Why Do Professors tend to be Liberals?

from Princeton University Press

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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.

Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.

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.

While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.

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 have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.

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.

It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.

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  1. Conservatives live out the phrase, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”, better than most. I tend to equate conservatism with evangelical Christianity, because that seems to be the case where I live. I often see these conservatives taking the very thing they fight against and turning it into something of their own. Turning it into a things, or places, where they can now express their ideals, instead of the ideals of those ‘nasty’ liberals. You see this adoption taking place throughout history.

  2. It seems that in lot of fields rational or scientific inquiry leads to conclusions that could be considered closer to the political left than to the political right.

    For example, much of righwing political discourse is based on the idea that the wealthy deserve their money and the poor deserve their poverty, while lots of scientific studies question how much we deserve anything, since we are all the products of our genes, our early childhood education, our upbringing, etc.

    The fact that no one deserves their wealth fits well with the leftwing idea that society’s resources should be shared (to some extent) among all social classes.

    On many issues, such as that of desert, academic research tends to lead us to leftwing conclusions, which may be why so many university professors are on the left.

  3. Lots a fluff in this article but considering the source,,. But, the point is clear. The professors that profess to have a Christian background and a devote commitment to the teachings of HIS church. Then when the reality of fact bangs head-on into dogmatic reality – something’s gotta give. So far in my decades wandering around this planet, the religious dogma wins out and the teacher goes back to simply being a staff prof with – Nothing – that’s the ‘normal’ way that most professors exist, teach our children the stygma and doom them to the same kind of life they have… Empty.

    That is also when millions of truly smart and gifted people feel strained by being absolutely alone. Most, but not all, have enough of their wits about them to channel that negative energy into Very positive paths for themselves. They end up being the high-fliers of almost all professions. The ones with the highest (not book-learned) level intellect. They’re able to out maneuver their prey and all the others still flailing in the dogma-centered existence, it means nothing to them – because it’s a lie. A single uttered word of that ritualistic dogma will create an instant enemy for yourself and ALL others like you.

    Enjoy yourselves…. I know I will, BUT remember there are still those very few left in the shadows that create all the grief … I look out for those guys… They will truly mess up you day.

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  4. I disagree that liberals are are more tolerant of divergent viewpoints than conservatives. Take note of “PC” language and the Duck Dynasty thing. Both sides cast opposing viewpoints as evil, subversive, and ignorant.

  5. Good analysis, but misses the mark by trying to portray both sides of the political spectrum on equal terms. The reason why only a small number of professors (and educators in general), as well as scientists are Republican is because conservatives are inherently irrational. They are far more susceptible to believe pseudoscience, rumor, and myth instead of doing impartial investigating and letting the facts drive their conclusions.

    Liberals on the other hand are far more open minded in their research and do not fall prey to confirmation bias. More educators and scientists are liberal because it is a rational philosophy.

  6. To Jabba’s point that the left is somehow more rational is, to me, laughable. Saying a thing is the way it is, because of the way it is, is hardly making it so. That circular argument is lacking.
    I also reject the claim that liberals are more open-minded in their research. There are laundry lists of examples of short-sighted liberal “research” if, ironically, it is sought out.

    The article is alright, but suffers from generalizations at times. I think the main difference, within the framing of the author’s piece, is that when people on the right meet financial difficulty, they seek the cause within themselves, whereas the liberal seeks the cause from outside themselves.

  7. What could be more irrational than believing that one is “saved” because some chap (“Jesus”) was murdered by the state authorities and was then “resurrected”. Or believing that ones body will be “resurrected” when the same chap will supposedly come again.
    Those on the so called conservative side of the culture wars are more likely to believe this nonsense, and all of the other nonsense associated with the Bible. They even pretend to use reason to “prove” their nonsensical essentially childish, even infantile beliefs. As in Let Us Reason, and Reasonable “Faith”

  8. While it is true that more university professors are liberal than conservatives, quite the opposite is true in economics, or business administration, and probably several other departments.

  9. Reply to “Eduardo M” comment. I will just say Eduardo that I think your right that while professors tend to be liberal, business admins tend to be conservative. But I must say that I would much rather trust someone that is educated and probably more unbasied than a businessmen on economics. Follow the money and who is likely more intelligent.

    About the article I will say that I think it’s likely that women are a little more suited to be nurses. Thus that is why more women went into the position than men and then the effect slowly snowballed that nursing is for women. This may have started for a couple of reasons, women tend to be good at multitasking, they are more sympathetic for patients. In other words I think the original cause of their being more liberal professors in the first place, may have been a more fundamental than Republicans saying that professorship is for liberals and bashing professors. So I propose that professors were naturally, intelligent, from the start, and they actually saw reality and truth better than many, and thus there were more liberal professors in the beginning. And only then did the Republicans make the divide even worse by saying professorship is for liberals. And bashing them and all the other stuff that went on. I think this is a more plausible way of seeing it.

  10. The Liberal Academy | Talking Philosophy - pingback on October 19, 2016 at 8:01 am

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