The Sciences

The Next Ingredient in the "Reality Gap" Stew: Conservative Counter-Expertise

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 14, 2011 11:27 PM


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This is the second of several posts elaborating on my recent American Prospect magazine articleentitled “The Reality Gap: Now more than Ever, Republicans and Democrats are separated by expertise–and by facts.”

In my last post, I showed how academics and scientists in the U.S. today are overwhelmingly liberal, and have become increasingly so over the years--and that postgraduates in general are also moving into the Democratic column. To sum it all up, as I wrote in the Prospect piece:

The Democratic Party has thus become the chosen party of what you might call “empirical professionals” and Americans with advanced degrees. According to research Gross conducted with Ethan Fosse of Harvard University and Jeremy Freese of Northwestern University, nearly 15 percent of U.S. liberals now hold one, more than double the percentage that did in the 1970s. The percentage of moderates and conservatives with advanced degrees has also increased but lags far behind the saturation levels of expertise among liberals. Indeed, conservatives are about where liberals were back in the 1970s.

But of course, it is not as though conservatives, in response to all this, have said, "oh okay then, we'll listen to the liberal academics and intellectuals." No. In response to this trend--and at the same time, in a way that likely exacerbated this trend--for decades they have been both 1) attacking academia and 2) creating their own experts outside of academia. Which leads to the next part of my article--the growth of conservative counter-expertise:

The growth of conservative think tanks parallels the leftward migration of expertise in general: Call it a countertrend. Indeed, writes Columbia historian Mark Lilla, many conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s began to operate as “counter-intellectuals,” consciously dedicated to fighting back against the “intellectuals” as a class. In some cases, they became “counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals--a unique American phenomenon.” Another historian who has studied the growth of think tanks, Jason Stahl, spent months in the Library of Congress with the papers of William J. Baroody Sr., the longtime head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Based on this research, Stahl finds a very similar result. Baroody presided over the dramatically successful growth of his institute, from a staff of 18 and an annual budget of just over $1 million in 1970 to a staff of 150 and a budget of $10 million by the early 1980s. He did so by inspiring conservative and corporate funders to “break [the] monopoly” on ideas held by the left and to ensure that “the views of other competent intellectuals are given the opportunity to contend effectively in the mainstream of our country’s intellectual activity.” So it is not as though conservatives lack intelligent and talented experts of their own. Democrats may have considerably more of them in their ranks than Republicans, but Republicans have more total experts than they used to, as well--the whole society does. And despite Stephen Colbert’s remark that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Republicans are not giving in. They’re fighting that “biased” reality constantly, in as many disciplines as they can. For every Ph.D., there’s an equal and opposite Ph.D.--or so it can often be made to appear.

So we've got a) a vast sea of liberal academics and experts and b) a devoted counter-force of conservative academics and experts. What happens next? We can here use psychology and motivated reasoning to predict--and that will be the subject of my next post....

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