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Academics' Ideology and "Moderation":

Gross and Simmons' important new study of academic political ideology may underestimate the degree of liberal dominance because of the way it categorizes political "moderation" among academics. As discussed in my last post, the authors find that 43.5% of academics are liberal, 47% are "moderate," and 9% are conservative. This leads the authors to conclude that, while there are very few conservative academics, the overall valence of the academy is moderate rather than liberal.

One problem with this conclusion, discussed in my previous post, is that the preponderance of liberals is much greater in those fields where ideology actually matters. Another is Gross and Simmons' analysis of "moderation." As they explain, the "moderate" category in their Table 2 (reprinted in my earlier post) is actually a combination of survey respondents who described themselves as "slightly liberal" (18.1%), "middle of the road" (18.0%), or "slightly conservative" (10.5%). I wonder, however, whether these self-descriptions are based on a reference group of other academics (who are well to the left of the general population) or of the general public. Many people who do not follow survey research understandably define "moderation" relative to the orientations of the people they know. For academics, these reference groups are disproportionately likely to be other academics and nonacademics with ideological backgrounds similar to those of people in the academic world. The famous anecdote about the New York intellectual who couldn't believe that Nixon had won the 1972 election because no one he knew had voted Republican may be an exaggeration; but it does contain a kernel of truth. Thus, self-described "middle of the road" and "slightly liberal" academics - perhaps even "slightly conservative" ones - may be well to the left of center by the standards of the general population.

I cannot reliably prove or disprove this theory based on the data presented in the Gross and Simmons paper. But there are some indications that it captures an important part of what is going on. For example, Gross and Simmons found that 78% of their respondents voted for Kerry (77%) or Nader (1%) in the 2004 election, and only 21% for Bush (Bush won the popular vote by a narrow 51-48 margin in the general population). Assuming that most of the self-described conservatives (20 percent of the total sample, if you count the "slightly conservative") voted for Bush, this implies that nearly all of the self-described "slightly liberal" and "middle of the road" academics voted for Kerry. By contrast, CNN exit polls indicate that self-described "moderates" in the general population voted for Kerry by a much narrower 54-45 margin. While ideology is not the only influence on voting behavior, this result certainly suggests that self-described academic centrists are on average much further to the left than moderates in the general population.

UPDATE: I should note that while there is good reason to suspect that academic "moderates" overall are more liberal than those in the general population, it is impossible to tell from the Gross-Simmons paper how this breaks down in particular disciplines. For example, it is possible that self-described "middle of the road" academics in the hard sciences are more moderate than those in the social sciences and humanities.

UPDATE #2: It is worth pointing out that Gross and Simmons do not deny the fact that academics are more liberal than the general population. As they put it (pg. 72), "we would not contest the claim that professors are one of the most liberal occupational groups in American society, or that the professoriate is a Democratic stronghold." Their main original claims are that 1) academics are more moderate than usually assumed, and 2) there is more diversity of opinion among left of center academics than conservative critics claim. The first conclusion depends crucially on the authors' definition of moderation - the issue discussed in this post. The second may well be true. In fact, I suspect that it almost certainly is. There is likely considerable divergence between the roughly 20% of humanities and social science professors who describe themselves as "radical" (see my last post) and those who are mainstream liberals. However, this finding does not change the fact that academics are overwhelmingly on the left rather than the right. Political diversity among academics does exist, but much of it is confined within a truncated liberal to radical political spectrum.

fullerene:
This post completely undermines your original point that liberal dominance was only present in "fields where it matters." If self-described academic moderates are more liberal than those moderates in the general population, all of these fields will skew liberal.
10.9.2007 4:35pm
Ilya Somin:
This post completely undermines your original point that liberal dominance was only present in "fields where it matters." If self-described academic moderates are more liberal than those moderates in the general population, all of these fields will skew liberal.

The original post accepted Gross and Simmons' categories as given. This one challenges them. Moreover, as I indicate in this post, we don't have definitive proof of how liberal the self-described academic moderates actually are.
10.9.2007 4:50pm
Justin (mail):
Was going to comment, but fullerene beat me to it. For what its worth, I agree with this post, and not the previous one.
10.9.2007 4:50pm
Ben P (mail):
I rather like their characterization.

