Over at Talking Philosophy, Mike LaBossiere takes up that question. Unfortunately, I think his answer is mostly wrong.
Here’s his introduction:
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.
I basically agree, but that opening paragraph needs to be phrased more carefully. The data is clear that large majorities of college professors hold politically liberal views and generally vote for Democrats. But “devout” liberals (which implies a religious or fanatical zeal underlying their politics) or communists are pretty rare. The conservative talking point, as LaBossiere notes, is not simply that professors tend to vote for Democrats, but that professors are just a bunch of left-wing fanatics and radicals. There is not considerable truth behind that. The radicals exist, especially in the humanities, but it is simply wrong to pretend that they are the dominant force.
That is just a warm-up. The real trouble comes when LaBossiere serves up his explanations for this phenomenon. Drawing on work from sociologist Neil Gross, LaBossiere writes:
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.
“Typecasting” is not much of an explanation, it is mostly just a restatement of the problem. Why, exactly, have conservatives been so diligent in typecasting college professors as demented left-wingers? To use LaBossiere’s analogy, it is certainly true that nursing tends to be dominated by women, and also true that nursing tends to be perceived as a job for women. But it is the former that explains the latter, not vice versa.
What else does LaBossiere suggest?
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 don’t buy it. I don’t know if there is any research out there on the political attitudes of entering graduate students, but I’d bet that most of them were already liberals when they chose that route. Most of us didn’t start graduate school as political blank slates, suddenly get a taste of living with very little money, and then discover our tremendous empathy for the poor. So I think we will have to keep looking for an answer to the question.
LaBossiere’s next suggestions comes much closer to the truth:
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.
This is exactly right, but there is more to be said. LaBossiere seems to have overlooked the most obvious explanation for the predominance of liberals in academe.
It is this: Modern conservatism is so shot through with anti-intellectualism that we should not be surprised that intellectuals generally want nothing to do with it.
This plays out in a number of ways.
In many cases, modern conservatism essentially forces you to hold views that are just contrary to fact. If you accept evolution or climate change then you have no future in conservative politics. Why would science professors find that appealing? There is likewise an utterly fantastical view of American history among much of the right, in which the country was founded by heroic evangelicals specifically as a Christian nation. Why should we be surprised when actual historians demur? Are sociologists familiar with the best available data going to be impressed by hateful rhetoric that blames only the poor for their situation? Are serious economists expected to be polite towards long-discredited notions of supply-side theorizing?
It is sometimes said that the facts have a liberal bias. Indeed they do, and that goes a long way to explaining why college professors tend to be liberal.
A closely related point involves the simple-mindedness of so many conservative arguments. So much of their argumentation revolves around catchy slogans that do not hold up to scrutiny. More guns less crime. Cutting taxes leads to economic growth. Life begins at conception. It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Negotiating with our enemies projects weakness. Now, if there is one thing you learn in graduate school, in any discipline, it is how to analyze things deeply. Nothing is obvious, everything is nuanced. The kind of person who finds it appealing to pursue a PhD is also the kind of person who is unlikely to be taken in by cheap sloganeering.
Still another variation on the theme is the prevalence of religion in conservative thought. More specifically, the prevalence of evangelical Christianity and the more right-wing forms of Catholicism. It is hardly a secret that higher-levels of education tend to correlate strongly with lower-levels of interest in conservative versions of religion. There is nothing mysterious in this. If your day job requires you endlessly to sharpen and refine your own original ideas and arguments, then you are unlikely to respond favorably to being told that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that we must bow to what it says.
This is where LaBossiere’s nursing analogy is inapt. The dearth of conservatives in academe is not the same kind of thing as the dearth of men in nursing. A better analogy would liken it to the dearth of astrologers among physicists, or the dearth of creationists among biologists, or the dearth of young-Earthers among paleontologists. But if you put it that way, then you can no longer pretend this is a difficult question.
Let me close with an anecdote. As a graduate student at Dartmouth in the late nineties, I had the chance to see William F. Buckley speak. He had come to Dartmouth to lambaste us all for the terrible things that were happening at the school. You see, the occasion for his talk was that the college’s president, James Freedman, in speaking at the opening of a new campus Hillel, had discussed Dartmouth’s sad history of anti-semitism and criticized a former president for describing the school’s mission as being to “Christianize its students.” In Buckley’s view, Freedman’s statement represented an insidious secularization of the college. It was an attempt to “Judaize” Dartmouth’s students (Click here for a short article about Buckley’s visit, from the Dartmouth student newspaper.)
That’s what he was worked up about. William F. Buckley represented the best of serious conservative thought, but even so much of his output was just preening, self-righteous, borderline bigoted nonsense. And he was a giant compared to the most prominent conservatives today.
So ask me again why so many college professors are not attracted to conservatism.