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I recently read that less than 3% of Ivy League professors (from Harvard and Yale) are conservative; the vast majority are liberal or very liberal. Also, most influential media are left-leaning. There are more left-leaning fact-check websites than right-leaning. In my opinion, more than 50% of non-profit activist groups are also left-leaning.

It is not my intent to claim that the right is poorly educated – I equally respect the ideologies of both the right and the left. My question is simple: how did the right lose the fight in gaining support from the media and academics?

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    Might I suggest you recenter the question on academics/students? How this phenomenon came to pass, if it did, will have very different explanations for academia vs media. For universities, 1 that comes to mind is that young people tend to be idealist and want to shake things up, the opposite of a "conservative"). For primary/secondary, it may have more to do with the profiles of who chooses those careers and unionization levels. Another, separate, question can totally be opened about media, but I notice the bulk of this one concerns education. May 18, 2023 at 15:55
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    I would challenge the premise here. Firstly, how are you defining "leftist"? Your example of China talks about being "more likely to be a reformer", but there are plenty of people who could be described as both "reformers" and "right-wing". Secondly, what are you defining as the "most influential media"? On what are you basing the assertion that "more than 50%" of it is "left-leaning"? Thirdly, the obvious rebuttal to fact-checking websites being "left-leaning" is that they might be unbiased, but the facts more often support claims from the left.
    – IMSoP
    May 18, 2023 at 16:32
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    As for the international element, I think it would be better to focus on a particular time and place. All of these definitions and observations are going to be extremely localised to a particular political environment. It is certainly not a universal truth across the world, and thousands of years, as your comment about China suggests. The only way that could be is if the thing you rule out is actually true: the opinions you consider "leftist" are actually the natural conclusions reached as one receives more education.
    – IMSoP
    May 18, 2023 at 16:44
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    Does "influential" media just mean mainstream media like CNN and Fox News in this context? Incidentally Fox News is the highest watched network in the US and is generally considered conservative, although total viewership between all left-leaning and all right-leaning networks probably favors left-leaning ones. May 18, 2023 at 18:50
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    "In my opinion, more than 50% of non-profit activists groups are also left-leaning." Does this include churches? If not, the definition of the term may be the cause.
    – ohwilleke
    May 18, 2023 at 21:11

7 Answers 7

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The simplest answer stems from the obvious point that:

  • Conservatives tend to like things the way they are, or at least the way they were — the status quo as they see it — and don't want much in the way of change
  • Liberals tend to dislike the status quo, or at least portions of it, and want to improve or fix it through active programs of change

This leads liberals down the path of investigation and activism, trying both to understand what is flawed in the world-as-it-is and seeking out remedies for the things they dislike. Thus they are naturally drawn to activities like academia and education, non-profit beneficial organizations, investigative media and journalism, and similar progressive vectors of change.

Conservatives are just as happy to work within the system as given, without questioning it much, because they think it's a good system that does — or eventually will — work for them (and everyone). They tend not to go into academia, education, non-profits, or many forms of media because those careers don't pay particularly well and conservatives don't have the overriding interest in understanding social flaws or overcoming social problems that might convince them to take poor-paying occupations. Conservatives only end up in those fields when they have an aspiration for fame, authority, or legitimacy (standard rewards within the status quo that can sometimes be found through academia, media, or non-profit think-tanks), or when conservatives start to problematize successful 'liberal' changes as bad and/or excessive and decide to try turning back the social clock through reactionary efforts.

There's nothing odd or mysterious about this. Why would one spend years of their lives (say) reading and writing about philosophy, or trying to help vulnerable populations, if they believe that philosophy is settled in the status quo and everyone has the potential to be successful on their own initiative? This is a natural division in any society.


A note, per Zeus' comment below. I've used the liberal/conservative distinction as though it were synonymous with the classic Rightist/Leftist distinction, which is overly-simplistic of me. Leftist liberals can sometimes 'win the day' and become technical 'leftist conservatives' defending their own status quo, as we saw in the USSR and still see in China. And likewise we occasionally see Rightists who bear down hard on the universalism of rights, liberties and social privileges and become technical 'Rightist liberals' as they insist that society must protect rights and liberties of all diverse populations.

But my point rested on the following distinction:

  • Both Leftism and liberalism focus (ideally) on achieving social equity: a drive to diversify social, political, and economic access and opportunity to underserved populations
  • Both Rightism and conservatism focus (ideally) on preserving status and entitlement: not wanting anyone to lose their rights, liberties, and positions in society.