But I think that's influenced by my own definition of moderate.

I see a moderate as someone who is able to look at both sides of a given political issue and see the positives and negatives. They may come to a conclusion that one side of an issue or another is correct, but they're generally capable of finding finding compromise around an issue they are on the opposite side of.

Those that were "middle of the road" or "slightly liberal" may have voted more for kerry. They may also be "more liberal" than self identified middle of the Roaders in the general population, but I see something intrinsically different in someone who puts down "middle of the road" even if their definition of middle of the road is qualitatively different from what someone else puts down as middle of the road.
10.9.2007 4:55pm
Guest101:
Isn't this an exercise in question-begging? You seem to be arguing that the ideological tilt of academia is liberal rather than moderate because most self-identified "moderate" academics define themselves against their academic peers, a reference group that is itself to the left of the mainstream-- but that, of course, is persuasive only if you assume as a premise the conclusion that you're attempting to demonstrate.
10.9.2007 4:58pm
Anderson (mail):
Sigh.

I thought one of the many superiorities of conservative academics to their liberal counterparts was supposed to be that liberals are such whiny little bitches.
10.9.2007 5:01pm
Ilya Somin:
Isn't this an exercise in question-begging? You seem to be arguing that the ideological tilt of academia is liberal rather than moderate because most self-identified "moderate" academics define themselves against their academic peers, a reference group that is itself to the left of the mainstream-- but that, of course, is persuasive only if you assume as a premise the conclusion that you're attempting to demonstrate.

Even Gross and Simmons agree that academics are on average more liberal than the general population. See their discussion of the issue in the paper. Hardly any experts dispute that premise.The main issue in dispute is HOW MUCH they diverge from the general public.

Moreover, in my post I also cite data supporting this on the basis of academics' voting patterns. While ideology is not the only factor influencing voting decisions, it is a significant one. And Gross and Simmons present evidence that it is more determinative of academics' voting decisions than those of the general population.
10.9.2007 5:03pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Gee, I thought the conservatives' defense of Larry Summers was that he spoke truth to power, that men are just smarter than women and thus are over-represented in academia, not because they are discriminated against but because they are just too stupid (and probably overly emotional to boot). Maybe you conservatives should take a long hard look at yourselves and face the ugly truth--you are a bunch of dumbasses. I mean you did elect George Bush twice.
10.9.2007 5:08pm
bittern (mail):
Yes, academics consider themselves as liberal relative to other academics. There's another likely theory.

Ilya, taking the Bush v Kerry vote as representative of conservative v liberal may be highly skewed by the visceral reaction that moderate academics may have experienced due to Bush's express disdain for inteleksuels. Of course they're not going to like the guy.
10.9.2007 5:13pm
Ilya Somin:
Gee, I thought the conservatives' defense of Larry Summers was that he spoke truth to power, that men are just smarter than women and thus are over-represented in academia, not because they are discriminated against but because they are just too stupid (and probably overly emotional to boot). Maybe you conservatives should take a long hard look at yourselves and face the ugly truth--you are a bunch of dumbasses. I mean you did elect George Bush twice.

It's probably foolish of me to respond to a dumb, obnoxious comment like this one. But let me note 3 points:

1. I am not a conservative.
2. The post says nothing about the CAUSES of liberal dominance in academia. Discrimination, in my view, is a factor, but far from the only one.
3. It is not unreasonable to suppose that there are a lot more liberals willing to discriminate against conservatives in academia than there are male chauvinists willing to discriminate against women. Indeed, Gross and Simmons' data indicate that over 60% of academics, including a majority of male academics, describe themselves as "feminists" (compared to only 27% of women and 12% of men in the general population). This is not a class of people likely to engage in discrimination against women on any large scale. That said, I'm not necessarily endorsing Summers' theories, as I lack the expertise in the relevant fields.
10.9.2007 5:14pm
frankcross (mail):
I don't think the self-characterization is as reliable as the representation of positions on policy issues. I don't see a terribly liberal breakdown on most of those.
10.9.2007 5:22pm
bittern (mail):
Ilya, you're moving too fast for the pickers to work on your logos. But you seem like you're new to the country, and have not observed what goes on here. Just for one example, who is a "feminist." University people would generally interpret that as meaning that women should have a square chance to develop themselves. Most people in the real world take that stance for granted, i.e., they are "feminists" as defined by the U people. In the actual practice, though, the "enlightened" U people aren't necessarily going to live up to their lofty ideals. Don't take self-reports as gospel, dude.
10.9.2007 5:23pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
1. I am not a conservative.

