Why Are Academics Liberal?

In the US at least, academics are more liberal and Democratic than ordinary people.   While among ordinary people the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is about 1:1, academia as a whole has a ratio of 5:1, and the humanities and social sciences have a ratio of 8:1.   These ratios have roughly doubled over the last forty years.  See this 2005 Critical Review paper by my colleague Dan Klein, but also this 2006 Public Opinion Quarterly reply, and this further response.   

Does this difference between academia and the public produce or reflect a bias in the beliefs expressed in academic articles?  

To judge this, we need to better understand the cause of this difference.  It might be due to academics being more intelligent and informed, or it might be due to social pressure and conformity.   This 2005 BE Press Forum paper suggests that discrimination against conservatives, women, and religious folks is at least part of the explanation, though see this reply and this response.

This issue is of particular interest to me, since economists have a 3:1 ratio, making us "right wing" relative to the rest of academia.   My department has about a 1:1 ratio, making us "right-wing nuts," even though we roughly mirror the public. 

It is interesting to note that when you look at higher dimensional opinion spaces what you see is a tight liberal clump in one corner, and a broad spread of opinions across the rest of the opinion space; there is no conservative clump to speak of.   Of course this is consistent with both the information and the conformity theories mentioned above.    

What we need are clever ideas for data that might better distinguish between these theories.

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  • I don’t know the precise answer(s) for this absolutely extraordinary skew, but it does call into question the judgement of academics on any number of other matters of controversy, doesn’t it!?

  • I wonder whether you would be interested in looking at the US Military, where the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is something like 1:5 (I read somewhere).

  • William Newman

    What is the source for the “tight liberal clump in one corner, and a broad spread of opinions across the rest of the opinion space” result? I’ve never heard of it before. It sounds believable and interesting, but it might be even more interesting to know how it was defined and measured.

  • Lyell Haynes

    “I wonder whether you would be interested in looking at the US Military, where the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is something like 1:5”

    Which calls into question the judgement of the military on any number of other matters of controversy, doesn’t it!?

  • Bruce G Charlton

    Mandarins support the state

    This is a very interesting question, and I havent seen a satisfactory answer. I think it needs an international perspective – and I dont know what that would show.

    My hunch is that it is something to do with mandarin culture: mandarins being public administrators and teachers, who are not just technical experts but also cultural experts. Culture is mostly protected and promoted by the state – and I would guess that academics, worldwide, would tend to be on whatever side of the political spectrum was most statist.

    In the US statists are Democrats, in the UK they are Labour – and there my knowledge runs out, except that in Germany pre-1933 the professors tended to be nationalists – statist again.

    Does anyone know about Professors domonant political affiliations in current day Europe, Japan and Australasia?

  • William, as usual, to learn more details follow the links.

    Midas, I do give us a cite if you see one.

    Bruce, your theory doesn’t explain the time trend.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    Robin – you say that statist affiliation does not explain the time trend: I’m not sure how the time trend relates to the relative statism of the major political parties. But isn’t it possible that the Republican party has become less statist (in ideology, at any rate) than Democrats over the last few decades (eg since Reagan). The same would apply to the UK and Thatcher. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that leftsim in academia began with the expansion of the 1960s, but was continued by the anti- Thatcher and Reagan statism of the 80s and 90s?

    So, I think the idea is broadly consitent with the UK and US, but the real test of this ‘theory’ would come from other countries.

  • Academia is a feather in the cap of any political ideology that can grab it and hang onto it. Of course that might involve some sort of prejudicial hiring practices, but holding power is worth some degree of heavy handedness. You see it in the media and in the social and political sciences particularly.

  • Paul Gowder

    Ideas for data? It seems like it would be crazy difficult. The intelligent/informed hypothesis might be tested using fairly conventional techniques maybe? (Like sampling from academics and non-academics and running correct answers to political information quizzes against political beliefs controlled for things like level of education.) The rest of the explanations seem much harder to test, as does the one I favor (simple self-selection plus a little bit of the intelligent/informed hypothesis).