This is not a zero-sum game by any means, but is often portrayed as such by both sides, with each side accusing the other of 'taking too much'. But that said, these so-called 'Leftist conservatives' have clearly given up the drive to diversify access and opportunity and thus become purely conservative, just as so-called 'Rightist liberals' lose the urge to protect unjust or irrational entitlements and thus become purely liberal. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

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    – Philipp
    Jun 1, 2023 at 11:52
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Objective Truth

Academia is all about the getting closer to objective truth. The peer review process, where other academics look through your work and offer critical appraisals, is about the most perfect "free market of ideas" we've developed. Assertions must be supported, and logical fallacies will eventually be identified.

Similarly, journalism has a "truth seeking" objective. The journalistic standard of "voicing both sides of the argument" weakens this truth seeking a little - sometimes one side is just wrong and treating them as reasonable is not comparable with the truth - but overall journalists must support their assertions using authoritative sources. They seek truth.

Conservative Orthodoxy

I have plenty of problems with current US liberal orthodoxy, however I am forced to admit that current US conservative orthodoxy is objectively incorrect on several fronts.

Conservative Orthodoxy holds:

  • Tax Cuts balance Budgets (which is false)
  • More Guns make People Safer (which is false)
  • Climate Change is a hoax (which is so false I won't bother with links)

And others.

Results

As one advances in an academic or journalistic career, it becomes more and more difficult to deal with the dissonance of Conservative Orthodoxy's un-truths. The practitioner either leaves the field, or becomes more liberal.

(There's probably a philosophical debate to be had about whether the conservative "status quo" orientation makes that movement more susceptible to this problem, since a liberal "revisionist" orientation makes their orthodoxy - almost by definition - more flexible and adaptable to changing understandings of Truth. But that's a different question.)

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    Conservative ideology wants to cut taxes and expenses, which indeed leads to a balanced budget. “Starve the beast” is a common term. I’ve never heard of claims that tax cuts without budget cuts will lead to a balanced budget. May 20, 2023 at 12:02
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    @JonathanReez en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laffer_curve There are apparently people who calculate that lower tax rate = more money to investment = more revenue (because private sector does things better for ... reasons...) = higher tax revenue despite lower tax rate. I mean the extreme points are true, if you don't tax you have no income and if you tax 100% you've a state run economy and not a tax system, but the in between is quite controversial I would guess.
    – haxor789
    May 20, 2023 at 12:29
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    @haxor789: The Laffer curve says that there is some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximizes tax revenue, and increasing the tax rate beyond this point has negative utility. Assuming, of course, that the "utility" of taxation is to pay for government spending.
    – dan04
    May 20, 2023 at 16:05
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    @dan04 I mean it's trivial that somewhere between 0% and 100% there's a tax rate for which the revenue is maximized. Though where that is and whether that follows a neat parabola is far from trivial. Also that makes the assumption that maximizing tax revenue is the prime objective, but likely it's not just about "MORE MONEY" but you actually want to or have to do something with that money and more revenue might not mean more abilities if you it comes with the necessity to also spend more.
    – haxor789
    May 22, 2023 at 1:12
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    @JonathanReez - regardless of the reasons given, it is evident from the data (see FED data in link 3) that the tax cuts (esp in the 1980s and 2001) caused debt to grow faster than GDP. The only times in the last 40 years where debt to GDP has decreased were under Democratic Admins (1995-2000, 2014-2015, and 2020 to 2023). Thus any claim that conservative economic polices are "responsible" rings hollow. The point of the answer is: critically engaging with the data shows that conservative economic policies since Reagan are irresponsible, and academics are trained to engage data critically.
    – codeMonkey
    May 22, 2023 at 14:39
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Most of the groups you described are more educated. This includes Ivy League professors, professionals working in influential media and in fact-check websites, as well as highly educated politicians who graduated from top schools. It has been shown that education and ideological bias are associated, with more education associated with left-leaning ideology. This is one of the simplest explanations of the fact you observed.

I could not quickly find whether non-profit activists are more left-leaning and/or more educated than average. Perhaps someone can point me to the source of these, as well as to the exact definition of non-profit activists. Note that there are plenty of left-leaning as well as right-leaning political lobbyists and political campaign workers - should these be included too? And if yes, does the bias persist?

References:

Adults with postgraduate experience most likely to have consistently liberal political values

Highly educated adults – particularly those who have attended graduate school – are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values. And these differences have increased over the past two decades.

More than half of those with postgraduate experience (54%) have either consistently liberal political values (31%) or mostly liberal values (23%), based on an analysis of their opinions about the role and performance of government, social issues, the environment and other topics. Fewer than half as many postgrads – roughly 12% of the public in 2015– have either consistently conservative (10%) or mostly conservative (14%) values. About one-in-five (22%) express a mix of liberal and conservative opinions.

Growing shares of postgrads, college grads are consistently liberal

Currently, about a third of those with postgraduate experience (31%) give down-the-line liberal responses across the 10 items, up from 19% in 2004 and just 7% in 1994. Among college graduates with no postgraduate experience, 24% have consistently liberal values, compared with 13% in 2004 and 5% a decade earlier.