Yeah right. I know, you're a libertarian and libertarians aren't conservative.

And of course I was being sarcastic.
10.9.2007 5:25pm
Dave N (mail):
The famous anecdote about the New York intellectual who couldn't believe that Nixon had won the 1972 election because no one he knew had voted Republican may be an exaggeration; but it does contain a kernel of truth.

I agree that it contains a kernel of truth. This quote is usually attributed to Pauline Kael, the late critic for The New Yorker, though there is considerable doubt she actually said it. (She was quoted in the NYT as saying, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them").

But even the correct Kael quote does not detract from Professor Somin's overall point, that many in the elite (academic or otherwise) are out of touch.
10.9.2007 5:26pm
Crunchy Frog:

Maybe you conservatives should take a long hard look at yourselves and face the ugly truth--you are a bunch of dumbasses. I mean you did elect George Bush twice.

And yet you keep coming back. If one is known by the company he keeps, then what does that make you? Or does it give you a (false) sense of superiority to compare yourself to the Great Unwashed?

Get out of your mom's basement and find something productive to do, troll.
10.9.2007 5:30pm
SeattleSolicitor:
Is the best reference group here the general population? I think it might make more sense to compare them at least with other individuals who have college degrees (breakdown 49% Bush, 49% Kerry), given that such individuals are more likely to follow politics, read the newspaper, etc. Unless the goal is to have an academy that is the political mirror of the least informed and least educated, which I assume it is not, we really should be comparing professors with something closer to their peer group.

(I would say to compare those with post-grad study (44/55), but I expect that some would worry that grad students are too in-the-fold to have politics of their own untainted by the liberal academy brainwashing; I am aware that the argument has even been made with regard to undergrads.)
10.9.2007 5:30pm
bittern (mail):

Their main original claims are that 1) academics are more moderate than usually assumed, and 2) there is more diversity of opinion among left of center academics than conservative critics claim. The first conclusion depends crucially on the authors' definition of moderation - the issue discussed in this post. The second may well be true.

Instead of blowing bubbles with profs' self-reported location on a left-right spectrum, let's get the "conservative critics" to guess what the proportion of professors favor a cast of specific liberal programs, then ask the professors which ones they favor, and then compare to see how good the critics guesses were.

Well, that would be boring, wouldn't it. Back to axe grinding, please.
10.9.2007 5:38pm
Ilya Somin:
Is the best reference group here the general population? I think it might make more sense to compare them at least with other individuals who have college degrees (breakdown 49% Bush, 49% Kerry), given that such individuals are more likely to follow politics, read the newspaper, etc. Unless the goal is to have an academy that is the political mirror of the least informed and least educated, which I assume it is not, we really should be comparing professors with something closer to their peer group.

(I would say to compare those with post-grad study (44/55)


NOte that the distribution among both groups is pretty close to that in the generla population (51-49 Bush) and very divergent from those of the professors.
10.9.2007 5:46pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, you're moving too fast for the pickers to work on your logos. But you seem like you're new to the country, and have not observed what goes on here. Just for one example, who is a "feminist." University people would generally interpret that as meaning that women should have a square chance to develop themselves. Most people in the real world take that stance for granted, i.e., they are "feminists" as defined by the U people. In the actual practice, though, the "enlightened" U people aren't necessarily going to live up to their lofty ideals. Don't take self-reports as gospel, dude.

Let me make 3 points:

1. I have lived in the US since I was 6.
2. Even if academics define "feminist" in the way you claim, that still suggests they are unlikely to want to discriminate against women (the claim I was using that figure to support).
3. Many academics are well aware of the definition of feminism used by most womens' studies scholars - which goes far beyond equal opportunity between the sexes.
4. Sure, people don't always live up to their ideals. However, if the ideals are shared by the vast majority of the relevant decisionmakers and deviation from the violates both the law and professional norms, it is unlikely that there is going to be enormous deviation from them.
10.9.2007 5:51pm
advisory opinion:
That's 4 points, Somin. Back to the re-education camps with you.
10.9.2007 5:55pm
Crunchy Frog:

(I would say to compare those with post-grad study (44/55), but I expect that some would worry that grad students are too in-the-fold to have politics of their own untainted by the liberal academy brainwashing; I am aware that the argument has even been made with regard to undergrads.)

