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According to the Times of Higher Education, there are more liberals* than conservatives in the social sciences. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans in economics is 5:1, in law it is 9:1, in psychology 17:1, in journalism 20:1, and in history a whopping 33:1.

From my experience, this trend extends outside the social sciences, i.e. to the humanities and the natural sciences, although it may be strongest in the former. I don't have data handy to back this up.

Is there any serious empirical research into why professionals in academia are more likely to vote democratic than the average of the population? If so, what are the main explanations? (Candidates could be self-selection, socialization, or confounding variables like income and education.)

Moderator’s notice: As per this meta discussion, all answers to this question must provide external references. Please avoid any discussion about politics (rule of thumb: it should not be possible to deduce your political opinion from your writing). Answers and comments not adhering to this will be deleted without warning.

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    In order to avoid that this question is closed as opinion-based, I suggest to request specifically answers that are based on existing empirical studies rather than individual conjecture. Otherwise, we will just get a lot of answers advocating a particular world-view in a competitive spirit. Commented May 21, 2018 at 15:48
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    I'm missing any indication about STEM field political views in the study. My observation in Europe (mostly Germany) is that social sciences and humanities tend to much further left (European meaning of term) than STEM fields. In European political terminology, I mean left as opposed to liberal or conservative. Commented May 21, 2018 at 16:04
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    @BenSandeen: The study gives rather detailed results which (not surprisingly) have a huge variance between universities. I'm not familiar enough with the academic landscape in the US to judge whether their selection of universities was representative or biased - but with what I know from Europe, their selection of fields probably distorts findings. And they are looking at registered voters (for economics, that's little more than 1/3 of the professors). Voters for one side may be more probable to register (possible bias). The study does not discuss any of these possible sources of bias. Commented May 21, 2018 at 17:48
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    I would suggest removing or amending the sentence "This would perhaps be called socialist or progressive in Europe." as it is quite misleading. Many of the policies advocated by the nominal "left" in the US would be viewed as already right-leaning in most of Europe (except perhaps the UK). Certainly not "socialist". The closest would be "social democratic", but even that is a stretch. Perhaps "social liberalism". The comparison is so stretched that it is hardly useful.
    – user9646
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 1:12
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    What is the asterisk supposed to refer to now? There's no note. Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 21:00

6 Answers 6

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I really do not think we are going to get to any causal relationship here. One thing you might want to consider is the link between IQ and politics.

People with higher IQ (generally) tend to be more liberal: https://theconversation.com/do-smart-people-tend-to-be-more-liberal-yes-but-it-doesnt-mean-all-conservatives-are-stupid-57713

Childhood IQ in Britain, for a 1970s cohort, predicts voting for more liberal parties (Greens and Lib Dems): https://www.research.ed.ac.uk/portal/files/8896159/childhood_intelligence_predicts_voter.pdf

This answer is only meant as a starting point. You would need to consider all of the evidence from across the world (perhaps the reverse is true, in general, for example. And perhaps other variables come into play).

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    But I also said I don't think we are going to get any causal relationship. It's merely a suggestion of an area to investigate. A starting point, as I said. Commented May 21, 2018 at 16:55
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    Maybe you should be commenting this, rather than answering then Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 3:00
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    I can totally deduce your political opinion from your writing! Commented May 22, 2023 at 17:24
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    @KamilSJaron - no you can't. But the reason you think you can is because the cited research suggests that high-IQ is associated with particular voting choices (in a particular political context, i.e., the UK). Nothing I can do about that, it's what the question was asking for. Commented May 23, 2023 at 8:45
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One of the biggest predictors of political ideology in the US right now is a personality trait called "openness to experience" which is define roughly as "breadth, depth, originality and complexity of thought, coming up with novel ways to do things." This is very close to describing exactly what academics do. A 1 point increase in openness to experience (between -2 and 2) is associated with a 9 point increase in likeliness to vote for Clinton over Trump. See this summary of the relevant research.

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I also do not think we are going to get to any causal relationship here. One other factor that have crossed my mind to explain this link is attitude towards immigration. I am not from USA, but I got this impression that democrats were more for-immigration than republicans.

I found some backups for the impression tn the study "Race, Religion, and Immigration in 2016" they showed that immigration was one of the strongest factors that motivated voters of 2012 republican candidate in the presidential election to vote again for 2016 republican candidate (Figure 2). In the Figure 3 they also show that immigration is considered as way more serious problem among republican supporters, in comparison to voters of democrats.

Then I wanted to figure what is the proportion of immigrants among academics. It's harder than I expected, but this article from 2011 says that there were 115,000 "international scholars" working at colleges and universities in the United States. If the calculations from this blogpost are correct, there are ~7.5% of immigrants among academics. The frequency of migration in academia is so high that leaves very little space to fight against it.

