Saturday, December 11, 2004


College professors have always been the whipping boys of Republicans. Jonathan Chait in the Los Angeles Times has a very good explanation as to why Democrats outnumber Republicans in academia.

A few weeks ago, a pair of studies found that Democrats vastly outnumbered Republicans among professors at leading universities. Conservatives gleefully seized upon this to once again flagellate academia for its liberal bias.

Am I the only person who fails to understand why conservatives see this finding as vindication? After all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party?


The main causes of the partisan disparity on campus have little to do with anything so nefarious as discrimination. First, Republicans don’t particularly want to be professors. To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. It’s not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.

Second, professors don’t particularly want to be Republicans. In recent years, and especially under George W. Bush, Republicans have cultivated anti-intellectualism. Remember how Bush in 2000 ridiculed Al Gore for using all them big numbers?

That’s not just a campaign ploy. It’s how Republicans govern these days. Last summer, my colleague Frank Foer wrote a cover story in the New Republic detailing the way the Bush administration had disdained the advice of experts. And not liberal experts, either. These were Republican-appointed wonks whose know-how on topics such as global warming, the national debt and occupying Iraq were systematically ignored. Bush prefers to follow his gut.

That’s what was so frustrating about the last campaign; all those people who said they liked Bush because he was “just like me,” plain-spoken and down-to-earth. That’s fine if you’re voting for the president of the Elks. But I think the most powerful man on the planet should not be just-plain-folks. I want a leader with a powerful intellect, a curiosity about everything, and someone with enough brains and self-confidence to surround himself with people who might have a different point of view and argue them well.

By the way, if college campuses are infested with liberals, what about Wall Street and the Pentagon? Certainly Republicans outnumber Democrats in those hallowed halls, and they have far more influence on the day-to-day lives of a lot more people than the History Department at Harvard.