Considering that brainwashing starts in preschool and is perpetuated through the entirety of k-12 education, it's not surprising.

I would only compare those who have been out of school (and in the real world) for a minimum of say, three years. That should be enough time for a new graduate to be mugged by reality.
10.9.2007 5:57pm
Ilya Somin:
I don't think the self-characterization is as reliable as the representation of positions on policy issues. I don't see a terribly liberal breakdown on most of those.

I respectfully disagree. Even the authors concede that academics are overwhelmingly liberal on foreign policy, racial, and social issues. They contend that they are much less so on economic ones. I agree that the gap between the general public and academics smaller in the latter category. But it is larger than the authors suggest because the questions they chose either have boundary problems (e.g. - majorities of both academics and the general public support more government action to help "the poor"; but academics likely support a lot more such action), or are unrepresentative of the issue area as a whole (e.g. - fewer academics than the general public think that corporate profits are too high; however this question focuses on a populist grievance against corporations rather than left-liberal one).
10.9.2007 6:02pm
BGates (www):
Instead of blowing bubbles with profs' self-reported location on a left-right spectrum, let's...ask the professors which [specific liberal programs] they favor....

I was going to suggest the same thing.
10.9.2007 6:04pm
PLR:
I'm delighted that liberalism continues to prevail in American universities. May it ever remain so.
10.9.2007 6:21pm
Justin (mail):
"Indeed, Gross and Simmons' data indicate that over 60% of academics, including a majority of male academics, describe themselves as "feminists" (compared to only 27% of women and 12% of men in the general population)."

Before law school, I wouldn't self-identify as a feminist, and then I learned what a feminist was. Most likely, the additional increase in self-identification is, at least in part, due to the realization that feminism is a mainstream ideology that most people accept, rather than a scary word used for extremists.
10.9.2007 6:41pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
"Yes, yes, we have a lot of ethnic diversity in our department. We have a number of people from England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. We even have people from overseas -- one guy from Newfoundland and another from New Zealand. He's one-sixteenth Maori!"
10.9.2007 6:51pm
Benjamin Davis (mail):
This reminds me of when I first moved to France and saw that on the newsstand I could purchase an anarchist, or a communist paper, or a socialist paper, or a centrist, or a right wing, or an extreme right wing at the same time. All of them had decent circulations. What these kinds of polls mask is the fact that what we are talking about in the U.S. spectrum is essentially the difference between center and center-right in the rest of the world. We make such a big deal about these distinctions that are really of very little difference here.
Peace,
Ben
10.9.2007 7:00pm
Virginia:
Liberals are also less likely to self-identify as liberals than conservatives are to self-identify as conservatives. Americans at large describe themselves as 40% conservative, 40% moderate, and only 20% liberal. In other words, even assuming that no moderates or conservatives self-identify as "liberal," at least 40% of people in the leftmost third of the political spectrum self-identify as something other than "liberal."

I suspect that many of the people whom the study calls "moderates" are likewise in the leftmost third of the political spectrum.
10.9.2007 7:33pm
frankcross (mail):
Ilya, I think you are distorting the issue responses to suit your conclusions. The question on corporate profits is a significant one and it is a form of very liberal populism that can't be so easily waved away. And I don't think the academy is that far left on foreign policy. Certainly the support for Israel doesn't suggest that. The one place the academy is well to the left is on social issues, like abortion and gay rights.

There have been other studies that suggest one big conclusion -- religious conservatives are very underrepresented in the academy. I suspect libertarians are overrepresented in academia, but there aren't many from the religious right. Many fewer than in the populatioin.
10.9.2007 7:51pm
wm13:
Well, frankcross, I think Ilya is on the right track: academics will be more to the left than the general population, but less populist. In the case of a left-wing populist question (e.g., are corporate profits too high?), the two effects will balance. In the case of a right-wing populist question (e.g., should the Pledge of Allegiance be mandatory? or, should both creationism and evolution be taught in the schools so students can understand the debate?), the two effects will be reinforcing, and you will get almost zero yes answers.

