Post Academic

Politics and academia

"Fictional flag of the fictional Communist Democratic Party of America" by Oren new dag (Public Domain)

Talk about stating the obvious: Politico, the blog I haven’t been able to stop reading since the 2008 election in spite of myself, posted a story the other day about how “College Professors Go Big for Democrats”, which hardly qualifies as news.  As a liberal myself (duh!), I’m happy to say that employees of the UC system I’m a part of donated over $400,000 to the Dems–although the Boxer folks still want more and more, as my inbox can attest to.  Anyway, that’s 86% of all political donations made by UC  types.  Then there’s the case of Princeton, where the employees gave $100,000 to the Dems and apparently $0 to the GOP.

Again, none of what Politico reports should be any surprise, except, perhaps, for the overwhelming margins.  This might explain why I don’t have any conservative friends (as far as I know), and why my wife and I are suspicious of nice strangers whose politics we don’t know, since we’ve met a few undercover libertarians.  Heck, I can barely stand a lot of academics who share my worldview more or less, either because I don’t think they care enough about race-related issues or because they try to act holier-than-thou than me–unapologetic Ralph Nader 2000 boosters, I’m looking at you.

But I was wondering the other day about when it was I became a liberal and how it happened.  Did my prolonged exposure to academia turn me into a lefty?  Or was I already a latent liberal who found the right venue to bring my politics out of me?

At the risk of alienating and offending folks, we’re delving into politics and academics below the fold…

Along those lines, I’ve been thinking about some observations from Louis Menand’s book, The Marketplace of Ideas, which addresses, among other things, the questions of why professors think alike and why they basically have come to a political consensus–for instance, he notes a 2007 sociological study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons that calculated that 95% of humanities profs at elite schools voted for Kerry and 0% for Bush, Jr.  Menand makes the following point:

Professors tend increasingly to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected.  The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it.

Part of Menand’s explanation is that the overly long Ph.D. training would-be professors undergo tends to homogenize and consolidate a conventional wisdom–be it political, cultural or intellectual–within academia.  Another interesting note that comes out of the 2007 survey that Menand cites may be a class dimension to who becomes professors, that conservative academics begin with less cultural and social capital, which might structurally impede their climb up the ranks.  These findings certainly raise some good food for thought, particularly regarding class diversity in higher education, especially among grad students, profs, admin, and people in charge.

Numbers is numbers, and I can’t really quibble with a study that I haven’t read.  But  in terms of the issues it brings up, I’m not sure politics and social status correlate so easily or that any clear-cut conclusions can be drawn from the stats.  On the one hand, there are undergrad conservatives with the means to pursue grad school, then become profs, if only they choose to do so, but (to adapt Menand’s terminology) self-select themselves out for whatever reason, be it ideological reasons or because there are more attractive options for them.  At the extreme–and I’m not saying the study and Menand suggest this or anything like it–this class-politics argument could just be the academic equivalent of paranoid righty rhetoric about political indoctrination at the hands of the liberal elite, who, somehow, are deemed completely ineffectual at the same time.

On the other, there are plenty of lefty sympathizers who make–or try to make–careers in academia who start with a lot less social capital than their peers, whether liberal or conservative or otherwise.  Not to snark too much, but conservative types advocating for more political perspectives on campus aren’t exactly advocating for affirmative action programs and the students who definitely have less social capital who benefit from them, which, in addition to creating a more racially diverse student body and faculty, make for more class and cultural diversity, too.

Still, the general point of the study is provocative enough and probably acknowledged at both theoretical as well as practical levels, as to how to diversify the academy in terms of class status, which might also add more competing political and cultural perspectives higher ed.  If politics in the university gets people talking more about race and class, then that might be a good thing, but I’m also not holding my breath.

Oh…I guess I never answered my questions about whether college and grad school made me a liberal, or whether my lefty inclinations pushed me towards academia?  I’m actually  inclined to say the former, since I never really, really thought issues like affirmative action applied to me until I dug into the topic in grad school.  But, then again, maybe I’m just predisposed to being lefty and my research was something that gave form and articulation to my political inclinations.  In any case, this meandering post doesn’t entirely stick to the talking points I touched on at the beginning, which is, unfortunately, the best proof that I’m a liberal.

3 Responses to 'Politics and academia'

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  1. Mackie Blanton said,

    “[Co]nservative academics begin with less cultural and social capital, which might structurally impede their climb up the ranks.”
    While I won’t outright disagree with this, this hypothesis has not been my experience in the South. On the whole, I suspect that conservatives are less idealistic than liberals — and therefore go where the money is, and the money is in careers outside of the Academy for the most part.

    “If politics in the university gets people talking more about race and class, then that might be a good thing, but I’m also not holding my breath.”
    I agree with your suggestion, but we have been shoved into a corner on this point of view. Conservatives have learned to accuse liberals of provoking racial and cultural divisiveness among the races by bringing up the past (slavery) or housing and wage inequality among the poor and among people of color. So we wind up stymied by this nutty accusation and often lose the argument because we linger too long in being shocked by such an inane, dissembling accusation.
    This particular accusation, however, evolved out of a more heinous accusation that confronted me in 1980. When I moved back to New Orleans, after being “up North” (Chicago) for sixteen years, I learned from my new college freshmen that year that the real racists among us are Blacks and Jews, because these two groups “won’t ever let us forget,” as my students insisted. “All they ever do is talk about the Holocaust, the Jews, or about slavery, the Blacks! Why don’t they just get over it?! After all, we didn’t do anything to them!”
    So I was not at all surprised about the recent flap among Southern Congressmen who wanted to institute a Confederacy Month, to celebrate “The War of Secession” (without any due mentioning of slavery) that the South lost, but still wages on in subtle ways.

    (See Charles B. Dew’s THE APOSTLES OF DISUNION for a correct historical study of the Southern Confederacy: )

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Thanks, Mackie, for your keen thoughts on the matter. Yeah, I agree that the finding from Gross and Simmons that conservative academics start with lower social capital needs more context. Like you say, part of it might be a matter of conservatives with any sort of capital choosing not to go into the academy. I don’t have any data behind that, so maybe I’m making things up!

      As for the rhetorical machinations, you’re right that conservatives tend to run circles around liberals when it comes to diversity issues. One reason is that absolutist, conceptual notions about fairness are much more appealing at face value, while contextualized, historical arguments can be more complicated. Just look at the sneaky appeal of colorblind ideology: if you’re someone who questions the reality of abstract equality and try to dig deeper into structural issues and historical contexts of inequality, you somehow end up being the racist!

      When I teach about affirmative action, I know a lot of my students roll their eyes, but I try to tell them that I think their idealist, abstract notion of equality is admirable. However, I try to teach them that abstract equality is not a reality. The comparison does have the virtue of similarity. I’ll talk more about politics and teaching later!

  2. Ironically, teaching at a rich school and observing the general classism of academia made me much more libertarian/populist/capitalist than I ever thought I could be.

    I’m socially liberal and will remain so, but I’m on the Chomsky, “it doesn’t matter what your party it only matters that you’re rich” fence when it comes to politics. I’ve grown weary of idealism watering down effective policy, of “playing fair” preventing effective campaigning on the Democratic side, and of the commitment to “free” educational resources contributing to the undervaluing of education.

    Then again, I never was a very good idealist. And as I’ve written, I never found academia particularly “liberal” either.

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