Back in 2016, some students at Emory University were so traumatized by the appearance of pro-Trump slogans, written in chalk on various sidewalks on campus, that they called upon the administration to investigate the incident as one of “hate speech.” The thought that an entire university campus should constitute a safe space, in which students might be insulated from any expression of support for one of the two major U.S. political parties, struck many as being in tension with the ideal of the university as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. At the same time, the fact that the existence of Trump supporters in their midst could have so alarmed these students shows how unusual or rare the expression of political disagreement has already become at certain U.S. colleges. The fact is, you can search far and wide in American academia, without finding a single Trump supporter, or even a political conservative.
Now that Trump is president, many U.S. academics have found themselves in a peculiar situation, of wanting to fulminate against Trump, but having no real interlocutors – there is simply no one around to debate any of the issues, because no one is willing to defend Trump (and in many cases, no one is willing to defend the Republican party, or the conservative movement more generally). Small colleges in particular risk becoming left-wing echo chambers, in which people sit around complaining about neoliberalism, and everyone just nods their head in agreement, or else engages in the usual game of competitive left-wing oneupmanship. Apart from being intellectually stultifying, this also gets boring rather quickly, as well as generating a heightened sense of uselessness.
It has also provoked a certain amount of soul-searching, about how universities got to be this way. Naturally, this being the United States, the suggestion that springs most readily to mind is that it is a consequence of discrimination against conservatives. And of course, this being the United States, this has led to the call in some quarters for an affirmative action policy, aimed at increasing the representation of political conservatives in American academia. The most prominent advocate of this view has been the psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
My own view is that the “left-wing echo chamber” problem is real, particularly in the United States, although to a lesser degree in Canada, and that something should be done about it, but that the affirmative action model is a bad way of approaching things. The core problem, I think, is conservative anti-rationalism (often billed as “common sense” conservatism), which long predates Donald Trump. Rational conservative ideologies, such as libertarianism, are not underrepresented in the academy – on the contrary, they are probably over-represented, relative to their actual support in the population. What is underrepresented in the academy, for obvious reasons, is the version of conservatism that scorns expertise in all forms and takes political positions that are only sustainable if one discounts both empirical evidence and rational argument.
First though a comment on Haidt’s proposal. I wasn’t surprised to hear this, coming from him. When evaluating any proposal, it is important always to consider the source. The problem with Haidt is that 1. he is a moral noncognitivist, and 2. he is a moralist about politics. According to Haidt, all of our moral convictions are fundamentally irrational, a consequence of a set of emotional dispositions. He claims that evolution has endowed us with a set of six basic reactive dispositions (or primitive “intuitions” about social interaction): care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity. He compares these to the six different tastes that we experience from food. There is, however, variation with respect to these six moral tastes, with different people naturally tending to experience them with different intensity levels, as well as developing in social environments in which some are privileged at the expense of others. The political convictions that one winds up holding, he claims, are a consequence of the particular configuration of moral tastes that one has. In particular, he claims that “liberalism” is a consequence of a lopsided emphasis on just two, care/harm and fairness, while “conservatism” involves a more even-handed consideration of all six.
When you think through the consequences of this view, it’s easy to see why Haidt wants to see an affirmative action program for conservatives. On his view, “being a conservative” is a personal trait not all that different from race – it is a consequence of an inherited biological disposition. Thus conservatives can take comfort from the assurance that, as Lady Gaga put it, “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way.” Furthermore, on this view there is essentially no connection between academic study, or rational inquiry, and the sort of political positions that individuals take. On Haidt’s view, normative discourse is essentially confabulatory. This rules out the possibility that becoming more educated might make a person more liberal – on the contrary, “liberal” theories, such as the political philosophy of John Rawls (say), are just made-up stories, which liberals tell themselves in order to rationalize their prior moral convictions, which are ultimately grounded in a set of pre-rational sentiments (or “intuitions”). As a result, the only explanation for the fact that more educated people tend to be more liberal must be the existence of systematic discrimination against conservatives in the education system.
