Why Republicans and Academics Need Each Other

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

April 01, 2013

After its bruising defeat in the 2012 presidential contest, the Republican Party finds itself at a crossroads. The Grand Old Party's support has eroded precipitously among white women, Latinos, and nearly all voters younger than Clint Eastwood.

But the demographic shift isn't the party's only problem. Embarrassed by election-forecasting blunders and awkward clashes with basic science, the Republican Party has solidified its standing—to quote the chairman of the Republican Governors Association—as "the stupid party." When the former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum proclaimed that "we will never have the elite, smart people on our side," he expressed a widespread sentiment.

A lot of the "smart people" to whom Santorum was referring, however, belong to institutions suffering from their own demographic troubles and reputations for intellectual narrowness. We mean, of course, America's colleges. A winter of discontent has also settled upon their green quadrangles as the realization dawns that the number of affluent families with high-school-age children is shrinking and that net tuition may be peaking.

The problem is compounded by the common perception that colleges are bastions of left-wing bias. One notable consequence: The University of Colorado at Boulder just appointed its first "conservative in residence." Colorado's move has attracted its share of chortles from the professoriate. But it reflects the concerns of many nonacademics.

We'd like to suggest that the problems confronting the Republican Party and higher education are not only alike, they are intimately connected. The Republican Party is short on intellectual firepower in large part because academe is short on conservatives.

The numbers are revealing. Last August the Pew Research Center reported that the GOP now holds an advantage of 54 percent to 37 percent among non-college-educated whites, "who were split about evenly four years ago." Meanwhile, in his new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, Neil Gross observes that "academe contains a larger proportion of people who describe themselves as liberal than just about any other major occupation."

The pattern is especially pronounced in the liberal arts, where political opinions are formed and refined. A recent survey of faculty members at California colleges and universities indicates that Republicans are a rare breed in the humanities and social sciences. In history departments, the ratio is roughly 11 Democrats for every one Republican. In sociology, the ratio is a staggering 44 to 1.

The ratio of populist ideologues to serious thinkers is just as lopsided among Republicans. Instead of William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol, the party now takes its cues from Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. Any positive mention of taxes is verboten, and every presidential plan is greeted as if it were a page torn from Mein Kampf. Meanwhile, the conservative acolytes who decry the ignorance of America's youth consistently devalue the rigorous research and criticism required to provide kids with creditable knowledge about the world.

Colleges suffer from their own forms of insularism. It's not just the severe imbalance of Democrats to Republicans on elite college campuses; it's the politically stifling environment that results. How often are conservative speakers invited to campus by prestigious humanities or social-science centers? Go to any gathering of liberal-arts faculty and you might come away with the impression that the professoriate holds a uniformly dismal view of corporations and the Christian right. Yet the same left-leaning scholars who maintain that politics and knowledge are hopelessly entangled raise their hackles every time conservative critics dismiss their research findings as politically biased.

With relations so frayed, important political conversations are conducted as if across separate universes of meaning. At the anti-academic, conservative end of the spectrum stands former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who shouted to hundreds gathered at a national Tea Party conference in early 2010: "We need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern."

At the other extreme is the Berkeley professor who wrote this 2009 gem: "Intellectuals face something of a choice between complicity with imperial and unreflexive Western civilizational discourses of rationality and secularism on the one hand, and with challenging Western presumptions to monopolize the fact, meaning, and content of secularism, rationalism, freedom, and even democracy on the other."

Palin sketched a populist, right-wing caricature of Obama's cerebral and measured foreign policy, while the Berkeley professor encased a self-important leftist critique of the Bush doctrine in guildspeak.

You see the problem.

We are not just talking about the difference between Fox News and MSNBC or The Nation and The Weekly Standard. Partisan news outlets depend on sharply segmented audiences. We are talking about one of the nation's two major political parties and its leading educational institutions—neither of which can shun sustained dialogue without great cost to both themselves and the public.

The disaster of the GOP's 2012 election-campaign strategy—festooned with rants against evolution and idiotic remarks on rape—suggests that Republicans are suffering from a severe information deficit. Surely, as the Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf argues, their disaffection from the mainstream media accounts for some of the problem.

But the root goes deeper. Conservative disaffection with higher education is costing the Republicans both young talent and the opportunity to sharpen their ideas through regular contests with savvy adversaries. Without a strong presence in the college system, we're unlikely to see many conservatives producing mainstream news programs, writing reputable works on policy, or engaging the broader world of ideas.

Colleges have their own vested interest in improved relations. Beyond the intellectual ferment that is likely to be gained from greater political diversity on campus, higher education desperately needs support from right-leaning donors and legislators. Tuition alone cannot sustain higher education, which means that it's essential to build support among people who don't listen to NPR and drive hybrids. In tight fiscal times, federal financial aid is a tempting target for congressional representatives. Colleges should see political diversification as a matter of self-preservation, as well as a genuine public good.

To suggest that Republicans and colleges look for ways to embrace one another may seem like asking the Hatfields and McCoys to just kiss and make up. Identifying common and respectable arenas for dialogue and cooperation won't be easy. Faculty and administrators will have to acknowledge that their institutions tend to be ideologically narrow, while Republicans will have to concede that most social and economic problems are terribly complex and require prolonged investigation by communities of researchers.

Left-leaning professors may want nothing more than to see the Republican Party go the way of the woolly mammoth. But that is no more realistic than Republican hopes for retaining a vigorous policy-making role absent the knowledge and analytical skills of so-called smart people. Without Republicans in the colleges and college-friendly intellectuals among the Republicans, both the political party and the colleges are worse off. And American public life is diminished as a result.

The tensions between conservatives and higher education are decades old. But they have rarely been so frigid, nor so damaging. Perhaps now, as the Republicans begin rethinking their positions on issues like immigration and gay marriage, and colleges contemplate the prospect of dwindling state support, the time may be right for a thaw in relations.

Chris Beneke is an associate professor of history at Bentley University, and Randall Stephens is a reader in history at Northumbria University, in England.