Chris Mooney has has a new article in The American Prospect about the Republican war on expertise. There are a lot of interesting nuggets, but Chris somehow manages to avoid making the really obvious point.
First, let’s set the tone:
Increasingly, the parties are divided over expertise–with much more of it residing among liberals and Democrats, and with liberals and Democrats much more aligned with the views of scientists and scholars. More fundamentally, the parties are increasingly divided over reality itself: over what is actually true, not only about hard science but also social science and simple policy facts such as the contents of the health-care bill.
One is reminded of Stephen Colbert’s maxim, mentioned in the article, that reality has a well-known liberal bias.
But in the next paragraph things start getting weird:
There’s no doubt these two divides are connected, but the relationship between them isn’t necessarily straightforward. It’s not as if all the brains are on one side, and there’s a total lack of them on the other. So before glorying in the fact that we have more facts, liberals might consider first blowing into an intellectual breathalyzer, to be sure we’re not too intoxicated by our own seeming brilliance. After all, one thing our expertise does not appear to be doing is bringing the country back from the brink of a fully postmodern and fact-free discourse. In fact, it may even be contributing to the problem.
I would say that what the other side has is not so much brains as it is evil geniuses. But seriously, we shouldn’t glory in the fact that we have more facts? I would have thought that having the facts on your side is a good thing. I assume the point here is that, in a political context, just having the facts is not enough. The facts must be presented in a way that resonates with people, which requires a certain understanding of human psychology. That’s a decent point, but I hate the style of writing that makes it sound like a criticism that liberals actually care about getting the facts right. (Blow into an intellectual breathalyzer? For heaven’s sake!)
From here the article discusses the general leftward slant of university professors, countered by the rise of think tanks. Mooney points out that right-wing counter-experts, on climate science, evolution, and gay parenting, for example, are never actually successful in placing a dent in the scientific consensus on these issues. Eventually we come to this:
We are now getting to the complicated question of why most academics today are liberal. Surely the rightward movement of the Republican Party has something to do with it, as do the repeated attacks on academia from the conservative movement over the decades. Ironically, though, one key premise of these attacks–the idea that institutions of higher education make one a liberal, through a kind of brainwashing process–is questionable. More and more evidence suggests that for most of us, our political identities are already largely determined well before we reach the point of choosing career paths, and then we select desirable life choices (a doctorate, for one) based in part on those identities. Neil Gross’ research with Fosse and Fresse, for instance, suggests that the expertise gap is likely the result of a “self-selection process,” fueled by the fact that for liberals, academic jobs hold prestige–but for conservatives, they’re not considered attractive nowadays. That’s partly because academia has been repeatedly smeared as a liberal bastion and perhaps also partly because of differing values: Ambitious and smart conservatives would rather work on Wall Street.
However, the researchers admit that their analysis can’t rule out another explanation supported by growing evidence–the idea that conservatives and liberals are just different, in aggregate, when it comes to personality types and moral systems. If true, this would surely affect liberals’ and conservatives’ career choices, too, as well as how they argue about fact-based or expertise-based issues.
There’s nothing even slightly complicated about the question of why academics tend to be liberals. We shall come to that in a moment. There is also nothing complicated about Mooney’s broader question of why experts tend to be Democrats. Here’s the explanation:
The power brokers in the Republican party are primarily Wall Street barons and other members of the super rich. On domestic policy they care almost exclusively about redistributing wealth upwards and in creating an entirely unregulated environment for corporations. The flip side is that anything that might benefit poor or middle class people they oppose. That is why they will fight tooth and nail to oppose the tiniest tax increase on millionaires, but will then turn around and accuse schoolteachers (!!) of being greedy. It is why they openly despise the public schools, and propose ludicrous, unworkable tax schemes that overwhelmingly benefit the super rich. It’s why they are so horrified by the idea that the health care system might be reformed to make it possible for millions of uninsured to obtain insurance. (It’s certainly not that they had a better idea for reforming the system. And notice that when they controlled both Congress and the Presidency from 2000-2006, they never even mentioned the health care crisis. As far as they are concerned, forty million people without health insurance simply isn’t a problem.)