Thus it is important to see that Haidt’s view on conservatives in academia follows rather directly from two quite radical positions that he takes, the first being an extreme form of moral noncognitivism (claiming that there is no rational basis for anyone’s moral commitments), and the second a strong form of moralism about politics (claiming that one’s position on the liberal-conservative political spectrum is a consequence of one’s unchosen moral commitments). Both are claims that I disagree with. I wrote a rather long book trying to explain my own, contrary view, but the executive summary would go something like this. Consider the matter from the perspective of dual-process psychology (a view recently popularized by Daniel Kahneman, for which Haidt has some sympathy as well). Thanks to the influence of the “common sense” movement, contemporary conservatism often amounts to an endorsement of “intuition” (or “system 1”) outputs over “reason” (or “system 2”). And since education is primarily an exercise in the development of “system 2” resources, it tends naturally to crowd out conservatism. Despite all the blah-blah about postmodernism taking over the academy, the fact remains that universities are deeply committed to the Enlightenment project of advancing and promoting the exercise of reason – not just doctrinally, but in every aspect of their institutional structure – and as a result, they tend to crowd out various forms of antirationalism, not just by excluding people committed to it, but by “curing” them of it, by pointed out the various combinations of error and misery that it so often leads to.
(There are, I should note, a few important exceptions to this point about conservative antirationalism – cases where conservatives take unintuitive, “system 2” perspectives, and the left-wing tends to embrace the more intuitive, or “system 1” perspective. It is important to observe, however, that in such cases, the conservative view tends not to be underrepresented in academia. I’ll get to this in a bit.)
Let me provide just one example of the impact of the conservative commitment to “common sense,” which is the field of criminology, a field that tends to be skewed pretty far in a “liberal” direction. I pick this field in part because it is not a bad case, as far as being charitable to Haidt’s analysis, because a lot of our commitment to punishment is a consequence of a retributivist impulse, which has all the signs of being an evolutionary adaptation, and thus a non-rational, intuitive response. It also appears to be subject to some variance in the population, with different people appearing to experience it with different intensity levels. And finally, the strength of retributivist sentiment is associated with conservative political alignment.
And yet, the more educated people are, generally speaking, the less committed they become to retributive criminal justice policies. Why? Because the criminal justice system is not purely retributive, it also has to deal with broader policy issues, involving both deterrence and recidivism. Our goal is not to have a punishment system that satisfies our visceral desire for revenge, but also one that is effective at controlling crime. And when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of different crime control policies, our “intuitions” are subject to a very well-known and significant bug, which is that we vastly overestimate the power of punishment, relative to the motivational force of rewards. So if one starts to collect data and to develop “evidence-based” criminal justice policies, this will tend to encourage a shift away from “sticks” toward “carrots.” Many policies that, from an intuitive perspective, seem to involve “coddling” criminals, will turn out to be the most effective from a crime-control perspective. And thus one will wind endorsing a less punitive, which is to say, more “liberal,” criminal justice system. As a result, “liberal” views are often due not to a lopsided emphasis on one moral “taste” – as Haidt would have it – but rather on a rational evaluation of the evidence on crime deterrence. Education is therefore more likely to produce a shift toward more liberal views. People who have conservative views on crime and punishment need not be discriminated against by the education system, rather, the effect of education will be to attenuate their conservatism.
(Note that not everyone who holds liberal views on these questions will have adopted them as a consequence of an impartial evaluation of this evidence – some will adopt them in an unreasoning fashion, through essentially social mechanisms of belief propagation. Their irrationalism will tend to fly “under the radar,” however, because the conclusions they espouse are ones that are at least consistent with the views that one would be likely to hold after an impartial assessment of the evidence. Those who hold contrary views, by contrast, will tend to be exposed, and the force of evidence brought to bear upon them.)