    The self-selection might be tested using some kind of really fancy modeling technique to compare the number of people who should apply to grad school in a given field (based on its job market) to the number of people who in fact apply and see if the disparity is highest in the most politically polarized fields, suggesting that maybe political polarization explains part of the appeal of those fields.

  • Marc_Geddes

    Why are 85% of greater scientists doubting God? Cognitive bias on the part of scientists?

    Why are academics so liberal… and especially the ones working in the social sciences. Well…um…gee let me see. Hmmmmmmm.

    It wouldn’t have something to do with the fact that there’s something seriously wrong with Libertarian/Conservative ideologies would it? 😉

  • ChrisA


    If it were true that it was due to “something wrong with Libertarian/Conservative ideologies” wouldn’t the bias be most apparent in the discipline that studied such the truth of such ideologies, i.e. economics. But the data presented at least by Robin suggests the opposite.

    My theory is this simply a case of not biting the hand that feeds you. In the oil industry you will find lots of people who support the factors that allow the oil industry to happen. Given a lot of university funding comes indirectly or directly from the government, you are going to find people who favour statist views.

  • ChrisA

    Further thought – perhaps my hypothesis (people adopt views on the line of don’t bite the hand that feeds you) can be tested. Ignoring economics and social science disciplines for the reasons above, is the amount of left bias in a discipline correlated with the proportion of the discipline funding received (directly or indirectly) from the government? Perhaps an increase in govt funding explains the trend to greater support for the left bias increase.

    We have a bit of a mini test of this hypothesis if the the data quoted by others above is correct; liberals tend to support state financed research, so faculty are left wing. Right wingers tend to support strong militery so service men tend to be right wing.

  • Guy Kahane

    Robert Nozick once speculated about a closely related question:


  • Guy, that Nozick article is certainly relevant as a hypothesis to consider, though it is not clear to me how much of the pro-Democrat skew is due to an anti-capitalism skew.

    I should note that if academics are liberals because of their better info, the public seems biased in not listening to and changing their opinions to better be like those of academics. Perhaps the public does not know academics are more liberal, and so we will see a huge change as the info of this post becomes more widely known. I’d bet against that though.

  • Speaking as a Ph.D. who’s not a professor, I think the liberal skew on faculties is probably because leftists are more likely to be attracted to shaping “young skulls full of mush.” If you’re going by “They say” instead of “It is,” it’s of utmost importance to influence what “They say.” If you’re going by “It is,” such influence is of secondary importance.

  • I wonder if academics start off as liberals, or become liberals in the course of their study. Is this a selection effect, where people predisposed to become liberals go into academia? Or does the education and training that academics receive cause them to become liberal?

  • Hal, there is a famous tendency for people to become more conservative as they age, regardless of whether they enter academia. Some interpret this as information, while others interpret this as increasing selfishness.

  • Marc_Geddes

    Sorry ChrisA,

    Robin says that even among economists, the ratio of liberals to others is still 3:1. A recent article on economics in ‘Scientific American’ sums up the evidence for the liberal view-point. The facts look starkly clear. The bias appears to be with the general public.

    ‘the evidence is in…’


  • There is no lack of places on the web to offer specific arguments on left vs. right politics. But this is not one of those places. If there are general arguments that would help us determine the cause of academia’s liberal leaning, let’s hear them. But please take ordinary specific political arguments elsewhere.

  • Tom Kaminski

    I write as a rara avis–a libertarian English professor. Here are some general reflections on liberal bias in academia, though as an English professor my expertise is NOT in designing experiments or testing hypotheses.

    First, the culture of the humanities is, almost by definition, pervasively liberal. Whether in philosophy, literature, or history, virtually all professors are interested in soft versions of justice and equality. In academic culture, these positions are largely defined by liberal assumptions–justice equals intervention (especially institutional or political intervention) on behalf of the weak. These sentiments are supported by anti-capitalist bias: those interested in profit do NOT put justice first. Virtually any bright, young student aspiring to a place in academia is drawn to these cultural beliefs; they appear to be morally upright, and they are the TYPICAL beliefs of the class one hopes to enter. Because of the association of liberalism with justice, these beliefs also have a tendency to make one feel morally superior to the less enlightened; this sense of moral superiority allows a rank careerist (and there are many in academia) to put a positive face on his or her careerism–i.e., I do what I do for the good of mankind, even though it may benefit me personally.

