Why There Are So Many Lefties at the Academy

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote a really interesting article that I have a couple of things to add to, Academics and Politics. Now we all know the old complaint that college professors are liberal. And it is largely true. Should this concern us? Only if it should concern us that most people on Wall Street are conservative. People who gravitate toward knowledge as an end in itself will understandably lean left. It isn’t a conspiracy.

More and more, I believe that political orientation is really about culture. Being a conservative is really not about particular policies but about an outlook on life. This is something I’ve noticed from countless conversations with conservatives where we are very much in agreement about most things — especially economics. When I was in the academy, the conservatives I knew were like I was at the time: libertarian oriented — not wanting to have government interference. They were generally radically liberal on social issues.

But as liberal as the academy may have traditionally been, it has gotten much more so over the last 25 years. As you can see in the following graph taken from the Higher Education Research Institute, in 1990, roughly 40% of college faculty called themselves liberal and an equal number called themselves moderates. Roughly 20% called themselves conservatives. Today, 60% call themselves liberal, less then 30% call themselves moderates, and only 10% call themselves conservatives.

College Faculty Political Leanings

Krugman’s idea is the obvious one: the academy didn’t get more liberal, the conservatives got more conservative. He also mentioned the Republican Party’s general dismissal of global warming and evolution by natural selection. I would go further. The Republican Party is anti-intellectual. What’s more, they think the only purpose of education is to create a better workforce for IBM and GM. They don’t even think education is a matter of creating good citizens. Look at how common the desire is to eliminate the Department of Education. They want education to be controlled locally so that, among other things, students can be taught that African slaves were “immigrants.”

There is one bit of data presented by Krugman that is startling. If you look at the general population, 35% are Republicans or lean Republican, and 52% are similarly inclined toward the Democrats. For science professors, the numbers are 12% for Republicans and 81% for Democrats. But if you think about it for a moment, it isn’t surprising. Nor is it surprising that this trend started around the time that Bill Clinton became president. What does the Republican Party stand for? Any good ideas that it once had have been co-opted by the Democrats. We now have a moderate party and a proto-fascist party. It isn’t surprising that well informed people would skew heavily toward the Democrats.

I think there are actual issues that liberals and conservatives can debate. But in this country, there really aren’t. The conservative movement has gone off the rails.

But here’s something that a person of Krugman’s stature can’t say: it’s also about intelligence. Republicans love to publish books about what idiots liberals are. They’re compensating. They know that the more education and knowledge a person has, the more liberal they become. This causes conservatives to say things like a comment I recently got, “You’re what my father always called an educated idiot.” That was the extent of his argument. I was wrong just because and all my book learning didn’t mean a thing to him because he thought with his gut.

I think there are actual issues that liberals and conservatives can debate. But in this country, there really aren’t. The conservative movement has gone off the rails. So it’s hard for people who think for a living to miss this fact. Republican economic policy is wrong. Sure, you can find intelligent analysis from Greg Mankiw, but what Republicans want to do is the same thing they’ve done for four decades now and it never works as advertised. Republicans are simply wrong about global warming. Republicans are wrong about foreign policy. These aren’t opinions; these are factual claims. And on foreign policy, even they know they are wrong, because they talk tough, but when pressed, they admit that they would do nothing different from what the Democrats would do.

If we had the Republican Party of the early 1970s, I can see intelligent people differing over policy. But today, there are only three reasons to be a Republican. First, you might be stupid and ignorant. Second, you might be a hateful bigot. Third, you might be rich. That’s it. It isn’t surprising that PhD physicists skew heavily toward the Democratic Party.


I haven’t read the study, so I can’t say. Another factor could be that colleges are using so many more adjuncts, who get paid next to nothing. Poor people skew liberal as well. I suspect if you polled college administrators, you would find that they are far more conservative.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

9 thoughts on “Why There Are So Many Lefties at the Academy

    • We got an inch and a half today. We’re still way behind for the season though. But the Sierras are getting a lot of snow, so that’s good.

      • Woohoo! We got buckets and there is more coming in a couple hours. Now if I can just win the Powerball…

        Correction, it just started pouring again. :)

  1. I’ll bet that that the really educated poor lean left to an even greater extent!

    As far as I can tell, there still are conservative scientists and engineers in universities. They vote for the conservative party, the Democrats. Even the most conservative among them can only stand so much verbal abuse and attacks before reaching a breaking point.

    It’s too bad that this discourse does not distinguish between liberalism and leftism.

    You mentioned that those that like knowledge for its own sake are likely to move left. But I think also that careful and open-minded research tends to refute propositions that favour conservative and right-wing policies. For example, no-one can look at the historical record with an open mind and conclude that American slavery was not all that bad. Mainstream American conservatism accepts this and so many other propositions that are conclusively disproved by just the tiniest effort at real research.

    The historical record supports the claims of leftists and refutes the claims of conservatives. The leftist intellectuals have plenty of their own problems, but it’s night and day.

    • Learning history is frou frou and requires accepting results that are uncomfortable. Same with almost all other research or results.

    • There’s the Upton Sinclair quote about not understanding things when your salary depends upon not understanding them. So there have always been a lot of physicists who work for the military industry (many at university) who are conservative. But like I said, that was one thing in the 1970s and even 1980s. But today, it’s pretty hard to stand by the Republicans when they are now so clearly anti-science and pro-literalist religion.

      I agree with what you are saying, but of course, conservatives will claim that they were against slavery. We constantly hear that being anti-choice is like being an abolitionist back then. I go along with Corey Robin’s analysis. Conservatives are people who are against the expansion of rights. There is a liberal anti-abortion stance as seen by people like Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig. But there is no way that people can be anti-choice, anti-birth-control, and anti-poor mother and child, and be anything but someone who is trying to reduce the rights of people. Bruenig, in contrasts, wants to make birth control widely available and eliminate poverty. There was and is a strong Biblical case for slavery. Today’s conservatives would have been pro-slavery then. But good luck getting them to admit it.

      When it comes to economics, much of the science is very clear, yet we still get the same policies that have failed again and again from Republicans. And from people like Greg Mankiw we get apologetics.

  2. >I think there are actual issues that liberals and conservatives can debate.

    I’d like to see this, too. I think the democrats would be stronger if the republicans would offer intelligent arguments. Force the dems to rise to meet the gop.

    I do not believe the dems have the best possible solutions for everything, but the gop is so much worse.

    If you have a wound that requires stitches the dems offer a bandage. The gop wants to apply leeches.

    • No question! I’ve been arguing this for the last 5 years. The Republican Party has made the Democratic Party so much worse. The truth is, the Republicans can’t really get any worse. That’s the Trump thing: the words sound worse, but his ideas are the same ones the Republicans have had for 15 years — if not 40. But the more extreme their rhetoric, the more it pulls the Democrats’ policies to the right. Only Nixon could go to China. Only Clinton could end welfare as we know it.

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