Why Are There So Few Conservatives in Academia?

Former President George W. Bush, the author says, was “anti-intellectual.” Above, Bush speaks on Aug. 6, 2014, in Washington.

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Answer by Jordan Boyd Graber:

I’m a professor. I’m fairly centrist (fiscally conservative, socially liberal, generally pro-market libertarian), which makes me very right-wing compared with my colleagues. I would have definitely been a Republican in the past century (before the Southern strategy) and was actually registered as one until recently, partially for game theoretic reasons. At the national level, I’ve donated to more Republicans (Mitt Romney, John Huntsman, and Ron Paul) than Democrats (Lawrence Lessig).

There are three big reasons that conservatives are hard to find in university faculties: intellectual consistency, anti-science trends by conservatives, and social pressure.

Intellectual consistency. As professional “thinkers” (however pretentious that sounds), academics value intellectual consistency and people who can articulate sound policies. However, all of this century’s top-ticket Republicans have lacked this essential trait. Thus, philosophical consistency has prevented me from voting for any Republican presidential candidate since I’ve been able.

  • George W. Bush, a big-government Republican, was unabashedly anti-intellectual and surrounded himself with evil, lying people; he expanded the debt and entitlements and brought more religion into government (all anathema to me). He also handled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan completely incompetently.

  • I really wanted to vote for John McCain, and I’m still upset about Bush’s dirty tricks in South Carolina (see above) that stole the primary from one of the most honorable politicians in the U.S. I think campaign finance reform is the most important issue in America, and I think McCain would actually have the guts to do something about it. However, when such an old candidate chooses a vapid religious fundamentalist as his running mate, I simply cannot vote for him (if only he’d picked Joe Lieberman, Romney, Tim Pawlenty, or Huntsman).

  • I liked Romney until he completely abandoned Romneycare, which was completely intellectually dishonest (it was developed by the Heritage Foundation!). I ended up voting for Gary Johnson instead out of protest.

  • 2016 is so much worse.

I suspect that many of my centrist colleagues feel similarly.

(The local level is a different matter. There, Republicans are more consistently pro-development and anti-NIMBY. They also are more supportive of nuclear energy and reasonable policies on GMOs. I’ve often voted for Republicans at county and city levels, but given the places I’ve lived they never have a chance anyway, so it’s a bit of a protest vote.)

Another issue is that Republicans have been increasingly anti-science, hounding federal funding agencies looking for “fraud” and “waste” and pursuing witch hunts against climate scientists. That deeply offends intellectuals both at a philosophical level and at a practical level, since we depend on state and federal funding.

Social pressure. Finally, the few “conservatives” that are in academia tend to keep their mouths shut. If we’re in a science discipline, we can just steer conversation to our personal lives or business to keep things running smoothly. Or we concentrate on issues where we agree with our peers (education, equal rights, immigration reform, how Donald Trump is a buffoon).

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