A Philosopher's Blog

Why Do Professors tend to be Liberal?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2013
from Princeton University Press

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One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While there are obviously very conservative universities and conservative professors, this talking point has considerable truth behind it: professors in the United States do tend to be liberal.

Another common conservative talking point is that the academy is hostile to conservative ideas, conservative students and conservative professors. In support of this, people will point to vivid anecdotes or make vague assertions about the hostility of various allegedly dominant groups in academics, such as the feminists. There are also the usual vague claims about how professors are under the sway of Marxism.

This point does have some truth behind it in that there are anecdotes that are true, there are some groups that do  consistently express hostility to certain conservative ideas, and some professors do embrace Marxism or, worse, analytical Marxism.

Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.

As to why professors are liberal, Gross expands on an idea developed earlier: typecasting. The general idea is that professors have been typecast as liberals and this has the effect of drawing liberals and deterring conservatives. A more common version of typecasting is gender based typecasting. For example, while men and women can serve equally well as nurses, the field of nursing is still dominated by women. One reason for this is the perception that nursing is a job for women. In the case of professors, the typecasting is that it is a job for liberals. The result is that 51% of professors are Democrats, 14% Republican and the rest independent (exact numbers will vary from year to year, but the proportions remain roughly the same).

It might be thought that the stereotyping is part of a liberal plot to keep the academy unappealing to conservatives. However, the lion’s share of the stereotyping has been done by conservative pundits—they are the ones who have been working hard to convince conservatives that professors are liberal and that conservatives are not welcome. Ironically, one reason that young conservatives do not go on to become professors is that conservative pundits have worked very hard to convey the message that professorships are for liberals.

While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.

One factor worth considering is that professors have to go through graduate school in order to get the degrees they need to be professors. While there are some exceptions, being a graduate student gives a person a limited, but quite real, taste of what it is like to be poor even when one is working extremely hard.

While it was quite some time ago, I recall getting my meager paycheck and trying to budget out my money. As I recall, at one point I was making $631 a month. $305 went to rent and I went without a phone, cable, or a car. Most of the rest was spent on food (rice puffs and Raman noodles) and I had to save some each month so I could buy my books. I did make some extra money as a professional writer—enough so I could add a bit of meat to my diet.

While I was not, obviously, in true poverty I did experience what it is like to try to get by with an extremely limited income and to live in cheap housing in bad neighborhoods. Even though I now have a much better salary, that taste of poverty has stuck with me. As such, when I hear about such matters as minimum wage and actual poverty, these are not such theoretical abstractions—I know what it is like to dig through my pockets in the hope of finding a few missed coins so I can avoid the shame of having to return items at the grocery store checkout. I know what it is like to try to stretch a tiny income to cover the bills.

I have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.

Another factor worth considering is that some (but obviously not all) professors are professors because they want to be educators. It is hardly shocking that such people would tend to accept views that are cast as liberal, such as being pro-education, being in favor of financial aid for students, being in favor of intellectual diversity and tolerance of ideas, favoring freedom of expression and thought, and so on. After all, these are views that mesh well with being an educator. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. After all, some people want to train others to be just like them—that is, to indoctrinate rather than educate. However, these people are not nearly as common as the conservative talking points would indicate. But, to be fair, they do exist and they perform a terrible disservice to the students and society. Even worse, they are sometimes considered great scholars by those who share their taste in Kool Aid.

Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas. After all, what rational person would knowingly support an ideology that is directly detrimental to her profession and livelihood?

Thus, what probably helps push professors (and educators) towards liberalism and against conservatism is the hostility expressed against professors and educators by certain very vocal pundits and politicians. Fox News, for example, is well known for its demonization of educators. This hostility also leads to direct action: education budgets have been cut by Tea Party and Republican legislatures and they have been actively hostile to public educational institutions (but rather friendly to the for-profits). As such, the conservative pundits who bash educators should not express shock our outrage when educators prefer liberalism over their conservatism. Naturally, if someone insults and attacks me repeatedly, they should hardly be surprised when I do not want to embrace their professed values.

