Monday, June 09, 2008

Political Affiliations of American Philosophers, Political Scientists, and Other Academics

As regular readers will know, I've been working hard over the last year thinking of ways to get data on the moral behavior of ethics professors. As part of this project, I have looked at the public voting records of professors in several states (California, Florida, North Carolina, Washington State, and soon Minnesota), on the assumption that voting is a civic duty. If so, we can compare the rates at which ethicists and non-ethicists perform this duty. Soon I'll start posting some of my preliminary analyses.

First, however, I thought you might enjoy some data on the political affiliation of professors in California, Florida, and North Carolina. (These states make party affiliation publicly available information.) Although U.S. academics are generally reputed to be liberal and Democratic, systematic data are sparser than one might expect. Here's what I found.

Among philosophers (375 records total):

Democrat: 87.2%
Republican: 7.7%
Green: 2.7%
Independent: 1.3%
Libertarian: 0.8%
Peace & Freedom: 0.3%
Among political scientists (225 records total:)
Democrat: 82.7%
Republican: 12.4%
Green: 4.0%
Independent: 0.4%
Peace & Freedom: 0.4%
Among a comparison group drawn randomly from all other departments (179 records total):
Democrat: 75.4%
Republican: 22.9%
Independent: 1.1%
Green: 0.6%
By comparison, in California (from which the bulk of the data are drawn), the registration rates (excluding decline to state [19.4%]) are:
Democrat: 54.3%
Republican: 40.3%
Other: 5.3% [source]
Perhaps this accounts for my sense that if there's one thing that's a safe dinner conversation topic at philosophy conferences, it's bashing Republican Presidents.

Now I'm not sure 87.2% of professional philosophers would agree that there's good evidence the sun will rise tomorrow (well, that's a slight exaggeration, but we are an ornery and disputatious lot!), so why the virtual consensus about political party?

Conspiracy theories are out: There is no point in the job interview process, for example, when you would discover the political leanings of an applicant who was not applying in political philosophy. We ask about research, teaching, and that's about it. Even interviewing a political philosopher (a small minority of philosophers) it will not always be evident if the interviewee is "liberal" or "conservative", since her research will often be highly abstract or historical.

Self-interest also seems an insufficient explanation: Many professors are at private institutions, and few philosophy professors earn government grants, so even if Democrats are more supportive of funding for universities and research, many philosophy professors will at best profit very indirectly from that. Furthermore, it's not clear to me -- though I'm open to evidence on this -- that Democrats do serve professors' financial interests better than Republicans. For example, social services for the poor and keeping tuition low seem to have a higher priority among liberal Democrats in California than the salaries of professors.

Democrats might be tempted to flatter themselves with this explanation: Professors are smart and informed, and smart and informed people are rarely Republican. That would be interesting if it were true, and it's empirically explorable; but I suspect that in fact a better explanation has to do with the kind of values that lead one to go into academia and that an academic career reinforces -- though I find myself struggling now to discern exactly what those values are (tolerance of difference? more willingness to believe that knowledgeable people can direct society for the better? less respect for the pursuit of wealth as a career goal?).


Justin (koavf) said...


Well, there is the old explanation that liberals and conservatives have different life goals, by and large. Conservatives get jobs and raise families whereas liberals read books and live in ivory towers. Exceptions generally include professionalized academics (e.g. law or medicine, which run concurrent to those professions) and sciences and mathematics (where the university setting is one of the few places to actually get a job in the field.) How much more would that be the case in liberal arts?

Personally, I am largely convinced.


Justin (koavf) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I would be interested to know how religion breaks down at the university. My intuition is that republicanism is entrenched in religion whereas an uncommonly high percentage of academia is at least apathetic to it. But, I may be wrong.

vykyng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I believe one of the main reasons for the trend is that philosophy lends itself better to liberal thinking. Some one who's business is understanding how to live one's life (to use a very general overall description of philosophy) is likely to have specific political notions that they believe are likely enough to be beneficial that they should be enacted. People who have studied the possibilities are more likely to idealistic and progressive in their general attitude.

