al-Gharbi: Progressives and Conservatives are Different Types of People

The text below is excerpted from Why Should We Care About Ideological Diversity in the Academy? by Musa al-Gharbi of Heterodox Academy:

Perhaps the most common response I get from my fellow scholars when I mention the dearth of conservative perspectives in the academy (and especially in social research fields) is something like, “what about other historically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups? Isn’t the underrepresentation of blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ scholars a bigger problem than the lack of conservatives?”

Statistically speaking? Not so much: directly comparing base-rates in the general population to representation in the academy, universities actually seem to be far more diverse in terms of race, gender, or even sexuality than in terms of political diversity. These distortions are even more pronounced in social research fields:

Below, I detail the most common responses progressive academics offer when confronted with these data — and answer these objections by drawing on the best available empirical evidence for the questions and concerns raised.

For those who want to advocate ideological (and political) diversity in social research and pedagogy  but face skeptical colleagues and students — or for those who are themselves skeptical — this post is intended to be a resource for you:

Regarding conservatives as the most underrepresented group: It is not a valid comparison to compare ideological diversity to diversity of race, gender or sexuality. Ideology is a choice. And it is perfectly legitimate to treat people differentially on the basis of their choices.

This framing implies that race, gender or sexuality are intrinsic (and therefore, presumably, invariant). But in fact, people’s gender and sexual identities often do evolve over the course of their lives. Indeed, even racial and ethnic identities shift — for instance, in response to legal classifications, after getting back a DNA test or unearthing historical records suggesting a familial heritage one was not aware of, or as a result of marriage, the communities one lives insocio-political current events, on and on.

But of course, just because one’s gender, sexuality or racial identities can be changed does not mean they are strongly volitional: resolving one’s sexual identity is not the same as deciding where to eat tonight. And so the question is: are political commitments akin to racial, gender or sexual identities? Or are they more like decisions about what to wear in the morning?

For instance, could a committed progressive – someone who deeply believed in the core tenets of the movement — just decide one day to be a conservative, and feel these commitments just as strongly (or vice-versa)?

similar point holds with regards to religion: could a deeply convinced atheist just “choose” to be a devout Sufi mystic or a fundamentalist Hindu? Not just in terms of practice, but a sincere believer?

Most research on psychologycognition or culture suggests that fundamental commitments simply don’t function that way. Instead, certain biological and otherwise intrinsic affinities are shaped through many of the same social forces through race, gender or sexuality are constructed.

In fact, for many, religious or socio-political commitments are actually more central to their identity than their gender, sexuality, or race. Fundamental commitments typically help shape understandings of these subordinate demographic categories and their social significance. In the process, they inform what people value, what they aspire to, and how they act or interact “in the world.”

Foundational commitments often function much like an ethnicities (which is why, for instance, Islamophobia can be considered a form of racism, despite the fact that Islam is not a “race”: in most Western countries, one’s Muslim identity would essentially supervene upon one’s actual racial or ethnic background in shaping perceptions and interactions). As with many “actual” ethnic minorities, members of “functional ethnic groups” often end up concentrated into geographic clusters and patterns of life that persist across generations.

In the U.S., the conservative-progressive spectrum trends strongly along the lines of geography and class. It would therefore be expected that institutions which preclude conservatives would also tend to have severe underrepresentation among, say, working-class and rural Americans (who are more likely to identify as conservative than urban or wealthier Americans). Indeed, this is the case in U.S. institutions of higher learning: as universities have grown increasingly politically homogenous (towards the left), participation among rural and working-class Americans has plummeted.

Of course, economic factors play a key role in driving this effect, but so does the perception among many rural and working class families that college is not “for them” – that they don’t “belong” there. This discourages many who do have the financial means, or the grades to be competitive for scholarships and financial aid, to not even apply (or if they do attend, to struggle with “imposter syndrome” – to the point where some end up failing or dropping out).

In short: measures that preclude conservatives from university spaces will tend to marginalize rural and working class people more broadly – because in many important respects, progressives and conservatives are not just the same kinds of people who happen to vote differently (in which case discrimination seems less clear), but are increasingly different types of people.

Critically, ethnicity is not the same as race. Ethnicities can encompass a wide array of races – for instance, there are Hispanic whites, Hispanic blacks, and everything in between. Functional ethnicities are no different: Muslims in the U.S., for instance, are extremely diverse in terms of race and nationality.

Similarly, “rural” and “working class” are not mere synonyms for “white.”  In fact, policies and practices which are harmful to rural working class whites are likely to have an especially harmful effect on rural or working class minorities.

“Conservative” is not a synonym for “white” either.

To the extent that people who hold conservative or religious views feel unwelcome in the academy (and especially in social research fields) – it will not just be whites who are excluded, but also a number of blacks and Hispanics:

Although blacks overwhelmingly vote Democrat, they are actually much more heterogeneous in their ideological leanings than their voting patterns would suggest – especially on issues related to gender, sexuality or even immigration. Hispanics also tend to be more conservative than whites on a range of social issues. Blacks and Hispanics tend to be more religious than whites too.

Given that blacks and Hispanics are, on average, more religious and more socially conservative than whites – policies and practices that alienate socially conservative or religious perspectives will disproportionately affect these minority groups rather than whites (that is, students who are Hispanic or black would be more likely to be impacted by these exclusionary measures in virtue of being more likely to be religious or socially conservative).

Therefore, it may not be a coincidence that the representation rates for blacks, Hispanics and conservatives are so similar, why representation of working class, black and/or Hispanic students has gone down in the very elite and east coast universities where domination by the left is most pronounced. In principle, these hyper-liberal spaces should be the least hostile spaces for these groups. In reality, the exclusion of conservatives and believers from the academy actually seems to run contrary to the goal of bringing in more people from historically marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds, or elevating their voices.

Indeed, a similar dynamics holds with women as well: across most Western democracies women tend to be more religious and politically conservative than men. Hence, spaces that are parochial towards religious and social conservative views will also tend to exclude many, many women.

However, it is not just religious or socially conservative minorities who end up jeopardized by the academy’s institutional biases against the right: Progressives who hail from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups tend to bear the brunt of the blowback from Republican voters against “partisan” universities. In fact, research by critical race scholars, feminists, or queer theorists is perhaps most likely to be devalued and defunded when universities find themselves under assault by conservatives who feel as though they have no place in institutions of higher learning.

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