Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Republican Brain Drain

Nils Andresen has an interesting series on the conservative Frum Forum blog on the brain drain of elite college students from the Republican Party. He summarizes the trend thus:

Republicans have gone from having a clear advantage among top students in the decade following the Eisenhower administration, to being competitive under the Nixon and Ford administrations, and from being an energetic minority during Reagan and Bush Sr. to being almost eradicated today.

Andresen speculates that this trend is driven by the Republican leaderships' attacks on "elitists," their cultivation of anti-science (young earth) creationists, and their encouragement of sheer falsehoods like those of the "birthers." He worries that the long-term effect will be to dry up the pool of conservative policy thinkers and people well informed about the world context in which policy has to be made.

I can testify that the recent turn of the Republican Party has made the position of Republicans at Centre College more difficult. Centre students are centrists, on the whole. There are significant numbers of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans among the students. Town/gown relations have historically been good. Yet in the most recent elections the tone of local Republicans has taken an unpleasant turn, attacking the "elitism" of the college, charging professors with socialism, and even suggesting that students not be allowed to vote locally lest they "cancel out" the votes of local "property owners." Centre Republican leaders have been put in a difficult position by the ill-informed positions of some national party candidates and the short-sighted radicalism of the tea party wing of the Republican Party. I have seen on the ground that these well-educated and politically interested young people will have a harder time committing themselves to the Republican Party, when the party disparages people like them.

When I was in the federal Department of Education under President Reagan and Secretary Bill Bennett, it was clear that the Republicans could not field a team. In other fields - finance, and perhaps in defense - they had an informed policy makers. In education, though, and most other fields of domestic government, the Republicans did not have a body of informed people to draw on to make policy, and even fewer willing to implement it. All of the top leadership of the department were Democrats when they learned how to govern, and had only recently switched parties in order to take office.

Educated people run society, including government. A party that loses the most educated young people today will reap a poor harvest tomorrow.


Meg G. said...

"Educated people run society, including government."

Yeah, and a FINE job they have done!

Gruntled said...

Our society actually runs very well. It is the custom of the opposition party to say the opposite every two years - a tune they change if they win the election.

Do you think society would be better off if it were run by more ignorant people?

Meg G. said...

No, it's just that you imply that educated is the opposite of conservative.
Maybe society is running well for you but some of us beg to differ.

ceemac said...

Prediction: The responses from the "right" to your thoughts will be similar to the reaction of the Presbyterian "left" to your call for a new Presby. "establishment"

Gruntled said...

Let me explicitly reject any implication that educated and conservative are opposites. I agree with Andersen, who writes for a conservative blog, that the Republican Party does itself a disservice by alienating the best-educated conservatives.

Whit said...

Personally, I prefer that society not be "run" by anyone. I prefer that we each run our own lives, left alone unless we hurt someone else.

There are smart, thoughtful, conservatives. One need only read the pages of the Wall Street Journal or National Review.

These folks are not particularly welcome on the faculties of most of our exclusive colleges and universities. And their ranks do seem a bit thin in government. Perhaps that's because the best and brightest among conservatives are out starting businesses rather than working in government.

Gruntled said...

ceemac: yes, I expect you are right. It is the lot of centrists to be misunderstood if they say something that is not in the expected liberal vs. conservative line.

Gruntled said...


I prefer a society with schools, roads, traffic lights, sewers, an electrical grid, clean air, clean water, safe food, safe medicine, mail, currency, limited liability corporations, air traffic control, border security, trade agreements, international alliances, and, on this Veterans Day, a strong military - every one of which is the result of policy decisions by the people who run our society.

Whit said...


Yes, of course we need those things, and a government to help provide them. But there is a distinction between helping provide the things that society wants, and "running" society. It is the difference between government as servant and government as master.

Let me give a concrete (if you'll excuse the pun) example. You need experts (elites) to design a highway that moves traffic from suburbs to city center and back. But elites overstep their bounds if they were to decide that people should not live in suburbs (even though they want to) and, therefor, highways should not be built.

I think conservative rhetoric has been off the mark here. I don't think there is anything wrong with highly educated people (being one by most definitions), or having such people in government. Where I think people resent "elites" is where highly educated people begin to think they are not only experts in their field (law, economics, physics, whatever) but also that their opinions, or the shared opinions of others of their class, on what is moral, good, just, right, etc. counts more than the opinions of the uneducated on those issues.

My preference is for a society of distributed power, where economic power is held by the broader society through the action of free markets. History has shown that where government, or cartels, seek to set prices or allocate resources, economic inefficiency results. Moral and cultural power is best wielded by society itself acting through a coherent culture and traditional values, not imposed from above.

