Politics and academia
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.