Josh Rosenau has a piece up on Chris Mooney’s latest article on the Republican war on science in the US. Conservative bodies around the western world seem to resist science when it conflicts with policy (usually driven by PR from large corporations), so the point is more than simply American politics.
One often hears of the “reality based community” or that “reality has a liberal bias” and Mooney discusses the fact that expertise has a largely liberal slant in the US (ignoring for the moment that “liberal” in the rest of the world means something different from what it means in the US, where it basically applies to “liberal democratic” views shared by nearly all, including conservatives). In the course of his post, Josh asks why it is that Republicans are so opposed to science, dismissing (rightly IMO) Lakoffian paternalism psychological accounts as too glib.
Now it is not the case that conservative views in themselves are antiscience. In the 1950s and even much later conservatives would accept expertise and act on that basis. In part this is why environmental laws and agencies were set up under conservative governments. And it is also not the fact that the left are less inclined to allow their ideology to interpose itself into policy decisions that rely upon expertise – I have seen too many examples of that, both in history and in my own life, to believe it.
So why are most academics left-leaning? I think there are several reasons, one major and a number of minor. The minor has to do with the way the intellectual world framed itself back in the 1930s under the influence of the Russian revolution, setting up a tradition of left thinking in universities that persisted the way traditions usually do, by self-reinforcing. Moreover, the opening of universities after WW2 to middle class and later working class students (which is now being wound back) allowed political views to diversify away from the politics of privilege.
But the main reason why academe is left leaning has to do with how the conservative movement has allowed itself to become the effective mouthpiece for interests that are not representative of the conservative constituency. Why do conservatives defend tax cuts for the rich when only a vanishingly small fraction of them will ever benefit? Why do they defend the rights of mining companies, oil companies, and medical corporations? What is in it for them?
Nothing much. They give all kinds of justifications in conversation, like employment figures (even as employment is reducing under the very policies they defend), but it is obviously ad hoc rationalisation. A political philosophy based on self-interest should insulate conservatives from defending these companies. Why doesn’t it? The answer is what I have previously called the biggest single tragedy in a century of tragedies: public relations.
The use of PR, and its predecessor propaganda, to manipulate the minds of the populace in general (and conservatives in particular) to accept and even defend policies that are clearly against their interests is undermining the viability of democracies, and always has. That it undermines conservatives – real conservatives who would recognise Burke as a founding influence, not Randroids or Reaganites – it a byproduct of the creeping corporatism of the west. Politics is not about the economy, stupid, nor is it about moral standards or the institutions of our society (preserving or reforming them as you see fit). Politics is about corporations (including large unions and even political parties) getting a free hand to do as they want.
The recent decision to give corporations the “rights” of individuals to fund political campaigns by the US Supreme Court is the latest in a sequence of corporatist corruptions of democracy. Academics more than most classes of people must employ critical thinking, and PR does not survive more than the most cursory of investigations. It is the marshmallow of intellectual discourse – a little fire and it melts into a gooey mess. So long as we run society by untrammelled PR, thinkers will tend to reject the views of those who pay for it. Given that we have a false dichotomy between left and right (progressive and conservative), this means most thinkers will move to the left.
I would rather see more options. For example, I am not leftist nor rightist. On some issues I take a classically progressive view (which these days the leftist party in Australia seems not to, on issues like gay marriage), and on others a classically rightist view (in my view, nuclear power is the only option, although not the uranium cycle). On others I tend to anarchism (you want to marry your bicycle? Feel free – it harms nobody). Of course this has the added benefit that everybody hates you, so it isn’t a stable equilibrium, but it sure is fun.