In conclusion, I think that academics will be always in favor of migration. Note that this factor does not require an assumption about intelligence of academics.

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    Not only are academics more likely to have colleagues who are immigrants, we've typically done a lot more international travel, and often to have worked internationally. Commented May 27, 2018 at 13:37
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In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, the authors are trying to test whether

"conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty."

They find that

"greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern."

(Both quoted from the abstract.)

This suggests that a skill that is highly valued in academia is less prevalent among conservatives. It is unlikely (though not impossible) that identifying as conservative changes cognitive functioning and thus there is even a tentatively causal relationship.

There is also evidence published in Science that individual differences in inequity aversion have correlates in the activity of different brain regions. Given the experimental setup (subjects engage in a moral dilemma during the measurement), causality between brain activity and behavior is unclear here.

Both studies are embedded in a large literature (do check out both cited papers and citing papers!) that to my understanding establishes a link between certain cognitive functions and political and moral beliefs. If these cognitive functions are useful in academia, this may explain the political attitudes of academics.

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The topic is discussed at length in article [1], which was coauthored by 29 established scholars from Oxford, MIT, Technion, Brown, Columbia, Vanderbilt, etc., including two Nobel Prize winners. From that 26-page long treatise, I would single out three points.

(a) In the past, the hiring process of faculty at major American universities was based on merit. An applicant was supposed to provide (along with the CV & publication list) two documents: Research Statement and Teaching Statement. Over the past years, the situation changed, in that applicants now have to submit also a political document named DEI Statement which, on many occasions, outweighs the research and teaching statements. For academic jobs in the Life Sciences at UC Berkeley, for instance, each DEI statement is ranked on three criteria: knowledge of DEI, track record of DEI work, plans to implement DEI initiatives if hired). This is done using a point system (15 points total). If the statement doesn’t accrue enough points, the application is rejected and is not considered again. This is why in recent faculty searches in the life sciences at UC Berkeley, three quarters of the candidates were eliminated solely on the basis on their DEI statements. [2], [3], [4].

(b) DEI statements are often expected to embrace CSJ; statements that express support for the ideals of liberal social justice, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a colourblind society, are rejected. As UC Berkeley’s sample rubric for evaluating diversity statements states, candidates who intend to treat “all students the same regardless of their background” will be given the lowest score. [5]

(c) Some universities have begun to incorporate DEI statements in tenure and promotion. This policy is being introduced, for example, by the University of Indiana [6] and the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. [7]

For more details on this process and its possible consequences, see the afore-cited paper [1].

[1] D. Abbot et al. In Defense of Merit in Science. Journal of Controversial Ideas 2023, 3(1), 1-26. doi: 10.35995/jci03010001

[2] J. Coyne. When Commitment to Diversity Outweighs Teaching and Research in a Biology Job. (2021)

[3] J. Coyne. Life Science Jobs at Berkeley Give Precedence to Candidates' Diversity and Inclusion Statements (2019)

[4] J. Coyne. A Thread about University DEI Statements (2023)

[5] Rubric for Assessing Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, UC Berkeley.

[6] C. Flaherty, The DEI Pathway to Promotion. Inside Higher Education (2021),

[7] C. Flaherty, Where DEI Work Is Faculty Work. Inside Higher Education (2022),

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    Diversity statements are certainly one of the mechanisms through which the current ideological skew is preserved, but this does not really explain how this ideological skew, which predates the current rise of diversity statements, arose. (Of course, I don't think that there's any deep mystery in this: it's hardly surprising that in Western societies, where the dominant form of inequality and discrimination is educational in nature and has been for quite a while, highly educated cosmopolitans would be drawn to a worldview which both distracts from and justifies their position of power.) Commented May 23, 2023 at 20:33
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    @AdamPřenosil The ideological skew certainly predates the modern policies. In the past, however, ideological discrimination in the hiring process in academia generally didn't exist -- or, at least, wasn't official. Commented May 24, 2023 at 5:07
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David French is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan group that monitors free speech on campus. In a 2005 interview with ABC News [1], French argued that "the universities have been so captured by the left point of view, that you're going to get more political and intellectual diversity at your average suburban mega-church than you are at an elite university." The cause, he believed, was the systematic suppression and censorship of conservatives.

That same year, Rothman, Nevitte and Lichter published a paper [2] using data based on a telephone survey in 1999 of approximately 4000 faculty, administrators, and students. The purpose of this study was to test if professional advancement is influenced by ideological orientation. What they found out, was that conservatives and Republicans taught at lower quality schools, compared with liberals and Democrats. This suggested, they argued, "that conservative complaints of the presence and effects of liberal homogeneity in academia deserve to be taken seriously".