Pew Research Center "A Wider Ideological Gap Between More and Less Educated Adults", April 26, 2016: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2016/04/26/a-wider-ideological-gap-between-more-and-less-educated-adults/

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – JJJ
    May 20, 2023 at 21:41
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The charts in Timur Shtatland's answer show a definite correlation between education and liberalism.

Notice that groups with strong conservative values remain relatively unchanged until they decline at the postgraduate level, and it is the mixed value group that consistently and rapidly declines, from 48% to 22%, thereby increasing the liberal side.

Most answers and comments are interpreting this correlation as cause and effect. In particular, it's presented as if the greater one's education (and implicitly one's intelligence) the more likely one is to eventually develop liberal values.

But that is applying statistics to individuals; the explanation could be quite the opposite.

What isn't shown in these statistics is that each higher educated group has a much lower population than the one below it. This means that the shifting sized of the groups aren't necessarily caused by the changing views of any individuals.

I suggest these reasons for this shift to the left:

  • Those that don't have liberal views find themselves more and more uncomfortable as they progress through the education system.
  • The system, which now is run by people with liberal views, tends to impede the progress of conservatives, either subtly or even blatantly (e.g. Lindsay Shepherd's treatment for discussing the use of pronouns).
  • Those individuals that don't have strong liberal views end up leaving the system.

Without more statistics it's impossible to say, but it's possible that while these charts show a definite shift to the left within the population, the actual mechanism is that many individuals that don't espouse liberal values leave the system.

The most reasonable explanations for the statistics are:

  • With increasing knowledge and logical reasoning skills, an individual's values naturally shift more to the left.
  • The current education system teaches individuals to reject conservative values.
  • Individuals with conservative values are forced out of the system.
  • Over time, the population of candidates for academic and administrative positions at universities becomes more and more liberal, this positive feedback causing a shift in values at most educational institutions over the last 50 years.

People with liberal views of course support the first explanation, but given that until the 1960s most academics held conservative values, it seems very likely that a combination of the other explanations account for the statistical changes.

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A paper by Duarte et al. (2014) claims that: (emphasis mine)

  1. Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years; 2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike; 3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and 4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination

Also note that differences between majors exist. Social science faculty are the most liberal while business and engineering are more conservative. See this table

Table political affiliation Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty

Another study paints a similar picture Table

One further point which most likely has an influence is the prevalence of Critical theory in academia.

Critical theory was founded as a method with distinct goals than the scientific method. (see this passage)

Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them".7 Although a product of modernism, and although many of the progenitors of Critical Theory were skeptical of postmodernism, Critical Theory is one of the major components of both modern and postmodern thought, and is widely applied in the humanities and social sciences today.

While this does indeed look promising, in reality critical theorists oppose empiricism. (see this master thesis)

Note that while critical theorists always claim(ed) that their goal is objectivity the reality paints a different picture. See these excerpts from the master thesis linked above:

From 1937 onwards, the Institut suffered from a financial setback and was no longer able to finance extensive empirical research. Moreover, Horkheimer wanted to devote his time to social philosophy, instead of being involved in the empirical sociology of the Institut. From this moment, the Institut consisted of two branches. Horkheimer and Adorno started working on a philosophical project in Los Angeles, while the other members of the Institut were engaged in empirical sociology in New York. Their research was guided by Horkheimer’s new sociological methodology outlined in Traditional and Critical Theory and tried to attract American funding. In the philosophical writings of Horkheimer and Adorno, what was empirical was as broadly interpreted as was the case in the research of the Institut under Grünberg, while the proposals of the New York branch used a methodology similar to the one used in the Studies on Authority and Family

In critical theory, the empirical data have another function than in the Institut’s earlier research. Data was no longer used to guarantee for objectivity, but functioned as a way to come to a subjective judgment.

When the history of the Frankfurter Institut für Sozialforschung is primarily seen as the history of a group of sociologist using a distinguished methodology, it reveals a deeper problem in the history of the social sciences in general and the history of sociology in particular. As Jennifer Platt has argued, this history has mainly been written as an intellectual biography of the great man of sociology, who were mainly engaged in social theorizing instead of in empirical sociology

In Grünberg early work, his aim was to develop a theory5 and argued that he wanted to develop an overall framework to interpret the social world that could exist among other perspectives. While his framework was grounded in socialist thought, he acknowledged that other frameworks could also be useful ways to come to an objective understanding of the world.

Note that Critical theorists are still respected to this day. See for example the prominent Critical theorist Jürgen Habermas.

Conclusion: Due to the methodological flaws induced by Critical theory, namely the rejection of strict empiricism - leftists can present a more coherent worldview. There are no results which challenge their ideological basis. This superficially makes their stance more appealing to large audiences. Or did you remember anytime empirical findings from large scale economic studies have been discussed publicly in the media?

