Not only does Jonathan Chait understand economics and fiscal policy, he even understands academia, as his latest column shows. Many in the media, conservative or not, never demonstrate much of a grasp of what really goes on in academia. Therefore, it's refreshing to read the following from Chait:
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?
No, Mr. Chait, you aren't the only one who wonders about this! I've long been of the same opinion.
In fact, it's one motive behind the unwavering conservative hostility to academia. There are lots of foolish views in academia, especially, alas, in the humanities, and thus some of what comes out of it isn't really worthy of serious attention. But Republicans want to eliminate every source of opposition to their views. Because academia hasn't surrendered to them, they constantly criticize it, often unfairly.
All too often conservatives simply dismiss views that disagree with theirs. I've blogged about this in my posts on The New Criterion. And, just to mention the obvious, the Bush administration is hardly an advertisement for intellectual openness and curiosity. None of this endears Republicans to academics.
But, of course, continues Chait, that's not how conservatives see it:
Conservatives have a ready answer. The only reason faculties lean so far to the left is that deans, administrators and entire university cultures systematically discriminate against conservatives.
They don't, however, have much evidence to back this up. Mostly, they assume that the leftward tilt is prima facie evidence of anti-conservative discrimination. (Yet, when liberals hold up minority underrepresentation at some institutions as proof of discrimination, conservatives are justifiably skeptical.)
A very good point, Mr. Chait. Consequently, in accordance with their own skeptical standards, conservatives have to come up with a more convincing explanation of the dearth of academic conservatives.
As for the leftist trends in the humanities many of which I deplore, I should mention in passing Chait points out that there's more at work in all of this than academic trendiness:
. . . the rise of fashionable left-wing scholarship can be blamed for only a tiny part of the GOP's problem. The studies showing that academics prefer Democrats to Republicans also show that this preference holds in hard sciences as well as social sciences. Are we to believe that higher education has fallen prey to trendy multiculturalist engineering, or that physics departments everywhere suppress conservative quantum theorists?
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.
In the world of academia, that's about the nastiest thing you can say about somebody. Bush's supporters consider it a compliment. "Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, admire leaders who are straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book smart," wrote conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks a week before the election. "Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize . . . being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who see complexities, who possess the virtues of the well-educated."
Is anyone really surprised that the majority of academics long ago turned against a party that adopted divisive cultural warfare as the cornerstone of its election strategy? A political party that is proudly hostile to intelligence and unwilling to be held accountable for the consequences of this attitude won't draw the support of many people who have devoted their lives to trying to think things through in a serious and sustained way.