This does not necessarily mean that liberals are 'right', however. Change, even very carefully thought out change, can have totally unpredictable and even disastrous results, especially when dealing with highly complex systems like societies, nations and cultures.

The conservative mindset doesn't just fear change out of ignorance or out of belief that all change is bad, but rather practices a healthy caution toward changes and is more concerned about maintaining a system that works than it is in bringing about potentially chaotic changes in an attempt to improve the system.

It's natural for academics to be liberals because universities teach what is theoretically possible over what actually works in practice. This is as it should be. Universities are the perfect environments to discuss theories which may or may not actually work in the real world. That's what they're for.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Justin: I'm not sure that's generally true of Democrats/liberals. What about the union wing, ethnic minorities, etc.? But given that the evidence suggests that there is a certain type of "ivory tower" liberal, the question in my mind is why (at least in the U.S.) liberals are attracted to such towers and/or towers generate liberalism....

Anon 7:24: My sense is that upwards of 80% of professional philosophers are not religious, and that the level of religiosity in academia is substantially below that of (U.S.) society in general. Since Republicanism tends to be identified with religion in this country, that may indeed be part of the explanation. But I have a feeling that can only be part of the explanation -- the liberal/conservative issue breaks along many lines, not just religion, and you'll generally find academics and philosophers on the more liberal side; so what's the explanation of this more general trend? And why, anyway, are issues like economic conservatism, reduced government, increased military spending, etc., tied to religion in this country? A big issue, of course! I recently enjoyed reading books by Lakoff (a liberal) and Sowell (a conservative) on this issue.

Jneuhaus: Yes, that's very well put! That's more or less what I intended to hint at when I raised the possibility that academics (esp. philosophers) may have "more willingness to believe that knowledgeable people can direct society for the better", though you do a better job filling out the idea than I would have. This is more or less Sowell's idea, too, in Conflict of Visions -- though of course the general idea that liberalism is connected with well-intentioned but not always effective do-goodish meddling has a long history!

Richard Y Chappell said...

jneuhaus' comment presupposes that the Republican party is conservative. Perhaps it is socially conservative, but on foreign policy matters the reverse is true.

It would be interesting if philosophers were more likely than other professions to care about such issues as foreign policy, civil liberties, human rights, etc. If so, that would explain the disparity.

(I guess this is a variant of Eric's "different values" idea. Though I also think there's much to be said for the "smart and informed" point. These aren't competing explanations, because smart and informed people will tend to have different (and better) values than others for whom "voting on values" means opposing gay marriage and immigration.)

Justin (koavf) said...


The explanation is not "Where are liberals? They are in universities!" the explanation is "Who is in universities? Liberals!" Certainly, there are non-academic liberals, but there are not (generally) academic non-liberals.

The attraction to academia is puzzling, and it's not something that I necessarily understand. As I recall, the research I saw implied that these are simply different matters of taste: I want a family (possibly I feel like it's a religious duty) and I would like to provide for them, therefore, I cannot spend 12 years going to school. I like to learn about other cultures and travel, so I'm going to find an outlet to do that, e.g. university.

Also, the point about party affiliation and ideology is well-taken, it is not the case that "Repbulican = conservative" or "Democrat = liberal."


suggests that there is a certain type of "ivory tower" liberal, the question in my mind is why (at least in the U.S.) liberals are attracted to such towers and/or towers generate liberalism....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good points, Richard and Justin! I myself am suspicious of the way "liberal" and "conservative" are used and their association of each term or idea set with one party -- though I do find myself slipping into that way of thinking and speaking sometimes.

I think you are right, Justin, that people who want to start a family in their 20s will have a harder time going through the schooling necessary to become a professor -- so that's potentially an important selective social pressure shaping who chooses a professorial career. Sorry to be a bit slow on the uptake there!