It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.

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29 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 11:10 am

    “Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas.”

    Conservatives try to stop divergent ideas? What, by arguing against them or putting people in jail or firing them for having them? Libs have the belt when it comes to thought control.

    You miss the point that you proved. Professors are liberal, that’s why conservatives speak against them. Speaking against professors is not A priori, being a liberal professor is.

    Being poor as a student is not the reason for most professors being liberal. Nearly every student is poor. Being liberal is part of the culture of professors. Being an atheist is seen as intellectual and most people who are professors want to be seen as intellectual, thus they subliminally gravitate toward atheism. What professor is better to emulate than Marx, godfather of atheism and modern liberalism?

    The fatal flaw of intellectuals is refusing to admit the limits of human knowledge. The sin of pride takes deep root, and they think they can solve everything. They lose sight of the Black Swan, or unforeseen consequences. Their arrogance leads them to believe that 10,000 years of civilization has nothing to teach them. That they know better than all the prior civilizations about what works and what does not.

    As I stated, professors espouse to be intellectuals, because it is a career of the mind. Thus they like the idea of the tabula rasa, all people are blank slates and can be properly controlled by the right thoughts and policies.

    Conservatism on the other hand, as stated by Edmund Burke, posits that human interactions are far beyond the ability of humans to completely understand at this time. The liberal looks at something that does not work, and simply says “It wasn’t done right.” The conservative looks at it and says, there is some piece of knowledge we are missing, the reason this did not work is because we don’t completely understand it.

    It is the liberal that is predominantly concerned with poverty because he makes physical satisfaction the monarch of life. Without God, there is nothing more. The liberal life is the *anti-stoic* life. Instead of understanding the positive aspects of pain, the liberal mind magnifies all pain and believes there is something wrong with the world because he feels pain. The conservative accepts pain as a stage of life, as the normal valley amid several peeks, he knows that pain will show him who he is, or perhaps the “pain” of poverty doesn’t even tough him, because he, like myself, like Ramen noodles and Coors Lite. I never once considered my poverty while in college. I was satisfied. The liberal is never satisfied, they always want more policy, more control, to tweak the world for their satisfaction, a satisfaction that never arrives.

    Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind:

    1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. “Every Tory is a realist,” says Keith Feiling: “he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.” True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

    2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society. This prejudice has been called “the conservatism of enjoyment”–a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot “the proper source of an animated Conservatism.”

    3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

    4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

    5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

    6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 23, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      My claim is not that all conservatives do those things, merely that they are often associated with conservatism. Just as professors get stereotyped as liberals of the wicked sort, people stereotype conservatives as being of the wicked sort.

      Being a liberal would be a non-essential quality of professors-after all, there are conservative professors. The claim “all professors are liberal” would not be a priori, but a posteriori. Unless you simply define professors as liberal, regardless of their actual views.

      My experience has been that many professors have “liberal” economic views explicitly because they had a taste of poverty in grad school. It is not the sole reason, but it certainly impacted my views. Working for minimum wage also impacted me as well.

      I can’t speak for all intellectuals, but most philosophers explicitly recognize the limits of human knowledge. We even have an entire field, epistemology, that addresses that exact question. Even Descartes, who believed in certainty, recognized the finite capacity of humans (see his arguments in the Meditations as to why he cannot be the cause of his idea of God).

      Intellectuals, that is folks who think about stuff, often explicitly recognize their debt to previous thinkers. Newton does this very directly and most philosophers give Plato and Aristotle credit for really laying the foundations of Western thought.

      There are some tabula rasa folks. Being a Cartesian, I think they have it wrong. Innate ideas is the way to go.

      • magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm

        Too many of the catastrophically bad ideas imposed on mankind have been planned by intellectuals. The poverty/crime/misery matrix is mostly a false dilemma. As Russell Kirk is quoted above, and I think you feel the same way, most political problems are in fact moral problems and are almost impossible to fix with external laws and regulations. Internal regulations work better. I see a man without a coat in the cold, I give him a coat, I don’t wait for a law that will be badly implemented to tell me to give him a coat.

      • magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm

        And yes they will mouth acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge–they they will support Obamacare.

      • magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm

        The roots of liberality among professors has much more to do with with culture than economics. The central root is, “Critical Theory”. Many educated people think a certain way, but they don’t really know the true reasons they think the way they do, much like Western people think like Christians and don’t realize it.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Liberal and Conservative, Communist and Fascist, MSNBC and Fox News, Democrat and Republican, are false oppositions fronts.

    You’re like a man who is tied up facing a wall who watches and comments upon what the shadows on the wall are doing, unaware there is a fire behind you, and people walking back and forth in front of the fire casting the shadows on the wall. If someone were to tell you there is a world outside the cave you’re in you would think them insane.

    Liberal and Conservative, Communist and Fascist, MSNBC and Fox News, Democrat and Republican are shadows cast upon the wall by the peoples who manage our perceptions.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2afuTvUzBQ

  3. TJB said, on December 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    It is actually quite tragic that the policies adopted by the Dems turn out to be harmful to the very people they are trying to help. Who has really gained under Obama? The very rich and big business. Who has lost? Poor people, seniors, young people.

    Just because people are well-intentioned does not relieve them of responsibility for bad outcomes.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2013 at 11:52 am

      Obama is mostly just more of the same. He no doubt had some good intentions, but results are what impact people.

  4. magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    By the way, I do believe that many liberals and many of the Communists in the past, especially in the US, were driven by a desire to help those in poverty. But they need to stop accusing conservatives of being evil and trying to hurt poor people and students.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2013 at 11:51 am

      Not all conservatives are bad folks-most are not. However, there are plenty of bad people that do things to hurt people.

  5. magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    One of the reasons I stopped being a cop. Who do you think these people voted for? TJ, if you dealt with these types on a daily basis, you’d want to punch people, too.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2527748/Emergency-services-busy-night-Mad-Friday-descends.html

    • Anonymous said, on December 23, 2013 at 5:29 pm

      I don’t envy the cops who have to deal with these people. They are the end result of the liberal project. Their needs are taken care of, but they have no purpose to their lives.

      • magus71 said, on December 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm

        As one comment aptly noted: Watch a Clockwork Orange and see where we’re headed. A society of feral children. One step before the totalitarian regimes steps in to restore order. As my 1st Sergeant likes to say: “Police yourselves or I’ll police you. You won’t like it when I police you.”

        Mike, do your part and start reminding people of their personal responsibilities, not only what society owes them.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2013 at 11:49 am

          We do have obligations to others, but these are no more important than the responsibilities we should have. People who think they are owed, but owe nothing in return are either children or scoundrels.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2013 at 11:51 am

      That is why I think video games prevent far more violence than they contribute to. Many a time have I vented a bad day onto bad aliens. Take that bad aliens.

      • TJB said, on December 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm

        I think this is right.

      • magus71 said, on December 24, 2013 at 2:18 pm

        Perhaps, though it’s a tough sell if you consider violent crime rates pre and post video game era. Pong debuted in 1972; from 1972 to 1992, rape, robbery, assault and violent crime in total doubled. I’m not buying that games reduce crime. Negligible effect, maybe. I play video games, though I cannot play GTA. My own experience with the modern video gamer is that they are not that violent because they don’t have the ability to be; they are more apt to engage in what is classically female psychological manipulation ie passive/aggressive behavior. They are less physically capable, less dexterous, more susceptible to pain, more likely to quit at the first sign that real life does not allow them to complete complex actions at the mere pressing of a button. In fact, real life takes years to get really good at complex things.

        http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm

  6. magus71 said, on December 24, 2013 at 8:18 am

    A professor’s liberal roots:

  7. Nicole said, on December 26, 2013 at 10:33 am

    While I agree with and disagree with some of your statements in the article, I think perhaps you flew right past the one I would want to look into more – that being that people tend to prefer people like themselves. We display self-organizing behaviors in all sort of environments, we collect in areas of like people (China towns, little Italy, etc..), and we certainly show preference to surrounding ourselves with people who are share interests and beliefs with us. That said, anyone who is aware of the culture of higher ed knows that long-term employment and tenure at a university is almost exclusively a social decision because of the way it takes place. Peer review is relevant for publication, for tenure, for.. really everything involved in higher ed – so there is a huge influence of this peer choice behavior on who remains in academia (or gets in at all through the notorious interview process). Once peers start gaining shared beliefs among some, following a self-organizing pattern of subconscious narcissistic preference, it would make sense that they would give preference to those who are like themselves, share the same interests, concerns, and passions, and fall on the same side of contentious arguments in academe.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 27, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Good points. As you note, institutions often function on the “un/like us” principle when it comes to who belongs and who progresses. That said, some faculty do make the effort to decide on the basis of merit. Unfortunately, this is not as common as it should be.

      It is worth considering whether or not universities are special offenders here or if they (as you yourself indicate) merely follow the standard pattern that occurs across the board in institutions and organizations.

  8. apollonian said, on December 29, 2013 at 1:39 am

    Pssst: “Liberalism” Is Actually Just Fascism

    Hi Mike: I was phil. major too, but to get the major I found I had to go through hostile Kantians, myself being staunch Aristotelian–then I had to give it up (for the major), ended up Hist. major–at least that’s “phil. teaching by example,” eh?

    Well, to address ur thesis pt., note our society, and indeed, entire culture, is dominated, blatantly now, by CRIMINALS–those running that legalized COUNTERFEITING scam (literally), the US Federal Reserve Bank (“Fed”)–see RealityZone.com for best expo, also Mises.org.

    Thus the Fed prints-up and digitalizes nearly INFINITE funds by which to buy and/or control all large corp.s, many if not most small ones, including the mass-corp. “news”-media, all politicians and judges (w. very few exceptions), public edjumacation, and perhaps most tragically, all the establishment churches. W. infinite money monopoly, u see, the Fed literally owns and controls the ENTIRE society.

    So, u see, it really is the “empire of lies” that rules, confirming Oswald Spengler’s CYCLIC thesis of “Decline of the West,” whence a society/culture begins in Aristotelian objectivity, achieves “success” (ho ho ho) and victory, becomes prosperous and wealthy, then passes most grossly into HUBRIS and subjectivism, pretending to “good-evil” and a perfectly “free” God-like will–whence the people are corrupt and susceptible to frauds like the present Fed–see also Ron Paul’s excellent expositions on the Fed subject.

    Sooooooooo, when u say “liberal,” what u mean really is weaklings and half-wit losers who GO ALONG w. the criminal regime–and they KNOW what will happen to them if they don’t go along.

    Thus TRUTH TRUTH TRUTH is destroyed (at least in the minds of many people) by means of “good”–as planned and plotted by Leo Strauss (the “noble lie”).

    Put in only slightly diff. terms, Objectivity (Aristotle) is eventually transformed (in the social mind, anyway) to SUBJECTIVISM, upon the Kantian excuse/pretext of “morality”/Pharisaism–this is where we are now, headed swiftly to the rock-bottom, as US Dollar steadily collapses–it’s a CYCLIC historical process, u see. “Good” is the excuse for terrorism and dictatorship, u see. Thus Ignorance (secrecy) is strength (security), according to Orwell.

    So now u see why EVERYONE (not just professors) has to be “liberal” (just a synonym nowadays for fascist)–which liberalism” (dictatorship) we see the gays now enforcing w. the “Duck Dynasty,” for example. U might not be fascist, just don’t get in its way, get it?–if u know what’s good for u, see? Ho ho ho

  9. […] Why Do Professors tend to be Liberal? (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]


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