Examples of elites going beyond their expertise abound in my own field, the law. There is nothing in the text of the Constitution which guaranties a right to contraception, or abortion, or gay marriage. The authors of the provisions now used to justify these things would be appalled if they saw their work so interpreted. But "elite" judges were intent on overriding the wisdom of the people on these issues rather than taking the time to convice society to change voluntarily.

When you hear conservatives talk about elites, they are not talking about educated people per se, but about people who think their opinion about moral and "justice" matters are worth more than those of people generally.

Michael Kruse said...

Frankly, I question why educated people would want to identify closely with either party.

Along with Whit I would challenge the notion of "run society." By analogy, look at the difference between air traffic control versus ground transportation for a large city. In the former, a centralized entity is telling each participant when and how to move. In the latter, basic infrastructure is put in place and some enforced procedures are implemented. But each individual doesn't check with "ground traffic control" to confirm when they can leave their driveway and wait for instructions on which route they must take. Furthermore, once on the road, individuals follow informal rules of courtesy. When one lane is to slow they move to another. When a route seems clogged they move to another or simply alter their travel plans.

Government plays a critical and indispensable role. It is similar to urban planning and law enforcement functions provided for a large city. But its role is a subsidiary role. Government is subsidiary to more localized and intermediate social institutions. It exists in support of them. The local institutions are not subsidiary to, or extensions of the government who is "running" society.

It is precisely the lack of appreciation for subsidiarity that too many Dems share that keeps me away from the party.

Anonymous said...
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halifax said...

I actually didn't have the same experience with Republicans on campus that you had, Beau. Perhaps, that was because it was a not very well kept secret that I had some sympathy for their position. In fact, the representatives of the college Republicans were quite comfortable with their party and with themselves, and they were usually better students than their counterparts in the college Dems (obviously, this is anecdotal). Of course, I haven't been there during the years of the Obama imperium so it's certainly possible that things have changed.

As for the complaints of the locals about the dirigiste tendencies of the Centre faculty, I would suggest that your own experience confirms much of what the locals have to say. You are a moderate Democrat (with the emphasis on 'Democrat'), but you are often treated as some sort of right-wing nut by your fellow faculty members (whose political sophistication is as shallow as a pond in the Mojave). I well remember the daily lunchtime rants of biologists, philosophers, and religion professors about the perfidy of anyone to the right of Chairman Mao (or maybe it was Howard Dean that year).

In terms of 'schools, roads, traffic lights, sewers, an electrical grid, clean air, clean water, safe food, safe medicine, mail, currency, limited liability corporations, air traffic control, border security, trade agreements, international alliances, and, on this Veterans Day, a strong military', many of these goods (schools, roads, clean air, clean water, safe food, safe medicine) were readily available long before government got involved, though I wouldn't necessarily dispute the necessity for some minimal level of government involvement now (except in schools, where 'more equals worse'). In terms of several others (common currency, international/trade agreements, border security), there's nothing to distinguish the US (or any other liberal democracy) from other states in terms of providing these (except for the fact that the US is so egregiously poor at border security). Of course, I’m an Old Whig or Tory Anarchist, so I’m not to be trusted in these situations. And, by the way, I believe that Rand Paul did indeed fulfill my prediction and say that ‘we are going to take our government/country back’. It wasn’t a good line when Obamaphiles said it two years ago, and it still isn’t one.

That all said, I'm reading a book that would surely interest you about the history of intellectuals in the UK (or, more accurately, England). It's called Absent Minds and it's by the intellectual historian Stefan Collini. You might enjoy it because he deals with many of the 'knowledge class' questions that animate some of your research and some your blog posts (like this one), but does so as an historian not a sociologist. He also has separate chapters on intellectuals in Germany, France, and the US. You might want to check it out just to see how the other half (historians, I mean) lives.

halifax said...
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halifax said...

Sorry for the multiple posts. The little machine told me each time that my message had been rejected, but that obviously wasn't the case. I blame Quebec, as I always do. Feel free to delete them if you want.

Whit said...

I have one other observation regarding Andresen. I have to admit that the conservative side has the young earth creationists and the "birthers" (though the point of the birthers escapes me since there is no question about the President's mother's citizenship and thus his right to his office).

On the other hand, the other side has the "truthers" and a series of environmental doom-sayers beginning at least as early as Rachel Carson whose warnings and predictions have proven to be less than reliable. Polls have also shown that Evangelicals are actually less likely than secular-leftists to believe in the paranormal such as ghosts, flying saucers, etc.

Everybody would be better off if we did not try to tar conservatives generally with birthers and the like, or tar progressives with the truthers.

Further, while I don't know any birthers, I do know some young earth creationists who are perfectly reasonable on most every other issue you talk to them about. We have to be careful to distinguish between false positions and the people who hold them.

Cameron Mott said...

I'm not worried because my theory is most Republicans become Republicans after college anyway. Maybe that's bad but I doubt it.

Gruntled said...

The two deleted comments were duplicates, not censorship.