A 2014 study by Iyengar and Westwood [3] underscored how powerful political bias can be. In an experiment, Democrats and Republicans were asked to choose a scholarship winner from among fictitious finalists, with the experiment tweaked so that applicants sometimes included the president of the Democratic or Republican club. Four-fifths of Democrats and Republicans alike chose a student of their own party to win a scholarship, and discrimination against people of the other party was much greater than discrimination based on race.

For a 2016 study [4], Shields and Dunn surveyed 153 conservative professors. “As two conservative professors,” they wrote in The Washington Post, “we agree that right-wing faculty members and ideas are not always treated fairly on college campuses. But we also know that right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown.” Nevertheless, about one-third of the professors professors admit to using "coping strategies that gays and lesbians have used in the military and other inhospitable work environments", ie they "closeted" themselves by passing as liberals. Some also said they were badly mistreated on account of their politics.

In a 2017 speech before the Stanford Board of Trustees [5], former Provost John Etchemendy argued that he "watched a growing intolerance", "a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for". "It manifests itself", he argued "in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands".

In 2009, world–renowned political scientist Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University for his criticisms of Israel's human rights violations against the Palestinian people [6]. In 2014, co-discoverer or DNA James Watson was forced to sell his Nobel prize after losing most of his income for stating that people of African descent are less intelligent than white people [7]. In 2017, graduate student Lindsay Shepherd was hauled before a three-person panel at Wilfrid Laurier University, which interrogated her for more than 40 minutes for showing a first-year communications class a video snippet from TV Ontario of Jordan Peterson debating another professor on the use of gender pronouns [8]. In 2018, University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Amy Wax was removed from teaching mandatory first-year courses for saying in an interview that she didn't think she'd ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class [9].

These are some of many examples where academics / scholars have been reprimanded for making statements deemed too "politically incorrect" by their employers. While such cases are obviously but annectodal evidence at best, they do suggest Etchemendy may have had a point when he said he watched a growing intolerance "that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for". They do suggest it may indeed be safer for conservative professors to pass as liberals. They do suggest that French may have had a point when he argued there was systematic suppression and censorship of conservatives. And they do suggest that Rothman, Nevitte and Lichter may have been right to conclude that that conservative complaints of the presence and effects of liberal homogeneity in academia deserve to be taken seriously.


[1] Pierce, Fort (2005) "Conservatives Censored on College Campuses?"

[2] Rothman, Stanley; Lichter, S. Robert; Nevitte, Neil (2005). "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty"

[3]: Iyengar, Shanto; Westwood, Sean (2014). "Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization"

[4] Jon A. Shields; Joshua M. Dunn Sr. (2016). "Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University"

[5]: Etchemendy, John (2017) "The threat from within"

[6]: Klein, David (2009) "Why Is Norman Finkelstein Not Allowed to Teach?"

[7] Perry, Keith (2014) "James Watson selling Nobel prize 'because no-one wants to admit I exist"

[8]: Walkom, Thomas (2017) "The problematic case of the Wilfrid Laurier TA who dared to air a debate on grammar"

[9]: Diaz, Andrea (2018) "Law prof ousted from first-year classes after saying black students never graduated top of their class"

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    Your post doesn't really include much of anything about why, only a rehashing of conservative complaints about being a minority. The only possibly relevant citation of empirical research is the Iyengar study, but that finds equal bias in both directions.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 21:26
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    @jakebeal : What about the study by Rothman, Stanley & Lichter? And what about the study by Shields & Dunn? Why do you consider these studies irrelevant? And what about the overal tendency towards suppression and censorship of conservative thought as described by French, Etchemendy and numerous other sources? How is this not relevant in light of the aforementioned studies? Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 21:33
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    @jakebeal : When one-third of the professors surveyed in Shields and Dunn admit to using "coping strategies that gays and lesbians have used in the military and other inhospitable work environments" to avoid discriminating and some even state having been "mistreated on account of their politics", this clearly confirms that systematic suppression and censorship is a causal factor worth considering, as is the fact that that conservatives and Republicans taught at lower quality schools, as demonstrated by Rothman, Nevitte and Lichter. Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 22:42
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    My apologies for being too indirect: I would suggest that in order to improve the post, you remove all of the material that is simply claiming that conservatives are mistreated in academia. Your other sources allege systematic suppression without any empirical evidence of why one might expect to always find a group of powerful suppression-minded liberals even in generally conservative regions and institutions.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 23:15
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    I agree with the first comment by @jakebeal at the start. The question that was asked was: "Is there any serious empirical research into why professionals in academia are more likely to vote democratic than the average of the population? If so, what are the main explanations? " What you offer is a descriptive account, claiming that conservative opinions/voices are being silenced or discouraged, but in the large mass of text it's hard to see an answer to those questions. Some of your comments might serve better as an answer, since they make analytical claims, not just descriptive accounts
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 1:06

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