Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why American professors are so darn liberal: Take #873,231

The seemingly intermittent but seemingly unending debate about the “liberal bias” of American university professors is one that, despite my better judgment, I just can’t get enough of. The debate about professorial leftism interests me not only because it hits so close to home but also because views on this subject reflect important assumptions about the place of universities in American society, and also about that society itself. Consider the phrase in scare quotes above: The word ‘bias’ is obviously loaded, and it implicitly frames the question in terms of why the views of professors diverge from those of other Americans. But I submit that the question ought to be turned around: Why do the views of Americans diverge so widely from the rest of the world? For the views of American professors (surveys on this often focus more narrowly on faculty in the humanities and social sciences, and so will I) are really not extreme in comparison with the opinions of educated people in the larger world. If left-wingers are concentrated in academia, it is because repression, both violent and implicit, has made this the only corner of our extremely right-wing society where otherwise unremarkable views can be uttered freely.

Consider, as an example, your humble blogger. I truly am The Liberal Professor. I am an atheist and a democratic socialist. I believe that the death penalty is immoral, that U.S. foreign policy is aggressive and militaristic, and that American abhorrence of sex underlies many of our social problems. I’m embarrassed to see people sleeping in boxes within sight of the White House, and to hear our President launch a war with the words “God bless America.” In short, I’m everything your conservative dad warned you about when you left for college.
These views of mine make it impossible (in case there were any question about this!) for me to run for national political office. In only a few isolated pockets of the country could a candidate with views like mine have a chance at elective office— and most of those pockets contain large universities. In Germany, on the other hand, where I have lived and whose culture I have studied, my views make me the most boring sort of centrist. And Germany, it should be noted, is a solidly capitalist, democratic Western country.
The comparison with world opinion is the relevant one, because in addition to having advanced degrees and tolerant attitudes toward controversial ideas, university faculty are generally like me in having studied practices and ideas of distant places and times. More simply, they know about the whole world, or at least not just the small sliver of it in North America. It is thus not surprising that their opinions correspond most closely to those of the whole world, or, more precisely, to the opinions of other educated people in the industrialized world.

Belief in God is a good illustration of this. Statistics on belief in God are not very reliable, because much depends on what questions are asked (for example, whether agnosticism and belief in a ‘higher power’ are offered as options); on how terms are understood (such as the meaning of ‘belief in God’); and on social pressures that can distort responses (in a highly religious society, for example, it might be embarrassing to confess to doubts about God). Still, there seems to be strong evidence that on the whole the religious views of American college professors resemble those of their colleagues in other Western nations but not those of their pious countrymen. If, as I suspect, college professors are also more likely than other Americans to favor a significant role for government in the economy, in that respect too their views are extreme only in relation to other Americans, who are themselves, from a global perspective, “outside the mainstream.”

This post was inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, which in turn reported the findings of a sociological study of the American professoriate, and I cannot refrain from making one remark about both the Times piece and its source. The chief finding of the study is that American professors are liberal because they are perceived as being liberal, and thus the profession attracts young people who identify themselves as liberal. More specifically, professors are more liberal than other Americans “because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas.”

My only quarrel is with the first word: ‘because.’ It comes as no great surprise that professors and liberals tend to share these traits, but pointing this out surely doesn’t tell anyone why professors are liberal, only that they are so, with some instructive detail added. Even if it is true that students choose academic careers in large part because of their political views and their perceptions of the profession, we still need an explanation why this particular part of our society has proven so attractive to people with left-of-center views.

Though I do not have rigorous empirical data to back this up, it seems to me that part of the answer has to have something to do with the inhospitability of most of America toward anything remotely tainted with ‘socialism.’ Of course, a river of ink has been spilled on the topic of why socialism never succeeded in America. But the story on that subject, as on the one at issue here, has to make mention of the history of straightforward repression of left-wing views in this country. Since at least 1919 the specter of Communism has been used to drive leftists out many of the niches they occupy in other industrialized countries, chiefly the labor movement but also journalism and the entertainment industry. In the process, careers have been ruined and innocent people imprisoned and even killed. In short, one main reason why even moderate leftists (like yours truly) are drawn to academia is because it is one of the few roles in American society from which their views do not disqualify them.


