Why are academics so “liberal?”

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interview a few days ago with Charles C. Camosy called “The Case for Trading Identity Politics for ‘Intellectual Humility,'” which more or less came about as a result of Camosy’s Washington Post “PostEverything” column “Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch.”  In brief, Camosy, who is conservative and a a professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that academics are too liberal and out of touch to understand why anyone would have voted for Donald Trump. Further, if academia doesn’t change it’s ways, the situation is only going to get worse.

In the CHE piece (sorry, behind a firewall), he argues that we need more “diversity” in terms of the liberal/conservative spectrum:

I don’t mean a quota coming down from the administration or anything like that. But for instance, in my own department, we looked around and didn’t see a lot of people of color. So we said, We ought to make an effort in hiring to have more diversity. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind — for departments to look around and say, Well, how much intellectual diversity do we have? Do we have even one conservative?

I don’t even like the liberal-conservative binary. I just want a person who really doesn’t have the views of the rest of us, who challenges us, who forces us to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different, who forces our students to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different.

He goes on:

One reason why racial justice was such an important issue in this election was because colleges and universities started that conversation, and it filtered down to the rest of the culture. That was a very good thing. So if we also make a commitment to other kinds of diversity, that will also filter down to the rest of the culture. We won’t see such enclaves of people over here — millions and millions of people — thinking something so diametrically opposed to people over there.

That’s a big part of my work as an academic ethicist: to show that these kinds of us-versus-them, right-versus-left, life-versus-choice binaries are too simplistic. People are much more complicated and interesting than identity politics allows us to imagine.

Fair enough, though as I’ll get to eventually, I’m not so sure that that last point about upsetting simple binaries is a position that would resonate with most conservatives.

Anyway, in the Washington Post piece published right after the election, Camosy is more blunt. He argues:

The most important divide in this election was not between whites and non-whites. It was between those who are often referred to as “educated” voters and those who are described as “working class” voters.

The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump.College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump. This is an indictment of the monolithic, insulated political culture in the vast majority our colleges and universities.

He goes on:

Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.

I disagree with most (though not all) of this, and before I get to the real point here, why are academics so liberal (or are they so liberal?), I think there are three important things to always keep in mind about the outcome of the presidential election:

  • Clinton’s campaign did not spend enough time in working class/blue collar places in the midwest, and arguably, she forgot the James Carville prime directive of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Hindsight is 20-20, though as this New York Times piece from the day after the election points out, there were forces within Clinton’s campaign– including Bill!– who argued that she should be spending some time courting these voters and not concentrating on urban areas. And yesterday the New York Times had this piece recapping a “debate” between aides to the two presidential campaigns where Kellyanne Conway said “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?” I hate to say it, but I think she has a point. But the point here is that Clinton’s loss is as much about her campaign mistakes as it was with any dissatisfaction from working class voters.
  • The exit polling data suggests that yes, level of education was an indicator of who voted for who– 51% of high school or less and 52% of some college or associate degree voters went with Trump. But it also shows that 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump (compared to 45% for Clinton), 67% of white college graduates without a degree voted for Trump, and 75% of of nonwhite voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. There’s a bunch of other data to sort through here too, but the point I’m trying to make is for Camosy (or anyone else) to suggest that race was not as an “important divide” in this election than education is just plain wrong.
  • Always always remember and never ever forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and by what seems to be a large margin. Yes, Trump won with the electoral college, and yes, this seems good evidence that the most significant divide in this country right now is between urban and rural areas, a divide characterized as much by race and income levels as it is by education– not to mention basic geography. Also remember that the margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin combined  was under 80,000 out of like 12 million votes (Phillip Bump has a commentary/analysis about this in the Washington Post here), which isn’t exactly an overwhelming mandate even in these rustbelt states. And yes, I agree the Democratic party as an organization is in disarray and needs to think a lot harder about how to appeal both to voters who are interested in “identity issues” and to voters interested in “economic populism” (and as a slight tangent, here I’m thinking of this post from Freddie deBoer, someone I often don’t agree with but I think he’s right here).

