleged) discrimination is acceptable. For example, biology departments surely "discriminate" against Creationists, thereby excluding one category of conservatives from their ranks. Is that wrong? To what extent does such defensible bias explain the dominance of liberals across the academy?

2. Perhaps academics are a class--not a great stratum of society like the bourgeoisie or the peasantry, but a social/economic group akin to the clergy or the landed gentry in olden times. They make a living in a particular context (competitive but non-profit, secular, globalized, specialized, and very dependent on state subsidies); and this context affects their interests and colors their perspectives. If this is true, we must ask whether the academic "class" is merely biased in its own interests or whether it brings an enlightened perspective to American politics. Other American groups are profoundly influenced by industry and commerce and/or religion, usually Christianity. These powerful forces make us more conservative than any other developed nation. Perhaps a class that is insulated from the market and religion offers a valuable corrective, much as monks countered the dominance of feudal lords in medieval Europe.

3. Perhaps it's the Schlegels versus the Wilcoxes (the two families in Howard's End). In other words, perhaps middle class business-people believe that you should make products and meet a payroll. They think it is always problematic to live on tax money or charity and produce products without market value. They know that some people must work in the public sector, but they doubt the efficiency, motives, and merits of public employees. In contrast, academics (along with some writers, teachers, and social workers) believe that business people merely pursue their own narrow, economic interests and manipulate people into consuming disposable "stuff." Business has no intrinsic merit. The highest calling is education, or scholarship, or creativity. These two perspectives are most consistent with conservatism and liberalism, respectively. (There are other perspectives too, such as the attitude of the military officer class, some of whom believe that their subjection to discipline and physical danger make them more moral than either business people or professors.) In my view, there is truth in the perspectives of both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes.

4. Perhaps something other than academic culture underlies the tendency for academics to vote Democratic. Maybe the people who dominate universities are (for complex reasons) more likely than average Americans to be Jewish or Asian, to come from big East-coast cities, and to have graduated from college between 1965 and 1975. Perhaps these factors explain a large portion of the correlation between academic employment and partisan identification. On the other hand, professors seem less likely than other Americans to be Black, Latino, or female.

5. Or perhaps conservatives who are seriously interested in politics are happier out of academia, because universities are not very influential compared to think-tanks and Congressional staffs. In September 2003, David Brooks told a now-famous story about the conservative professor Harvey Mansfield: "Last week the professors at Harvard's government department reviewed the placement records of last year's doctoral students. Two had not been able to find academic jobs, both of them Mansfield's students. 'Well,' Mansfield quipped, 'I guess they'll have to go to Washington and run the country.'"

Posted by peterlevine at December 8, 2004 11:30 AM


The Schlegels vs. Wilcoxes point is perfect.

Posted by: PW at December 8, 2004 12:59 PM

Perhaps another possibility is to look at academia as a social movement. Today's senior professors went to universities in the 60's and 70's, and they seem to me to be locked into defending what was that generation's radical agenda. From data on CIRCLE I recall seeing, there has been a shift towards a more conservative college student population and perhaps that the ideological balance in academic community will shift in the coming decades when some of them assume leadership positions.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at December 8, 2004 04:53 PM

Posted by: coturnix at December 9, 2004 06:09 PM

Juan Cole posted some comments on this very issue a few weeks ago, ultimately coming to a conclusion similar to #5:

The most logical explanation for any political bias in some parts of the professoriate in my view is that the sort of persons with the skills to be in a major academic liberal arts department could also be successful in business, lobbying, law, advertising and other well-paying professions.

Posted by: Michael at December 14, 2004 07:43 PM

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