    There are, I think, several other related causes. Those who practice science (or who engage in scholarship) are often engaged in activities whose goal is to overturn existing or conventional beliefs: people with this sort of termperament/personality are more likely to be liberal than conservative.

    Next, instruction in the humanities is now based on premises that undermine traditional views. In literary studies (as in such fields as philosophy, history, and even in some cases law), what is known as “critical theory” or “cultural studies” has at its base the assumption that traditional values can have no real validity: they are based on long-standing structures of power that are inherently unjust. It is very hard to study the humanities nowadays if you have a traditionalist bias.

    Finally, hiring in academia is a cultural practice, and there are two elements here that were often in tension in the past, but that are not in tension any more. First, academics want to hire “the best people” available; second, they want to hire “people like us.” When “critical theory” was developing in the 1970s and 1980s, many traditionalists (both liberal and conservative), wanted to hire young faculty seen as doing “innovative” work. That is, they chose “the best people” over “people like us.” But those doing innovative work were in fact those who were looking at the world through the lenses of Nietzsche, Foucault, and the Frankfurt School. Nowadays, both “the best people” and “people like us” tend to be the same group, and that has created a tendency to reinforce the prejudices already inherent in humanities faculties.

    Well, as I said, I have no skills in designing experiments to test my theories, but I’ve been thinking about these issues since the 1970s, when I was the only person in my graduate program who refused to sign a petition demanding that my department hire more women. (At that time, by the way, I was still a liberal myself; I simply thought that the department should hire “the best person available,” regardless of sex.)

    If you’re wondering how someone coming out of the sort of monolithic culture that I’ve described became a libertarian, the answer is simple: for my academic work on 18th-century literature, I thought I should read Adam Smith. It was as if scales fell from my eyes.


  • Tom, I don’t how humanities are by their nature liberal. I can see how academia might give people a sense of moral superiority, but that would seem to be equally valuable to all political types. I don’t see that academia, especially the humanities, overturns conventional beliefs any more often that other parts of society. In many areas, such as law, academia is where traditions are preserved and passed on to the next generation.

  • Marc_Geddes


    I was merely emphasizing a possibility that you pointed out, but that – strangely – many respondents to this blog seemed to have difficulty even recognizing – that the liberal dominance “…might be due to academics being more intelligent and informed”

    The fact is that liberal positions are overwhelming the dominant academic view-point even among economists 😉 It’s not as if economics is a new field. It’s a mature field with plenty of data. It seems hard to believe that (for example) there’s some sort of systematic bias magically rendering 75% of all economists the inability to think straight (3:1 ratio of liberals to others in economics). Therefore a priori the suspicion of irrationality must fall on the dissenters (the non liberals).

  • Marc, yes, if all we knew was that academics tended to favor a position, after correcting for any obvious self-interest, then we would think that view more likely than not to be correct. Knowing that the issue is a social one weakens the effect, but the effect is still there.

  • One can read and embrace Adam Smith without ending up a Libertarian–think Tom Paine and Wollstonecraft.

  • Tom

    “Tom, I don’t [see] how the humanities are by their nature liberal. I can see how academia might give people a sense of moral superiority, but that would seem to be equally valuable to all political types.”

    Robin, The humanities are not “by their nature” liberal, but they exist in a culture, which takes for granted certain moral positions, especially concerning “social justice.” And those positions include the basic liberal belief that a “society” (which they equate with its “government”) must actively promote the welfare of the most disadvantaged. Hardly anyone ever questions these assumptions; few know who Hayek is, and far fewer have read what he has to say on the emptiness of the concept of social justice.

