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Commentary | JONATHAN CHAIT

Why Academia Shuns Republicans

December 10, 2004|JONATHAN CHAIT

A few weeks ago, a pair of studies found that Democrats vastly outnumbered 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? After all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party?

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.

They don't, however, have much evidence to back this up. 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.)

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. 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.

This no doubt makes things hard on prospective conservative academics, not to mention mainstream liberal ones. 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."

But the rise of fashionable left-wing scholarship can be blamed for only a tiny part of the GOP's problem. 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?

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. 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. 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. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.

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?

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. These were Republican-appointed wonks whose know-how on topics such as global warming, the national debt and occupying Iraq were systematically ignored. Bush prefers to follow his gut.

In the world of academia, that's about the nastiest thing you can say about somebody. 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," 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."

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. There's a problem with this picture, all right, but it doesn't lie with academia.

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