Susan Perkins Weston said...

I vote left of center and spend most of my time resisting folly on my side of the aisle, so I completely agree that witless politics are a drain on both parties.

Increasingly, I think the key decision for each of us is whether our political participation is going to be mainly about criticizing others or mainly about building up sensible shared institutions.

Every commenter here actually has examples of good sense roles for government and ideas for implementing those roles more effectively. It will be good for our communities and our children if we can give those constructive opportunities our best energy.

Snark is fun in small doses, but it's no way to build up our world. It's not stewardship of our talents, and doing it all day falls short of the work we're called to do.

Gruntled said...

Both parties have their skeptics about established knowledge. The two cases are not quite parallel, though. Senior Republican officials encouraged birther speculation, and half the GOP presidential candidates last time said they did not believe in evolution.

In research on authoritarianism and polarization that I blogged on earlier, Hetherington and Weiler noted that
1) Authoritarians have much less accurate political knowledge than non-authoritarians; and
2) Over the past forty years authoritarians made a big shift from an even division between both parties to a heavy concentration in the Republican party.

This is the same period that Andresen shows a strong shift of the most educated people in the opposite direction.

Gruntled said...

As to "running society" we may not be disagreeing much.

I think managing the complex system of decisions about which roads to build and maintain, how they connect with one another, what kind of traffic regulations by rules and by devices they require, and how to pay for it all, constitutes a piece of "running society."

All of which enables me to make a free decision about which road to take to the city.

Whit said...

Maybe I don't know the definition of authoritarianism, but it seems to me that, at this time, the authoritarians are on the Left, while the people who prefer more individual rights and economic freedom, and less governmental authority over their lives, are on the right.

Whit said...

The 55 mph speed limit may be a perfect example of what I am talking about. The experts might be able to tell us what the trade-offs are between speed and accidents, although it is intuitively known that there is such a trade-off. But the experts cannot decide for society what the optimal trade-off is (a few more accidents at 70, but much shorter travel times). That is, and was, something decided on by society itself when drivers (i) ignored the limit and (ii) demanded repeal. The fact that the experts might disagree with the trade-off preferred by larger society does not make it wrong.

halifax said...

You might find this amusing. It's a short poem by Auden.

To the man in the street who, I'm sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word 'intellectual' suggests right away
A man who's untrue to his wife.

Siral said...

Gruntled, who are the Democrat young guns? Your party's future leaders.

Gruntled said...

Siral, Andresen was writing about current college students and recent graduates, so some of the young guns are just starting to make their way. I have high hopes for my own daughter, now in her first year of law school.

Siral said...

I meant like a Democrat Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio or John Thune. The brain drain may be on your side. Obama must be a disappointment to your side.

Gruntled said...

At 49, I wasn't thinking of Obama as a young gun. He is, though, a brilliant political leader, who has achieved about all that one could, given the disaster he inherited. I look forward to six more increasingly productive years.

Anonymous said...

I grimace at two more years, and then he can be shown the door.

Many people who are Dems in college become conservative later. My favorite example is my friend's husband. He was a flag-burning, war protesting, long-haired hippie liberal in the 60s. Now he's a business owner and more conservative than I am, which is saying something. We all say that he just grew up. He says that he worked hard for his business and it's not the prerogative of the government to redistribute his hard-earned wealth.

Gruntled said...

The issue that Andresen was pointing to was not that the best educated are moving away from conservatism, but that they are moving away from the Republican Party. His inference is that it is the recent theme of attacking "elites" and elevating leaders who are palpably ill-informed within the Republican Party that is causing educated young people to leave the GOP. Some of them may be conservative, but feel unwelcome. It is hard to imagine a young Bill Buckley, for example, being welcome on a Tea Party stage.

Jill T. said...

He would be president of my Tea Party. You sir, are dreaming.

taaj said...

Mr. Obama is an intellectual but he is not a wise man, this is a dangerous combination in a leader. Especially in the supposed leader of the free world.

Pastor Dennis said...

I know a John Bircher, who loves the Tea Party, and who believes that William Buckley was the enemy and that Eisenhower was a communist. This John Bircher is a brilliant guy, but believes many things that seem entirely unwarranted.

taaj said...

That Bircher, pastor, sounds like Mr. Obama, brilliant but not wise. We would be better off if neither were president of our country.

Anonymous said...

yall r all rite an grunteld is rong

them peepul with fancy edjookaishuns aint smarter then enny wun els

aint nuthin rong with eeleets in jinerul

sosiettee is run by eeleets an there r good eeleets an bad eeleets

rite now wee got bad eeleets in the kurrint adminnystrashun

nuff said

Anonymous said...

i reckin you oughter hall off an reed sum ov that there gaetano mosca an that there pareto feller

thet will larn yew a thang or too

Anonymous said...

Now that is really scary.