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound bad, but oh well. I still think something is to be said for the idea that academics are largely democrats/liberals because they're more informed and intelligent. As a matter of historical record, the principles and policies of democrats benefit more people, and academics know that.

This will sound even worse, but it's true to a large extent, I think: Much of republican politics consists in horrible policies and principles intentionally aimed to benefit corporations and the wealthy in general, to the detriment of everyone else, and these people throw money at information outlets and religious organizations to persuade the public to endorse these policies against their own self-interest. Educated people see through this, and that's why they're not republicans.

That's of course put very poorly, but not so poorly to see that there's a lot of truth to it.

Justin (koavf) said...

"As a matter of historical record, the principles and policies of [D]emocrats benefit more people, and academics know that."

And who produces these historical surveys and studies? Academics. So, is this a matter of confirmation bias, or simple falsity? If the notion is "liberalism is better, and I can prove it with academics," then it's sort of a circular logic you're employing.

If you think liberalism/Democratism is right, that's fine and well and if you think that is a verifiable fact, that is also fine and well. What is less acceptable is the notion that - for instance - trickle-down economics will be given a fair shake against socialism in an academic study.

At the risk of sound conspiratorial, I am suspect of - again, this is a random example - a feminist sociologist publishing findings that seriously contradict his pre-existing political biases.


Genius said...

1) I think this profile exists in other countries too and the numbers you discovered are not surprising to me. I might put that to jneuhaus's point

2) I think professors are probably more exposed to international opinion and that your statistics are probably quite similar to the result you would get if you held a global election.

3) I think philosophy is the sort of area where is is probably less acceptable to be different. I'd expect diversity in race and gender to also track diversity in political opinion across the fields.

I'm not convinced by the intelligence argument. Maybe its different in the US but I think intelligence is actually loosely associated with being right leaning. Frankly I'd like to see some evidence before we take such a self serving (and easy to test) idea seriously.

But as per the above I am sympathetic to the idea of democrats being 'more informed'.

Clark Goble said...

Unfortunately the "Republican - Democrat" pole isn't that helpful unless one answers what kind one is. There's a lot of variety on both sides and then there are moderates who switch between parties. Then there are more complexities such as people who vote Republican to stop big pork spending and corruption but who have now become mugged by the fact Republicans do the same thing when they are in power. Then there's the fact that a Utah Democrat is almost certainly far more conservative than a New York Republican.

Even if one moves from party affiliation to conservative - liberal/progressive it isn't too helpful as those are broad brushes and it's never quite clear what they mean. (Does wanting more universal health care make one liberal? Does wanting small government with limited regulation make one a conservative? What if you want both?) Adding in, as some do, a Libertarian/Statist pole isn't too helpful either.

Personally while it seems clear that academics are dominated by people who self-identify as liberal I'm not sure how to take the significance.

One could, as some do, point to different life experiences. For instance to be a professor I suspect most have been living rather poor until at least age 30 if not older if you are in a major where you do the post-doc rung for a few years after your doctorate. Then you've probably not been involved in dealing with government regulations outside of applying for grants. And, I suspect, until you've been a professor for a few years you haven't had to pay much by way of taxes nor deal with the complexities of the IRS. (And even after ones a professor I'd suspect most have fairly simple taxes)

The point is that ones life history has a lot to do with all this. I don't think it explains everything. And one can't knock the effect peer pressure has on things. (If everyone you are talking to always demonizes Republicans and you encounter few Republicans how are you apt to view them?)

Anonymous said...

Eric, you're assuming somehow that "right" and "left" retain their conventional (mid-20th-century) meanings.

But the Rep. party has become -- by that old standard -- an extreme-right party. The Democratic party represents a moderate consensus. It's "liberal" in the sense of wanting to preserve much of the structure of the New Deal (social security, some welfare programs), and being broadly committed to civil rights.

Which means that the Democratic party actually represents broader spectrum of political opinion. It now includes people who would formerly be considered conservative.

Academics, I think, are a politically more diverse group than their party affiliations might suggest.

To anon. on religion, I would counter that there is actually a much larger religious left (inside and outside the academy) than the media has cared to expose.

The Financial Philosopher said...

My observation is that liberal / conservative or democrat / republican political groups find their root in the collectivistic / individualistic or eastern / western philosophies.

One could also take a step further and draw parallels to the scientific / religious differences, as well.

Academics and philosophers, in general, have much more exposure, understanding and sympathies to collectivistic / eastern philosophies.

Additionally, their professions are somewhat detached from the individualistic / western values, such as capitalism, which is why there is less reason to affiliate with the ideals of republicanism. One could also draw the same correlation to Hollywood's liberal leanings...

I consider myself a student of philosophy but I also own a small investment advisory firm. My perspective provides a broad view and appreciation of the entire political spectrum: The philosopher in me leans to the collectivistic / eastern / liberal values while the small business owner in me appreciates the general conservative and republican themes, especially those of capitalism...

I find myself drawn to Descartes' ideas of dualism, which helps me appreciate and bind together science and religion, as well as liberal and conservative...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post and the following thoughts of the various readers...

kvond said...

Universities and colleges as text producers from Social Sciences and Humanities have become the Fifth Estate. That is, they have from their critical stance to structures taken it as their job, their position in society, to make clear the nature of the "ideological". Ideology, the images of political culture, simply become another "text" to be deciphered. Part of this is due to the fact that some of foundational texts to these disciplines are from a more Leftist point of view of course. Marx and the Continentals, and Dewey and some of the Pragmatists. And one has the incredibly rich intellectual influx of European anti-fascism in the 40's fled from Nazism, an effect that is still lasting. Given these general factors and much of those already mentioned here, the conceptual critiques from American colleges and universities have come to operate as a kind of checks and balances, which itself has perhaps become moderated from radicalism by institutional monetary flows back into departments and a widespread professionalization of scholarship.

As a side note, a older Latin professor friend of mine noted that after many years of watching closely that the more leftist the professor in the faculty, the greater the likelihood that they would leave their tray a mess in the cafeteria to be picked up by the "help". He said this as a leftist, with some consternation. That though, is a different kind of "voting".

Anonymous said...

And Eric, I'm also going to have to disagree about the interview process. If you spend a few minutes chatting with someone informally, and looking at cues like clothing, language, bearing, etc., you can form a fair general impression of their politics (i.e., you have an idea whether they lean right or left) -- even if you don't ask the "forbidden" direct questions about spouses/partners/children, religious affiliation, etc. Yes, this is judging from appearances and one can easily be dead wrong (as I was once, in one case).

There's no "conspiracy" to hire ideological kindred. Not in any strict sense. Prejudice, perhaps, often unwitting or unspoken.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, great comments! To reply just to kboughan's last point: I think in some cases long hair (on men) or a big beard suggests something about political leanings, but in philosophy at least I think the "interview wardrobe" is pretty standard (esp. for men) and not much can be gleaned from it.

But I definitely wouldn't rule out the possibility that there are subtle cues or personality factors, that might correlate with political leaning, that bias interviewers favorably or unfavorably toward a candidate.

(Oh, and it's good to hear from you again after so long!)

Anonymous said...

Back to the issue of the intelligence levels of conservatives vs. liberals: Liberalism is based on emotions, "feeling good", and appearing open-minded. More education and intelligence is needed to understand conservatism. To understand fiscal conservatism for example, one must understand economics, human nature, and the workings of the free marketplace. One must use logic and reasoning and not just employ feel-good emotional reactions. To agree with conservatism, one must also have a motive of achieving the greatest good for the most people, not just having a "what is the government going to do for me" mentality.

Justin (koavf) said...


Surely you have to realize how shallow and pedantic a response that is. If you're trying to convince liberals to be conservatives, I find it doubtful that line of argumentation (i.e. polemic) will be very effective. It seems to me that you are more likely trying to convince yourself than anyone else. In which case, I suggest you get a free blog of your own.