However, people who voted for Clinton (and all the “liberal values” she represents) and/or against Trump are still in the majority in this country. That doesn’t mean much when it comes to Trump’s cabinet appointees or the frightening policies he might be proposing and it probably means even less if your a Muslim in a particularly red part of the country, but it does mean a lot in terms of how the citizenry can respond. The man who will be president didn’t actually “win” because a significant majority of eligible American voters either didn’t vote at all (which in my book is even worse than voting for Trump) or they voted for Clinton, and of those who did vote for Trump, I have to assume that there is some difficult to determine but still healthy percentage who didn’t so much vote for Trump as they voted against Clinton, and/or who voted for Trump as a protest. That’s depressing, that the winner didn’t really “win,” but it also means that those of us who voted for Clinton are far from alone. Or let me put it this way: the first presidential candidate I voted for was Walter Mondale. That was an entirely different kind of loss.

But I digress. Why are academics so “liberal?”


First off, I don’t know if academia is more skewed toward a side of the political spectrum than many other professions or occupations– and I mean I literally don’t know. I mean, isn’t it fair to say (for example) that professionals like those in the military, corporate management, banking, and public safety (police and firefighters) tend to be conservative? Would anyone ever suggest that there’s a bias against liberals in these fields, that we need to do some “affirmative action”-like hiring in those fields to balance things out? Like I said, I don’t know.

But what I want to tease out here is the argument that Camosy is making that academia is “out of touch” with the main stream because we’re so liberal. If Trump had won both the popular vote and the electoral college, then he might be right. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it seems to me that it is just as easy to argue the opposite: that is, the minority of voters who elected Trump are out of touch with the liberals and other people who supported Clinton, including academics, since Clinton got more votes.

Second, what it means to be “conservative” or “liberal” is more complicated than what it means to vote for the Republicans or vote for the Democrats. Camosy acknowledges this. I have plenty of colleagues who have pretty conservative views in terms of their scholarship and approach to academia, and as institutions, universities are quite conservative in the sense that they are steeped in tradition and slow to change. I also have plenty of colleagues who have some of the values in terms of religiosity and family that Camosy identifies as “conservative.” I agree that it is highly unusual in academia for folks nowadays to speak out against topics like gay marriage or LBGT rights. On the other hand, most Americans are for gay marriage nowadays, and if the various boycotts against North Carolina over LGBT issues and bathrooms and such are any indication, a lot of corporations, the NBA, and the NFL hold this so-called “liberal” position as well.

But yes yes yes, after all this qualification and explanation (so typical of a freakin’ college professor, Krause), I’d agree that academia is generally a pretty “liberal” profession. I think there are in very general terms two reasons for this.

First, most academics are public/government employees who are interested in public service in the broadest sense. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good gig and I feel like I’m paid reasonably well, but no one goes into this line of work completely out of “self-interest” and/or to “get rich.” Liberals tend to believe in government as a way to impact the public good, and universities– particularly public ones– are part of the public good. Conservatives tend to hold less faith in government as a way of impacting the public good, and I think that extends to less confidence in all sorts of institutions, like universities.

Second, without being too cheeky about it, scholarly research has a liberal bias. Conservatism tends to seek knowledge in existing tradition and authority, while liberalism tends to seek knowledge from new ideas and emerging experts. Academic work is by definition about seeking new knowledge from emerging experts and research. By definition, research is about discovering new stuff and it is frequently based on questioning the assumptions about the way things are. That’s pretty “liberal.” The teaching we do tends to follow the trends in the research, and my gut feeling is this is probably even more true in STEM fields. While I know there are some people teaching first year writing with the same mindset they had about writing pedagogy 40 years ago, I assume that no one in biology is teaching courses in genetics now based on materials from the early 1900s.

It also seems to me that Republican politics often is quite directly at odds with the “liberal” work of academic work. The GW Bush administration’s to stem cell research was a problem; the current mindset among Republicans that climate change is some kind of hoax and the theory of evolution isn’t real is a problem. This isn’t the kind of work I do, but if I were a biologist, I can’t imagine voting Republican.

I think it’s possible for individual academics to hold personally hold conservative views in terms of values and liberal academic views, too. Essentially, these are the mental gymnastics that Camosy is hold. But at the end of the day, there is something weird and ironic about his call for liberals to be more tolerant of conservatives in academia when it is not entirely clear to me how that would be returned. Would conservatives be willing to upset the binaries that they believe in?

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