A paper recently published in Econ Journal Watch, “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,” shows that something almost everyone believes to be true—that college faculties in the social sciences are predominantly left of center—is in fact true.
More than that, however it shows that this is more true in some fields and geographic regions than others and, most significantly, that the leftist trend is becoming more pronounced over time. Especially in the social sciences, non-leftist professors are a slowly vanishing breed.
Authors Mitchell Langbert, Anthony Quain, and Daniel Klein describe themselves as classical liberals who find both major parties to be “by and large, horrible,” so the study can’t be dismissed as merely partisan griping.
They describe their findings modestly, writing, “Other than indicating that Democratic-to-Republican ratios are even higher than we had thought (particularly in Economics and History), and that an awful lot of departments have zero Republicans, and that, yes, the ratios are higher at more prestigious universities and lower among older professors and among professors with higher-ranking titles, and that there are some regional effects, the paper does not offer new results of any great consequence.”
I think the authors are too modest, too restrained. Their findings are quite disturbing for anyone who holds a right-of-center or classical liberal philosophy, since the study points up the success that “progressives” are having with their project of seizing and holding the commanding heights in the war of ideas.
Let’s look at some of those findings.
The authors surveyed voter registration data for professors in the five disciplines noted in the title at a wide array of schools. Out of 7,243 professors, 3,623 were registered as Democrats and just 314 as Republicans. Moreover, registrations for the Green and Working Families parties (both radically statist in outlook) equaled or exceeded Republican registrations in 72 of the 170 academic departments included in the study, and in many departments, there were no Republicans at all.
Economics was the field with the lowest ratio of Democrats to Republicans (5: 1) and history the field with the highest (36:1). In the middle were journalism (21:1), psychology (19:1), and law (9:1).
The fact that economics professors are mostly left-of-center will probably surprise many people, since it’s widely believed that economics is the one social science discipline where free-market/classical liberal scholars outnumber the left/interventionists. (See, for example, this essay by Peter Sacks, “Don’t look for Marxists or Keynesians in Economics Departments”.) But in an earlier study, Klein and Charlotta Stern showed that among members of the American Economics Association, only 8 percent held to what they regard as free-market principles.
If you thought that college students would be reeled back into reality when they take economics (which relatively few do anyway), the findings here are depressing news. Economics courses largely reinforce leftist ideas about the need for government intervention in the economy rather than advancing the case for laissez-faire.
Another worrisome conclusion from this paper is that the leftist domination of the faculty is intensifying. For example, in 1963, the D:R ratio in history was about 2.7:1. Today, it has mushroomed to36:1. Furthermore, the data show that the D:R ratio is lowest among emeritus professors and highest among assistant professors. Therefore, it appears, in the future college faculties will be even more politically and ideologically lopsided than today as the conservative older cohort retire.
The subject of the left’s domination of academe has been hotly debated, with a number of different explanations offered. The explanation advanced by Langbert, Quain, and Klein is “groupthink,” which is to say the tendency for people to prefer to associate with individuals who hold similar beliefs as they do, and to avoid individuals who robustly disagree. That is especially true in the academic world, where ideas count for almost everything. And because academic hiring is controlled by departments, once an ideological slant sets in, groupthink drives them toward ever-greater uniformity.
What this means is that non-leftist students face ideological discrimination if they want to pursue a teaching career in these (and quite a few other) disciplines. Knowing that, most of them turn to more hospitable academic fields or look for employment outside of academe after graduation.
The big question is whether this really matters.
Leftists tend to make light of studies like this one, arguing that voter registration tells us nothing about the way professors conduct their courses. Overwhelmingly, they assert, these professors are devoted scholars who teach their courses without any bias. The authors, however, think otherwise, writing “Works like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012) and Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology (2014) represent a trend toward recognizing that scholarly interpretations and judgments are inseparable from a scholar’s sense of duty to higher purpose….”
That “higher purpose” is to serve as “change agents,” as many professors admit they see their role. Sometimes we come across confessions from “progressive” faculty members that they feel proud and justified in teaching with a leftist bias in order to overcome what they see as the lamentable “right-wing” upbringing of many of their students. A good example is the book by English Professor Donald Lazere entitled Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. (I wrote about that book here.)
So the classes taught by these professors probably won’t be taught without some ideological slant, and frequently with a very strong one. Even if students aren’t entirely “flipped” from right to left, the constant promulgation of leftist ideas is certain to affect quite a few of them, making “middle-of-the-road” students more inclined to accept leftist ideas and making those who were already leaning that way into Social Justice Warrior types.
What is to be done? The authors offer no suggestions.
One palliative that I think helps slightly is to fund programs that bring professors who advocate free-market and classical liberal thinking to campuses that are notoriously leftist. At the University of Colorado, for example, a program brings in a visiting professor each year who will advance conservative and libertarian ideas. Last year’s visiting professor, Brian Domitrovic, wrote about the experience for the Pope Center. Clearly, it was a year well spent.
While such efforts are beneficial at the margin, they’re rather like trying to stop a forest fire with your garden hose.
The depressing truth is that, with the exception of some institutions, the faculties at our colleges and universities will continue becoming more leftist in their composition and more virulently political in their teaching. It’s a condition with no known cure.
(Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Minding the Campus.)