This is, I should mention, not entirely a left vs. right thing. For instance, the right-wing commitment to free trade is a consequence of a rather counterintuitive, rational argument (what Paul Krugman calls “Ricardo’s difficult idea.”) The left, in this case, has the most intuitively accessible position (hence the popularity of left-wing anti-globalization). But note that, when it comes to free trade, the right-wing position is not underrepresented in the academy – the vast majority of economists support it in some form. The problem is with right-wing ideas that have no empirical or rational support. For instance, the common conservative conviction about the importance of “traditional family values” is largely unsupported by any sort of empirical evidence. On the contrary, family environment seems to be subject to a sort of minimum threshold of adequacy, beyond which it does not contribute much to social stability, law-abidingness, self-management, career success, etc.
Finally, it is worth noting that the rise of “populist” conservatism is inevitably going to exacerbate the problem of under-representation of conservatives in the academy, because the central feature of this populism, at least in its Trumpian variant, is that it jettisons all of the remaining rationalist components in contemporary conservatism. Most obviously, it rejects free trade, migration, and is even lukewarm on the rule of law. It also draws its primary basis of support from the uneducated. As a result, it is absurd to expect the university system to be neutral with respect to its proponents.
So all this is a way of explaining why I do not think the affirmative action model is a good way of thinking about the “left-wing echo chamber” problem. At the same time, it is important to recognize that it is a problem. Canada not quite as bad, partly just because universities all very large and thus inevitably more pluralistic – although there are some exceptions (Trent comes to mind). It is also because we hire so many Americans, who tend to be to the right of the Canadian population on many issues (keeping in mind that Barack Obama is slightly to the right of the political centre in Canada.) At the same time, there is genuine underrepresentation of conservatives. I can think of only three colleagues off-hand who self-identify as right-wing. (Because of this, I can’t tell you how often I find myself being the most right-wing person in the room, in what is supposed to be an academic seminar or research talk, but is essentially a left-wing kaffeeklatsch. Intellectually this is unhealthy, because it produces a situation in which people on the left have no idea how to argue with others who do not already substantially share their basic political views.)
So what is the solution? There is, I think, one general trend and one policy option, both of which can counteract the tendency. First, there is the simple fact that people become more conservative as they get older, and as a result, even left-wing professors are less left-wing than their own, earlier selves. As a result, they actually tend to be more effective at dislodging ultra-leftist students from their more dogmatic views. There tends to be an assumption, in Haidt’s approach, that exposure to conservative professors will have a moderating effect on left-wing students. This seems dubious to me. Explicitly conservative professors often provoke an oppositional mentality among students, and merely polarize debate. Formerly ultra-leftist but now moderately leftist professors, by contrast, are more likely to be trusted by left-wing students, and thus are more likely to broaden their perspectives. (Put it this way: which group of professors is more effective at curing students of a juvenile romance with Marxism, self-identified Austrians, or former Marxists but now social-democrats? The answer seems to me obvious, it’s the former Marxists, because they can sympathetically and non-polemically explain what is wrong with the view.)
The second suggestion is more of a policy. It seems to me that the teaching of intellectual history has an inherently conservative bias (in a good way!). The most effective antidote, in my view, to the latest version of contemporary ultraleftism is to teach the underlying source of the ideas, to show that current views are based on theories, which people have not always believed, and that may turn out to be wrong. Furthermore, teaching the historical origins of contemporary ideas invariably situates them in a field of contestation – when you read them as theories, instead of moral certainties propagated through Twitter, it is impossible not to notice that they are contested, that they are based on arguments, and that there are different ways of looking at things. One problem with many small U.S. colleges (I have noticed) is that they don’t teach enough history, they only teach the latest trendy theories.
So what I am saying, in brief, is that the solution to the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia is simply to redouble our commitment to traditional humanistic education. That is a response, I should note, that would satisfy any true conservative.