  1. Ted, you need to clarify the terms "liberal" and "left-winger." Are these synonyms for you? You write that, for European countries such as Germany, your views are centrist, and that Germany "is a solidly capitalist, democratic Western country." Later you say that, "from a global perspective" the views of Americans in general are "outside of the mainstream," particularly when it comes to government's influence in a national economy. Leftists certainly support Big Government, but a true liberal believes in freedom and individual liberty. Individual liberty is the foundation of a capitalist society, if Germany is really "solidly capitalist" and democratic, then the "demos," the people, must believe that individualism is more important than a Big Government controlled economy, hence, they're not as Left-wing as you might think. I must recommend two short works by the Austrian thinker F.A. Hayek, "The Road to Serfdom" and "Socialism: The Fatal Conceit." Both works discuss the Leftist views that came out of Weimar and mid-20th century Germany. The United States was and is liberal. The arguments of American revolutionary thinkers centered around individual liberty, the conservatives back then were the ones who supported a powerful central government and the authority of a monarch. Those conservatives had faith in their King, and this is much more consistent with 20th and 21st century Leftist governments, for instance, in Latin America. Furthermore, speaking of Latin America, you use your non-belief in God as an example of what distinguishes you, a professor, from other Americans. Think of professors teaching in socialist Latin American countries where Roman Catholicism is thoroughly ingrained in society. Do you think that a Leftist government has done anything to console your Latin American counterpart who, if he wants to go into town, has to push his way through a parade of "Nazarenos" flagellating themselves all week during Semana Santa?

    I personally don't care where my professors stand politically, but I don't believe that Rightist/conservatives should be blackballed.

  2. A little Hayek is a dangerous thing.

    PJN--the term "liberal" to mean a free marketer is simply archaic. It hasn't been used in that sense for close to 150 years. And the "liberals" of the 18th century you cite were all very afraid--most notably Smith and Burke--that free markets eroded ethics and needed to be supplemented by constructs such as the "spirit of the gentleman." Hardly a democratic ideal.

    "Individualism" as the basis of liberty and capitalism is a quaintly American ideal. Toqueville coined the word because there was no such word in the European lexicon. And there still isn't.

    No, it's not a question of "Big Government," you know, those guys who rent grazing rights on public lands to "individualistic" ranchers or who use federal money to build irrigation systems so that "individualistic" farmers in water-poor states can grow their produce. Individualists have no problem with government programs that suit their economic interests.

    It's just that the rest of the world doesn't distinguish as you do the difference between public goods and personal ones--that it is in everyone's best interest to have adequate health-care for everyone, that prophelaxis is more cost-effective than crisis intervention, that universal childcare, etc is important so that the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs can actually keep the whole thing going.

    "Big government" is a bogeyman as is the notion that there actually is an individual out there who is not a part of the main.

    I have been in academia for more than a quarter of a century. I have never seen a conservative blackballed. That's a canard that members of the right tell themselves at night to make them feel oppressed. They shouldn't. They've got the power. The rest of us just know the history.

  3. David,

    You critize the way I use the term 'liberal,' but you offer no correction. So, I can only assume, you make no distinction between liberal and Leftist? Funny. I would think the difference would be glaring considering the real oppression and brutality committed by Left-wing regimes around the world. As a true liberal, I want to distance myself from Castro, Chavez, Jong Il, etc. I've never seen a conservative blackballed either, I was merely saying that the "liberal bias" in academia doesn't bother me, as long as there isn't any active discrimination.

  4. Thank you, David. I posted a reply to this earlier today but for some reason it didn't 'take.' You've made basically the same points I did only better. I'll add just a couple of things.

    One must be very careful to separate 'leftism' and 'liberty' as you do. This risks ignoring the strong tradition of leftist thought focused on human freedom. Even the Communists wanted to abolish the state, at least in theory. Beyond this, there is democratic socialism, left liberalism, and anarchism. This last reminds me that a couple of students came to my class the other day wearing shirts declaring them "anarcho-capitalists," which makes sense only if you know nothing about the history of those conjoined terms.

