The Right Coast

December 11, 2004
Conservatives in academia
By Tom Smith

I couldn’t resist. My comments are in italics. Chait’s piece appeared in the L.A. Times (registration undesirable). Hat tip to Steve Bainbridge.

Why Academia Shuns Republicans
Jonathan Chait

A few weeks ago, a pair of studies found that Democrats vastly out numbered Republicans among professors at leading universities. Conservatives gleefully seized upon this to once again flagellate academia for its liberal bias.

Am I the only person who fails to understand why conservatives see this finding as vindication? No. But most people who fail to understand it are too embarrassed to admit it, let alone write a column advertising their density to the world. After all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Studies show it! Good Lord, I had no idea! Do the studies also show that “some of the best-educated, most-informed [sic] people in the country” are conservatives? How could that be? There are actually some of both? Let’s see, here’s a very well educated Democrat and over here, there’s a very well educated Republican. The mind boggles! Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party? Could somebody else step in on this one? I’m still trying to grasp the idea that there could be both well-educated Democrats AND well-educated Republicans. Is this one of those quantum puzzles?

Conservatives have a ready answer. The only reason faculties lean so far to the left is that deans, administrators and entire university cultures systematically discriminate against conservatives. I too find this implausible, as it is hard to imagine university administrators systematically doing anything.

They don't, however, have much evidence to back this up. It is one of those areas of academic research that is curiously neglected, along with the tendency of male professors to be bald and overweight. Mostly, they assume that the leftward tilt is prima facie evidence of anti-conservative discrimination. (Yet, when liberals hold up minority underrepresentation at some institutions as proof of discrimination, conservatives are justifiably skeptical.) I wonder whether Chait would be comfortable with the consequence of his argument, however, that blacks, women, etc. etc. are also underrepresented because they are stupider and don’t want to be professors anyway.

Conservative pundit George Will recently tied the dearth of conservative professors to the quasi-Marxist outlook in African American studies, women's studies and cultural studies. And at many campuses, those departments certainly don't amount to much more than left-wing propaganda factories. As opposed to the L.A. Times It's also true that radical multiculturalist theory — which sees white male oppression as the key to everything — has taken root in plenty of more mainstream disciplines. Driving out more traditional forms of stupidity.

This no doubt makes things hard on prospective conservative academics, not to mention mainstream liberal ones. Not to mention the effect it has on your argument. In logical circles, we call this a big, fat counter-example. But please, continue. A historian I know (a liberal) used to complain that history departments showed little interest in the traditional research he did, only caring about subjects like "buggery in the British navy." Are you saying there’s something wrong with naval buggery? What kind of Neanderthal are you?

But the rise of fashionable left-wing scholarship can be blamed for only a tiny part of the GOP's problem. And that’s what the studies show. Didn’t you see that study in Nature? “Tiny part”. It said so. The studies showing that academics prefer Democrats to Republicans also show that this preference holds in hard sciences as well as social sciences. Are we to believe that higher education has fallen prey to trendy multiculturalist engineering, or that physics departments everywhere suppress conservative quantum theorists? No, but if you are a conservative Republican at MIT or Berkeley, and you want an academic job, maybe you should keep your mouth shut. But look at the bright side. At least female grad students no longer have to sleep with their advisors. But wait! Studies show that never happened!

The main causes of the partisan disparity on campus have little to do with anything so nefarious as discrimination. First, Republicans don't particularly want to be professors. Which this author knows because of his deep insight into The Conservative Mind. You have to understand. Conservatives are a simple people, an instinctive people, with a fondness for music, dancing and strong drink. To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. And you have to willing to use that mind to come up with something better than patently self-serving clichés. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. That is true. They prefer having more money in their pocket while imposing sacrifices on the less affluent to finance programs that actively undermine their stated goals but at least give their proponents the chance to pose as morally superior. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices. It is true academia offers more opportunities for the latter than does Wall Street, where unlike academia, people are known to be really mean.

Second, professors don't particularly want to be Republicans. In recent years, and especially under George W. Bush, Republicans have cultivated anti-intellectualism. Remember how Bush in 2000 ridiculed Al Gore for using all them big numbers? Well, it was funny, but OK. Lockbox! Lockbox! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

That's not just a campaign ploy. It's how Republicans govern these days. Last summer, my colleague Frank Foer wrote a cover story in the New Republic detailing the way the Bush administration had disdained the advice of experts. And not liberal experts, either. They weren’t liberal, really. They were EXPERTS. These were Republican-appointed wonks whose know-how on topics such as global warming, and movies about global warming, the national debt about which liberals care deeply and occupying Iraq were systematically ignored. Bush prefers to follow his gut. Well, it’s a very valuable thing in a President to be able to ignore experts. Global warming is a perfect topic to which to bring large amounts of skepticism. And the entire Soviet studies industry was wrong about the Soviet Union, yet Reagan wasn’t.

In the world of academia, that's about the nastiest thing you can say about somebody. No, the nastiest thing you can say is that somebody is a Republican. Bush's supporters consider it a compliment. "Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, admire leaders who are straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book smart," He has to have good judgment wrote conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks a week before the election. "Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize … being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who see complexities, who possess the virtues of the well-educated." Like many columnists, Brooks is given to over-simplifying.

It so happens that, in other columns, Brooks has blamed the dearth of conservative professors on ideological discrimination. In fact, the GOP is just being rejected by those who not only prefer their leaders to think complexly but are complex thinkers themselves. “Think complexly”? How about “write well”? There's a problem with this picture, all right, but it doesn't lie with academia.

Jonathan, this a good first draft. However, I would try next time to rely a little less on tired cultural stereotypes such as “Democrats are smart/Republicans are stupid; Democrats are altruistic/Republicans are greedy.” I know what you mean, but as we discussed in class, we want to exercise “critical thinking”! Ask yourself, what is the best argument I could make for the position opposite mine? Even force yourself to write something from that POV—a useful exercise! So, for example, could it be that even slight discrimination in a highly competitive industry could have large impacts? Could the absence of role models have an affect on conservatives? Could liberals be so convinced of the correctness of their positions that it affects their judgments as to the quality of scholarship, when really it is just the politics of it they object to? Is there a role for ideological diversity in the university environment? So, might it be desirable to have more conservatives around, even if they are somewhat stupider? Also, avoid awkward phrases such as ‘think complexly.’ If your point is you and your pals are smarter than most Americans, it comes across as a little . . . ironic.