As to foreign policy, support for Israel probably isn't a good yardstick, given that the percentage of Jews in the academy is much higher than in the country as a whole.
10.9.2007 8:43pm
frankcross (mail):
Actually, I agree completely with that. They are more to the left than the public on many issues, that is clear. They are also less populist than the general public, to a considerable degree. And when liberal impulses conflict with anti-populist impulses, the latter tend to prevail though when liberal impulses align with anti-populist impulses, it is overwhelming.

But the study's conclusions seem plain. A substantial minority of the academy is definitely left. Another substantial minority is moderate. A very small minority is conservative. And it seems odd to say that understates how liberal the academy is.
10.9.2007 9:15pm
justwonderingby:
What is the point here?

Saying that liberals dominate academia is like saying water is wet -- we all know it to be so.

And for those who say there is no liberal bias in higher education, please don't piss in my ear and tell me it's raining.
10.9.2007 9:44pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, I think you are distorting the issue responses to suit your conclusions. The question on corporate profits is a significant one and it is a form of very liberal populism that can't be so easily waved away. And I don't think the academy is that far left on foreign policy. Certainly the support for Israel doesn't suggest that. The one place the academy is well to the left is on social issues, like abortion and gay rights.

I don't think that the corporate question is very representative. There are ways to be left-wing about economic poicy without believing that corporate profits are too high, and those modes of thought are very common in academia.

As Gross and Simmons themselves conclude, academics are well to the left of the general population on foreign policy issues they measured other than Israel, particularly issues related to the use of force.

And support for Israel is not an issue that neatly splits the left and the right. Numerous liberals are pro-Israel for a variety of reasons. Consider the generally pro-Israel positions of numerous Jewish groups, the AFL-CIO, and the Democratic Party. In addition, academics are disproportionately Jewish, and this will lead them to be more pro-Israel than other leftists. Moreover, academics are less pro-Israel than the general population according to the Gross and Simmons survey, which finds about 20 percent favoring Israel over the Palestinians, 10% the reverse, and the rest neutral. In the general population, most surveys show about 40-50 percent pro-Israel, 10-15 percent pro-Palestinian, and the rest neutral.
10.9.2007 10:53pm
Ilya Somin:
What these kinds of polls mask is the fact that what we are talking about in the U.S. spectrum is essentially the difference between center and center-right in the rest of the world. We make such a big deal about these distinctions that are really of very little difference here.

Most academic liberals in the US have issue positions to the left of European center-right politicians. For example, most of them are unlikely to be too fond of Sarkozy, Margaret Thatcher, or Berlusconi, or to share their views on key issues.
10.9.2007 10:55pm
Elliot Reed:
Ilya, I mostly agree, but I do not quite see how this constitutes a criticism of the study. It seems to me that if they had just asked questions about policy issues and coded people as left or right based on their responses they would be subjected to a multitude of criticisms based on objections to their questions and the way the translated them into "left" and "right". For the reasons you mention, it is difficult to write off their findings, and that seems to me like an advantage of their design.
10.9.2007 11:07pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, I mostly agree, but I do not quite see how this constitutes a criticism of the study. It seems to me that if they had just asked questions about policy issues and coded people as left or right based on their responses they would be subjected to a multitude of criticisms based on objections to their questions and the way the translated them into "left" and "right". For the reasons you mention, it is difficult to write off their findings, and that seems to me like an advantage of their design.

I agree that it is difficult to just "write off" their findings, and I am not trying to do that. However, they could have improved the study by focusing on the self-described "moderates" and comparing their issue positions to the general population. For some issue questions, they do in fact collect such data, but have not as far as I can tell performed a systematic analysis of the "moderates" issue positions and vote choices. The limited evidence they do present suggests that "moderate" academics are well to the left of moderates in the general public.
10.9.2007 11:57pm
Ilya Somin:
But the study's conclusions seem plain. A substantial minority of the academy is definitely left. Another substantial minority is moderate. A very small minority is conservative. And it seems odd to say that understates how liberal the academy is.

THe point where I diverge from the study's authors is on the claim that the "left" groups is only a "substantial minority." I think it's a clear majority - especially in most politically relevant fields.
10.10.2007 2:31am