    Second, the case about 'blackballing' of academic conservatives is particularly hard to make at George Mason. All the most lavishly funded units in our cash-starved university are those associated with the right. Faculty in those units earn far more money, and have many more opportunities for outside support, than anyone else in the humanities and social sciences. They are also more openly and monolithically ideological than any other units. Most of the left or liberal faculty I know would love to be discriminated against as they are.

  5. Dear Ted,

    I think we could have a very interesting discussion if you are interested in having one, because I'm your complete opposite: a conservative, right-leaning European (Hungary/Britain/Austria).

    Where to start?

    I was not raised religious or anything like that (that doesn't happen often in a Commie country like my homeland, Hungary was in 1978).

    My move to the Right is entirely on my own, of having been disillusioned with the modern world, and having found pre-modern thinkers from Aristotle to Burke have more depth to offer about human life than Rawls, Marx or Mill.

    However I'm not just a man who has some convictions and wants to push them on others. Er actually I do that sometimes - I think we all do it sometimes - but the point is that my curiosity is stronger than my conviction. I'm really curious about why do I hold these ideas and why do other people like you hold the opposite ones.

    After much thinking and browsweat and whatnot, I found the following hypothesis. 90% of the usual Right-winger and Left-winger ideas do not count. Liberty, natural rights, positive rights, planning, markets, justice as fairness, justice as private property - they all do not count.

    Basically I think the most important difference between us is the following. Leftists do not want to make moral judgements, value judgements: what are the better or worse ways to live, how should one live, what is the proper purpose of human life, what is virtue, who is a virtuous person, who is not, what does one deserve, what does one not, and so on.

    I think this is the major difference: one becomes a conservative by not being afraid of making such judgments.

    (to becontinued below/abowe, however this comment engine works)

  6. continuation from prev. comment:

    Now there is something I have to make clear. Conservatives there, in America, are of two kinds.
    Either the Bible types who think what is virtuous and who deserves what and how people should live is written in a book. I don't believe that. But OTOH I don't believe either what your Leftists say that such things are unknowable or saying such is "oppressive". I think these things are knowable but are hard to know: we just have to guesstimate. And then that our traditional, pre-modern, evolved, pre-intellectual social conditions represented society's best evolved guess about such things.

    Or the Libertarian types who want to make a sort of "liberal conservatism". They want a free market without a concept of virtue, deserve, or a proper way to live. I think they are philosophically wrong - because they are in the essence liberals, where liberal means = thinking virtue, deserving or a proper way to live is epistemologically unknowable, as Max Weber had wrongly thought it, are "demonic", that means, not open to rational debate - while their practical goals like smal govt happen to be right but only by mistake, only by a chance, only by luck. It just happens to be right only because modern big-govt is equalizing, i.e. it speicifically tries to assign goods not by virtue, not by meriting it, not by deserving it, but by needs, and therefore having less government would automatically lead to more rewarding of virtue and merit, but this is not a law of nature like Libertarians say but simply an empirical feature of our modern governments and societies, that on a free market virtue and merit creates his own reward and therefore equalized distribution tends to reward vice and punish virtue. This does not necessarily mean all kinds of active governments must be so and therefore must be bad. The libertarians are wrong in basic philosophy and only happen to be right just because their opponents happen to be the Leftists who do not believe in virtue and merit and deserving things. They do not believe one person can be better than the other. Other kinds of big governments, like a Platonic type who does believe in it and sees governing as "soulcraft", of creating virtuous citizens, could be OK. But lacking that the free market is a better virtue-crafter than coercion because in the free market if you want to be greedy, if you want to exercise this vice, you at least have to give before you take. While with government you can take without giving. This is what makes the libertarians right in practice but still wrong in philosophy.

    Here in Europe it is different, there are some real conservatives f.e. aristotelean monarchists.

    I'm interested in your thoughts. It is fun to talk to one's mirror image.