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  • Can you post a table that doesn't have review markup? May 21, 2023 at 13:18
  • @AzorAhai-him-Done! May 21, 2023 at 20:50
  • I think what we are seeing (and why it seems hard to understand) is the development of a new religion based on humanism. It has all the same hallmarks as every great faith: strong, intangible moral convictions, a doomsday imperative, inquisitions against non-conformists, an origin story, founding teachers who are above reproach, a great struggle with the implied utopia at its end. It's all there, only with the divine boolean set to false. It's adherents dont want to see it as a new religion because what they believe is simply "the truth" (another hallmark).
    – Jarrad
    May 23, 2023 at 23:51
  • @Jarrad "The whole development of dialectic should be a warning against the dangers inherent in philosophical system-building. It should remind us that philosophy should not be made a basis for any sort of scientific system and that philosophers should be much more modest in their claims. One task which they can fulfill quite usefully is the study of the critical methods of science" (Ibid., p. 335). (Karl Popper, note that critical in this context has nothing to do with critical theory, which is - as established above - unscientific) May 24, 2023 at 2:54
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Generally speaking, alignment with a political movement will not be very common among groups of people that are specifically demonised by that movement.

Consider what prominent right-wing figures in the US have been saying about these groups:

If this was being said about you ─ or even just your colleagues ─ you probably would not be inclined to support the people saying it.


Some commenters are objecting to this because the statements made by current right-wing leaders such as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are more recent than the phenomenon of left-wing leanings in the press and academia.

This isn't really a rebuttal, because a survey of journalists or educators conducted in 2023 will ask for their political alignment in 2023, which can certainly be informed by the political climate since 2015. Just because surveys in the 1950s gave qualitatively similar (but quantitatively less extreme) results, doesn't mean that the explanation must be something that happened before 1950. To insist otherwise presupposes that people made up their minds in the 1950s and haven't re-evaluated their politics since then; but of course people do re-evaluate their politics as the years go by, and many journalists and educators today weren't even alive in the 1950s.

But even so, this explanation does go back that far. The anti-press and anti-academia rhetoric deployed by Republicans today is just the current iteration of a long-running consistent pattern. The US right has been demonising the press and academics since at least the time of McCarthyism in the 1950s and Nixon in the 1960s and 70s:

Some people are arguing in the comments that right-wing demonisation of these groups is caused by their left-wing leanings, and therefore cannot also cause those leanings. This is a bit like arguing that because rain collects into rivers and oceans which evaporate to form clouds, therefore clouds cannot cause rain. In reality it is a feedback cycle, which has been going on for a long time; but for the purposes of answering the question, it doesn't matter why the right demonises these groups, only that they consistently do and have done.

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    You're putting the cart before the horse. Your anecdotes are taken long after the change happened.
    – pipe
    May 20, 2023 at 9:03
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    @pipe These are not anecdotes, they are consistent patterns in how the US right talks about journalists and professors, and not new patterns. Journalists were "an effete corps of impudent snobs" according to Spiro Agnew, and one of George HW Bush's campaign slogans was "Annoy the Media, Re-Elect Bush". Conservative attacks on academia are also not new either; academics were among the main targets of McCarthyism in the 1950s, for example. It's also wrong to say there was some discrete time at which a "change happened"; political alignment has changed gradually alongside right-wing attacks.
    – kaya3
    May 20, 2023 at 9:38
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    It seems far more plausible to me that these statements by conservatives are reactions against the media and academia because the media and academia are left-leaning, rather than the cause for the media and academia being left-leaning.
    – Brilliand
    May 20, 2023 at 23:09
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    @kaya3 When there's a feedback loop, you've got to look for what started the loop, not consider the loop itself the answer.
    – Brilliand
    May 22, 2023 at 12:39
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    Besides, the causal connection "right-wing figures demonise the press and academics, therefore the press and academics don't align themselves with the right-wing" is clearly stronger than "the press and academics don't align themselves with the right-wing, therefore the right demonises them". Unless you consider it natural that the right will demonise anyone who doesn't align with them, which isn't a very charitable view of the right.
    – kaya3
    May 22, 2023 at 13:03
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Because the dominating tone in the media and as a consequence the perception of a big part of the population is skewed towards support of wild capitalism and corporate imperialism. Everything to the left of this view is considered leftist.

So actually they are not leftists. They are judged as leftist looking from an extreme point of view.

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    This sounds more like a comment than a full-fledged answer.
    – Alexei
    May 22, 2023 at 14:37
  • @Alexei Not a comment, I would say a frame challenge. The question is in the style of the usual American who sees communists everywhere. Well, they are not communists. May 22, 2023 at 14:41
  • @Alexei Actually checking the profile the QA does not seem American, but I bet that studied or is studying in the US and is influenced by that culture. May 22, 2023 at 14:47

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