    This also relates to the question of whether liberals are simply smarter. Political beliefs are often deeply embedded in culture; and there are all sorts of ways that a culture encourages and rewards the holding of certain beliefs. Intelligence is a necessary minimum qualification for entering academia; everyone there will be intelligent. A more appropriate question may be, why do some intelligent people go into academia while other equally intelligent people go into other things? I would suspect that the culture of academia has something to do with it; this helps encourage and reward those people who fit in. There is a wonderful irony here: academics pride themselves on the independence of their thought, yet they show great conformity in political matters. In my more cynical moments, I call this a “herd instinct.”

  • Ideas for data:

    Are the GRE scores of Republican applicants to graduate programs noticeably higher than those of Democrat applicants?

    If so, Republicans are being forced to overcome some structure of discrimination by exhibiting a unique excellence in their candidacy.

    Its conclusions might be tenuous, but it’s nice solid data ready for the crunching. (I suspect the issue is one of self selection: smart liberals are attracted to schools of sociology, smart conservatives are attracted to schools of business.)

  • “It might be due to academics being more intelligent and informed” – that’s it! This is why the social sciences and humanities are more liberal than engineering or business departments. The more you understand society, the more you likely to are to be liberal.

  • Also, in the general publica the ration between Democrats, 72 million registered members, and Republicans, 55 million registered members, is 1.3:1.

  • This one is really simple. Many conservative views are based on Christianity, which most intelligent and informed people can see is false. Group polarization then ensures academics become liberal even on issues that have nothing to do with religion.

  • I wonder how much of the 3:1 ratio for economists would remain if you restricted the question to economic issues only.

  • My perception is that nobody on overcomingbias except me is concerned about how dialectics can subordinate a range of ideas by pretending that there are only two polar ideas in conflict.

    I think this is an example of where it can be dangerous: pretending that there is only a “liberal” and a “conservative” perspective. How about a perspective that gives empiricism primacy? This liberal/conservative construct encourage us to move away from an empirical basis for policy choice and towards belief as cheer. It seems to me to be destructive to the wealth-increasing commons.

    I’m surprised you’re not more concerned about this, Robin. My perception is that you’re neck-deep in belief as cheer, and if you don’t innovate out of it, quickly, it could kill us both.

    As for the topic at hand, elites that are “liberal” don’t seem to me to be anti-heirarchy or anti-personal egoism. Instead it seems to be a gentrification of the “liberal” space. Academics make about 50-100 times what the average person in the world makes, their educational expenses would feed a large third world family for years, and they maintain very heirarchical and egoist environments. That’s why I think their liberalism is more gentrification and moral heirarchical construction (with themselves on top) than a lived philosophy. By the way, I have no interest in them living that particular philosophy: I think we should be empirically determining how to maximize the persistence odds of an optimized subset of humanity (which includes me). Anything else, in my opinion, is a triumph of a meme over the persisting aspirations of our subjective consciousnesses.

  • “This one is really simple. Many conservative views are based on Christianity, which most intelligent and informed people can see is false. Group polarization then ensures academics become liberal even on issues that have nothing to do with religion.” – Fascinating hypothesis, Steven. There’s probably quite a bit of truth to it. As the 3:1 ration on econ issues, it still holds. Generally speaking most economists are opposed to supply-side economics, favor redistribution, affirmative action and think that income inequality has gotten out of hand in the U.S.; thus, on econ issues alone you’d expect economists to be Dems (as well as professors in general whose views are certainly similar).

  • Caius

    I tend to agree with Hopefully, that the problem is the binary idea of political affiliation, when it’s much more fruitful to think in two dimensions. Socially, conservatives tend to be retrograde; they also tend to be much more inimical to science. Humanities today are much more socially progressive and inclusive (at least in theory), and might not know much about economics, so they tend to side with the liberals, and even prefer liberal economic policy because it all comes in one big package. I imagine it would be similar with the scientists. Meanwhile, economists would care much more about the economic aspect, and either ignore or adopt the social policy. I’d even go so far as to speculate that there are probably more good economic paths than one, some more liberal, some more conservative, which would explain a more even distribution.

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  • brendan_r

    Noah Smith’s attempt to apply a little “social pressure and conformity” to Robin, by smearing him, reminded me of this useful (and topically relevant) list of ‘purgings’ compiled by Handle: