Republicans enjoy disproportionate influence over America’s most powerful political and economic institutions. In 2015, the Harvard Business Review found that GOP voters occupied 50 percent of the seats on U.S. corporate boards, while Democrats laid claim to a mere 24 percent. In 2016, Republicans placed one of their own in the White House despite majoritarian opposition (yet again), while receiving a share of congressional seats that far outstripped their candidates’ share of all ballots cast. Meanwhile, the party’s members have held the balance of power on America’s highest court for decades, while boasting wild overrepresentation among the leadership of our nation’s most influential religious institutions, military brass, and police officers.
On the campuses of America’s elite liberal arts colleges, however, Republicans are badly outnumbered. And since most of the GOP’s pundits and public intellectuals attended such colleges — and like to present themselves as courageous dissenters from an oppressive liberal orthodoxy (as opposed to apologists for the discredited worldview of an extractive economic elite) — the dearth of Republicans in academia is regularly posited as a scandal in our popular discourse, in a manner that underrepresentation of Democrats in corporate boardrooms never is.
On occasion, Republicans’ indignant demands for more (partisan) affirmative action and (ideological) diversity in American higher education grow so loud, broad-minded Democrats decide to join the chorus — as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein did earlier this week.
In a Bloomberg column titled, “Colleges Have Way Too Many Liberal Professors,” Sunstein reviews the findings of a new study on the partisan affiliation of faculty at 51 of the 66 highest-ranked liberal-arts colleges in the United States. He notes that Democratic professors outnumbered Republican ones at all 51 schools, and in every field of study across them; in history, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was 17 to 1 — while in the faculty lounges of Wellesley, Williams, and Swarthmore, it exceeded 120 to 1.
Sunstein argues that these figures should be a source of concern for two reasons. First, in fields where a scholar’s ideological leanings can be apparent in their work — such as history or political science — departments dominated by Democrats are liable to discriminate (consciously or otherwise) against Republican academics. And second, departments with a “prevailing political orthodoxy” are likely to do students a disservice, by keeping them ensconced in “a kind of information cocoon.”
One could pick a variety of bones with this argument. To name a couple: Few people would cite the overrepresentation of Republicans on corporate boards, or in police forces, as dispositive evidence of partisan discrimination within those institutions. Rather, most recognize that something inherent to the vocations of “CEO” or “cop” (or at least, inherent to those vocations in our current social context) selects for and/or shapes a right-leaning outlook. And there’s good evidence that Democrats’ overrepresentation in academia is the product of a similar species of “natural” selection. Separately, Sunstein does not substantiate the claim that left-leaning academics habitually fail to expose their students to conservative points of view.
To my mind, though, the primary flaw in Sunstein’s piece has less to do with its central argument about the need for greater ideological diversity on college campuses, than with the way it opts to measure such diversity. It seems plausible to me that there are academic departments in the U.S. that would benefit from hiring a few more right-leaning (and/or heterodox) thinkers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to hire more historians and political scientists who identify with the modern Republican Party.
After all, the ideology of the contemporary GOP is no garden-variety conservatism. Rather, it is a peculiarly noxious (and dull) strand of reactionary thought that deserves to be marginalized. Its most respectable ideas — which is to say, those that pertain to the proper role of government (as opposed to the proper role of black football players during the national anthem) — have been rejected by mainstream conservative parties in every other Western democracy, and by most Republican voters in our own. And while such ideas do have a claim to political relevance, their resilient influence is not a reflection of their popular appeal or empirical validity, but merely of their utility to America’s aspiring oligarchs. For this reason, it is hardly more intellectually suspect for a university’s faculty to unanimously disdain Paul Ryan’s worldview, than it would be for them to universally reject the legitimacy of feudal rule.
And that is all the more true in the Trump era, when Republicanism’s plutocratic pieties have become wedded to a proto-authoritarian, ethno-nationalist demagogy — and anti-democratic electoral strategy — that are fundamentally irreconcilable with the bedrock, (small-l) liberal values of toleration, empiricism, universal suffrage, and equality before the law.
Given these realities, universities should feel no obligation to seek out scholars who proudly identify with the contemporary GOP. And those who worry about the health of American intellectual life should take pains to avoid perpetuating the notion that the only alternative to embracing center-left orthodoxy is to support Donald Trump’s political party.
The GOP is not a normal, center-right party by international standards.
One problem with equating a paucity of Republican professors with a dearth of ideological diversity is that the ideology of the contemporary GOP is an extremist creed that has few adherents outside of America’s conservative elite. Thus, there is no inherent reason why a university faculty could not feature a diverse range of political views, including conservative ones, without employing any registered Republicans.
No major right-of-center party — in any other developed democracy — shares the GOP’s maniacal hostility to social welfare spending, basic labor rights, and environmental regulations; nor its skepticism about the existence of man-made climate change; nor the fanaticism of its commitment to the upward redistribution of economic resources. The U.K.’s Tory prime minister, Theresa May, recently called for £2 billion in new funding for public housing, while lamenting “the stigma that still clings” to such accommodations. Germany’s right-of-center chancellor Angela Merkel argues that man-made climate change “will determine the fate of the world,” and has made reducing carbon emissions one of her party’s signature policy positions (her achievements on this front fall short of her ideals, but in the present discussion, our concern is the latter). Meanwhile, Canada’s conservatives proudly support single-payer health care, boasting earlier this year that, under Stephen Harper’s leadership, the party “increased funding for health care to record levels,” and promising that if Canadians return the right wing to power, it will “continue to increase funding for health care at 6 per cent a year to ensure that all Canadians have access to high-quality health care regardless of ability to pay.”
By contrast, the current GOP government has attempted to slash funding for public housing, gut federal health-care spending (from a baseline that leaves more than 40 million Americans without any form of health insurance, and in the middle of an official “public health emergency”), and provide trillions of dollars in tax breaks to an economic elite that was already claiming a far higher share of after-tax income than their peers in Western Europe — all while pursuing an environmental agenda ostensibly aimed at maximizing the amount of carbon the U.S. puts into the atmosphere.
Republican voters do not actually share the worldview of elite Republican intellectuals.
The discrepancy between the GOP’s governing agenda and those of other conservative parties in the developed world does not reflect Americans’ “frontier spirit” or “rugged individualism.” Although the party’s intellectual elites (which is to say, the Republicans that a university would be most likely to hire) do tend to endorse its ideological program, relatively few ordinary Republicans do.
Recent polls have found that (at least) a plurality of Republican voters want the government to increase federal spending on health care, make public colleges tuition-free, provide a “public option for the internet,” require large corporations to put workers’ representatives on their boards, mount robust “government efforts to regulate pollution,” “provide a decent standard of living for people unable to work” — and oppose cutting taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Such findings are buttressed by more thorough studies of the 2016 electorate — and by the GOP’s own internal polling. A survey recently commissioned by the Republican National Committee found that “increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services, strengthening and preserving Medicare and Social Security, and reforming the student loan system all scored higher” among “soft Republican” voters “than Trump’s favored subjects of tax cuts, border security, and preserving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.”
The GOP’s awareness that its ideas lack popular appeal is reflected in its efforts to restrict access to the ballot, ram through legislation with minimal public oversight, baldly lie to the public about the substance of said legislation, and disseminate campaign advertisements that either grossly misrepresent the party’s policy objectives, or else, frame political conflict around symbolic “culture war” flashpoints that have little intellectual or policy content.
Importantly, the political inviability of the party’s policy ideas does not reflect popular prejudice — most of the core premises of the elite Republican worldview have fared no better in empirical studies than they have in public opinion polls (i.e., supply-side tax cuts have not reliably spurred higher rates of growth; high deficits have not inevitably produced runaway inflation; and the welfare state has not hurt low-income people more than it has helped them).
All of which is to say: The GOP does not derive its status as a mainstream political party from the quality of its ideas, but rather, from election rules that render third parties nonviable; social cleavages that enable identity-based polarization; and the fact that America’s reactionary billionaires spend far more of their money trying to influence politics than their peers in other nations.
And if you take exception to that last bit — if you doubt that the contemporary GOP’s governing ideology is tantamount to unthinking fealty to the whims of concentrated capital — please allow Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to clarify the point:
Would campus discourse really be impoverished by the a dearth of advocates for this philosophy of government?
It is possible for universities to foster ideological diversity without employing apologists for a plutocratic party that suppresses nonwhite votes, cultivates racial animus, and demonizes intellectuals.
Liberal-arts colleges absolutely have an interest in exposing their students to a wide range of ideas and ideological perspectives. But in 2018, the Democrats’ big tent is broad enough to house Howard Schultz and Bernie Sanders; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Dan Lipinski. Which is to say, it very nearly encompasses the full spectrum of mainstream ideological debate in most other Western countries.
What’s more, in the Trump era, the broader anti-GOP coalition has grown even more ideologically varied than the Democratic one — while the Republican Party, itself, has grown increasingly tolerant of proto-authoritarian attempts to politicize federal law enforcement, restrict access to the ballot, stigmatize dissent, demonize vulnerable minority populations, and vilify higher education.
Thus, it is possible for universities to cultivate an intellectually vibrant environment while employing few defenders of America’s ruling political party. And, at this moment in our history, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for a liberal-arts institution to have few proud Republicans in its faculty lounge.
Sunstein may well have a point about left-wing group-think on American campuses. But the measure of a college’s intellectual vitality should not be the percentage of Republicans among its tenured faculty — because the irrelevance of ideas in American politics can be fairly measured by the percentage of Republicans in Congress. A hegemonic, center-left orthodoxy might pose a threat to the liberal-arts project at some colleges. But the party of Trump poses a far graver one.
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