Thursday, April 07, 2005

Conservative Academics and Liberal Angst

Hm, so blogger bug is fixed for Firefox but not Safari. How very annoying.

There is a slightly bizarre public squabble over a couple of bad surveys which claims academics are excessively liberal (and by implication unrepresentative, and therefore presumably there should be some affirmative action for Conservative Profs, or something. ).

See Sean's take on this
and Krugman NYT editorial, and just for fun, the Penn State edition of the "controversy".

Much sage comment has been expended on this tempest. Noting simple truisms, such as the inaccuracy of excluding independents, the poor sampling of the survey and the innate tendencies of self-identfied Republicans to not take academic jobs. These are slightly non-trivial considerations; for example a fair fraction of US faculty are non-US citizens, especially in the sciences where people tend to be more politically conservative (and, yes, your stereotypical western European is more liberal, but there are a lot of ex-Communist nation and 3rd world nation faculty who may tend to be seriously conservative in important ways, or not).

On a larger scale the issue is not so much to get more Republican Professors hired (I mean if they were any good they wouldn't be teaching, as we know, they'd be in the Beltway launderingcirculating contributions to lawmakers.
One should also be careful for what one wishes for, Bérubé has a brilliant blog entry on Real Life in Academia as it would be for Distinguished Republican Professors in a Just World.... ), rather (and did you all get the subtle nesting of clauses here?), the issue is to establish an atmosphere of intimidation so that liberal faculty shut up and don't subvert students (now, where DID I put my copy of "Teaching as a Subversive Activity..."?). Establish the controversy, move the middle ground, and watch all Reasonable Men and Women scurry for cover so as not to actually offend anyone.

But, is this really true? There are several puzzles here.

  • Are Republicans really conservative? I'd argue Not. Current Republican leaders and ideology are Radical, possibly even Revanchist. But not conservative (as a few remaining Republican Conservatives have belatedly started noticing). Does that mean Democrats are Conservative. Well, yeah, sorta; they made a lot of political gains in the last 40-70 years, and their main policy is to hold on to and consolidate those gains. That is Conservative. The real Radical fringe of the Democrats tends to lean environmentalist, where The Good Fight is still being fought (and where a Environmentalist + Christian Right allegiance is one of the more "interesting" possible realignments (cf Creation Care Movement), but the Democratic Leadership is really sort of Clinton Conservatives.

  • If you become a Conservative Academic, do you stay one? I honestly don't know. On the one hand there is the subtle irony of the TV adaptation of "The History Man" (spoiler - he votes for Thatcher in 1983). And then there is the common phenomena of the conservative middle class student of conservative parents, who discovers Radicalism of some variety in the first 18 months of University, fights The Good Fight to graduation and the goes into middle management and votes their economic interest, figuring the social issues will never affact Their Family.
    So what is the point. Well, if that student (initially conservative) becomes Junior Faculty instead of Middle Management, will they relapse into knee-jerk conservatism, or vote liberal under peer pressure? Someone should quantify this.

  • Finally, academics are getting older, and on average as people get older they get more conservative. Is the perceived liberalism of proferssors mostly a memory of the 70s, and are they really mostly little "c" conservatives, who vote Democrat nationally out of fond memory of their youth? (Or, more likely register Democrat and vote Republican - someone did. A lot of someones...).

But, really, this is just jealousy of some transient political class, with some money but no persistence, at the beauty of the eternal self-perpetuating oligarchy powerhouse that is The University. They are Wannabes, who want to join the club without jumping through the hoops. One sign of this are the untold Foundations and ThinkTanks cropping up around the Beltway, they are holding places for temporarily unemployed political conservatives, and by their nature self-perpetuating oligarchies. Except they tend to rely on sugar daddies for funding, a more uncertain lifestyle than the University niche (sugar daddies being notoriously more fickle than even State Legislatures). I bet we see some of the more respectable ThinkTanks absorbed into suitable nearby universities for both institutions sake (Hoover Institution, anyone?).

So what is the point here? Finally.
Well, academics are not intrinsically liberal (or even Democratic), and I would argue that as a group they are generally quite little "c" conservative. That the periods of progressivity and radicalism are rare, quite limited, and only apparent in so far as academia is a little bit more tolerant and nurturing of such than society in general, some of the time. And a significant reason for lack of Republicans among US academic faculty, to the extent it is even true, is that the Republicans are Radical, and Radical in a way that is counter to the interests and inclinations of much of academia.


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