The trouble is that if they actually said any of this clearly and publicly then no one would vote for them. So instead they throw around incendiary decoy issues. Behind closed doors they are perfectly happy to laugh at evangelical Christians, but in public they will toss them a little red meat, say by appointing a crazy judge or by cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood. (After all, it’s mostly poor women who are hurt by such cuts, and who cares about them?) Or they produce an endless string of boogeymen only they can protect us from. (It’s the gays! It’s the Muslims! It’s the illegal immigrants!)
On the issues where they openly defy the scientific consensus, it is easy to see why they do so. The sorts of things we would do combat global warming might hurt certain corporate interests, so they have to oppose global warming. Evolution is quite correctly seen as menacing to religious belief, which means they must oppose it too. The power brokers couldn’t care less about science education or whether homosexual couples are given the benefits of civil marriage, but their religious supporters do, so they pretend to care when speaking publicly.
They tend to have success with these approaches first because there is a very large moron vote in this country (the technical term is “low-information voters”) that is easily scared and doesn’t actually know anything about anything. But they are also successful because on these issues they are largely telling people what they want to hear. If liberals were selling the message that you can eat ice cream all day long without getting fat, then all the right-wing think tanks in the world would not be able to defeat them. It’s just that, on the issues where science and politics tend to meet, the right-wingers are defending the more pleasant position. Liberals are the ones saying our way of life is unsustainable, conservatives are saying we can just keep doing what we’re doing. Liberals are the ones saying that we evolved from lower orders of animals, conservatives are saying the local preacher understands these subjects better than the eggheads. Liberals are saying that gay couples should have the same rights as straight ones, conservatives are saying homosexuality is icky and unnatural. In each case they are affirming what large segments of the population already want to believe.
The trouble is, global warming and evolution are real, and the evidence is that homosexual parents do just fine. Which means that if you want to find an expert who (a) will say otherwise and (b) has any integrity at all, then you are pretty much screwed. People who understand biology are not going to back creationism or ID, people who understand economics aren’t going to buy into supply-side nonsense, people who understand climate science aren’t going to back climate change denialism, and people who understand psychology and sociology aren’t going to hold any animus towards homosexuals. The trouble is that the sort of experts you tend to find in universities usually know their subjects very well indeed and are burdened with some basic integrity. Which means that if you want to find counter-experts you will need to establish pseudo-universities, that is, think tanks.
Which brings us to the question of why most academics are Democrats. Chris dangles the possibility, as though it were a daring hypothesis, that liberals and conservatives just have different personalities. It’s hard to imagine anything more obvious, though, then the proposition that the sort of person who is attracted to academic life is very rarely going to be the sort of person who finds anything appealing in modern American conservatism.
Becoming a professor means obtaining a PhD in something, which means spending several years studying a very esoteric subject in great depth, and probably living in penury while you’re doing it. Someone who finds that appealing is probably not overly motivated by a zeal to make money, is unlikely to find evangelical Christianity to be intellectually satisfying, and, most of all, is unlikely to buy into the sort of simplistic, brain-dead bromides that are the stock-in-trade of conservatism. Academics revel in nuance, details and subtlety. The appeal of conservatism, in it’s modern American form, is precisely that it reduces everything to simple black and white stories. Is it really so hard to see the tension between these views.
There’s nothing more complicated than that going on here. The powerful Republicans want to redirect money upwards and don’t care about anything else. To get non-rich people to vote for them they train up legions of pseudo-experts to lie on behalf of their cause. Academics, both by their training and general temperament, have the wherewithal to see precisely how ridiculous the right-wing arguments are, which is why they tend to vote with the other guys.
What’s mysterious about any of this?