It’s Not Politics, It’s Groupthink

March 4, 2021 Updated: March 4, 2021


I was a liberal for most of my adult life, a liberal in the very liberal habitat of academia. When it came to Republicans and Democrats, progressive attitudes and conservative attitudes, I believed what everyone else believed, and that was one of the best parts of academic life. If I had a choice, I would never have wanted it to change.

If you’ve never been a liberal, and if you’ve never worked in a uniformly liberal environment, this is a blandishment that you cannot imagine. You have to have experienced the comforts and satisfactions of adhering to ideas and outlooks reinforced by everyone around you to appreciate these particular joys of belonging, especially when those ideas and outlooks are controversial in other spaces.

I’m now a conservative who works for a conservative magazine, and the environment is no less consistent, but it has a different mood. There, and in other conservative habitats such as meetings of the National Association of Scholars, there’s always a subtle doubt in the air, concern over eventual defeat, and a bit of self-examination on everyone’s part. Not in liberal zones, though, and not in the heads of the inhabitants. That’s what I observed in 40 years as a graduate student and professor.

As I said, if you’ve never been there and been one of them, you can’t imagine how complacent and cocksure and content everyone is. Oh, you have lots of insecurity going around, people competing for jobs and awards and prestige, comparing themselves to one another all the time, suffering the pains of non-recognition, but when it comes to politics and morals, everything is set. These people pride themselves on their critical thinking, they’re very good at analyzing words and ideas and data, but they hold their politics apart, far away from scrutiny.

It’s not simply that they’re intellectual and smug. On the contrary, they believe that the politics they embrace have been reached precisely through a critical process of reasoning, reflection by informed minds. If they espouse a liberal point of view, it’s because they have thought their way to it, applying to the world and its problems the high-achiever wits that got them through college and graduate school so well. Having cogitated political truths with the same exacting research that they bring to Modernist poems and public health data and riots in New York City during the Civil War, they see no need to question the verities they’ve discerned. Why submit ideas of anti-patriarchy to more examination given that those ideas were the sophisticated and steady result of prior examinations (of bourgeois society, divisions of labor, masculinist norms…)?

Or so they believe. In truth, they haven’t studied political issues with much deliberation at all, but no matter. Their trust in their powers of judgment is super-high. Why question their political opinions? After all, the conceptions of anti-patriarchy were conceived in the smartest of settings, among people with advanced degrees and high ambition. It took a lot of work to become a tenured professor (or a successful lawyer, scientist, etc.). The general ideas they hold about man and woman, race and sex, past and future, America and the world, are as reliable as their own intelligence. Is it possible that the best and brightest could be wrong, that the common wisdom of the elite is off-base? No way.

The populist uprisings of the Tea Party and, then, the election of Donald Trump could have marked a challenge to elites capable of looking in the mirror. The people who participated in these upheavals pointed their discontent precisely at these elites, but that hasn’t caused a whisper of self-doubt among the credentialed ones. No, the professionals haven’t lost a shred of confidence in their own opinions. They may have feared for their power until the results came in last November, but never their moral-political acumen. The discontent of the rabble only confirmed the superiority of the superiors.

This was not just a social thing, a clique out to reassure itself, or a way for one group to maintain its privileges. There was something psychological going on, too. Most people, even Democrat voters who aren’t white-collar, take the uniformity of opinion on college campuses as a problem. Conservatives and non-elite liberals may disagree over the degree of the problem, but the vast majority of America would like to see a little less political correctness in the classroom. They know that ordained conclusions and the shunning of dissenters damage the spirit of academic freedom. What they don’t realize, however, is that the very uniformity of liberal thinking among the elite is itself a powerful enticement. The professors like it too much to give it up.

Remember, these individuals argue and compete and win and lose all the time. That’s the nature of professional life. Within an academic department, individuals nurse grudges, they envy the stars, they resent the lack of appreciation of their own labors. It’s an exhaustively aspiring condition. This one got promoted, I didn’t; that one has packed classrooms, I can’t draw more than a dozen kids; that one got the grant, I got nothing. The measurement of self by what others reap never stops, and it makes a lot of them bitter and miserable.

Except on those occasions when professional concerns are suspended and colleagues can come together over non-collegial matters. This is the allure of monolithic liberalism in professional worlds, the bliss of conformity. Political/social agreement gives them common cause, and that’s a relief, a reprieve. When Ted Cruz comes up in conversation during a faculty luncheon, all minds run in the same direction. Here they can unite, speak without worrying about displeasing a colleague. Competitions cease; community starts. Everyone can let go and relax, laugh, and affirm.

And, of course, hammer the scapegoat, the figure who must pay for the unity achieved by these otherwise contentious characters. He’s instrumental to this collegiality, a common enemy enabling them to become allies. Such a figure to hate lets them like one another. The safest enemy, the current villain of choice, of course, is the conservative. Or, not just any conservative, but Trump conservatives. Liberal professionals need them in order to convert their colleagues into comrades. And to make deep-seated professional rivalries and jealousies go away, the threat has to be pretty bad, irremediably stupid, in fact, the very opposite of the smartest people in the room.

It feels good; it feels very good. For one happy interval, the tension dissipates. All the hostility shoots at someone else, someone far from the campus, someone who isn’t accredited to be there, of interior intelligence and taste and moral sense. It’s a ritual of grouping and isolation, membership and exclusion. In the ’80s and ’90s, academic humanists talked about “otherness” all the time, even coining the verb “to other,” but nobody does it better than them. This is a political uniformity that runs much deeper than politics. It’s an emotional thing, a coping mechanism, a brief escape from anxiety.

The whole thing comes down to the assumption that professors are immune to it. Such rituals belong to high school, they believe, or to the uneducated dwellers of small towns, not to people who hit the 95th percentile on the SAT. They’re too smart, too reflective, too critical to let social pressures steer their opinions. They have too much pride to believe otherwise.

It isn’t true, of course. If anything, academics are more prone to conformity, not less. I have worked in government and in publishing as well as in academia, and the first two don’t come close to the timid adherence to dogma that you find among the professorate. When conservatives attack liberal bias in higher education, however, they usually overlook this aspect of group psychology, probably because few conservatives have seen it with their own eyes. They aren’t professors themselves, and they haven’t witnessed what happens in committees and behind closed doors. They aren’t familiar with the subtler dynamics of getting ahead, the shady underside of peer review.

This is why disputing the academic elite over politics is a waste of time. The psychic factor makes objections to political correctness irrelevant. They don’t want to argue the dogmas of feminism, for instance, they just want to share them, because the sharing is reassuring. In ignoring the psychological side of liberal complacency, conservatives end up addressing symptoms, not causes. In the academic world, conservatives are not up against an ideology. They face a group anxiety.

Instead of berating liberal professors for their smug bias, conservatives should take a different approach. Don’t critique their liberalism—no, let’s mock their conformity, laugh at their predictability. Or, in more sympathetic moments, post some questions:

  • “Don’t you ever feel like not going with the flow?”
  • “Don’t you ever get bored hearing the same things said by everybody?”
  • “Wouldn’t it be fun to say something good about Donald Trump and watch the reactions?”
  • “Don’t you know that once in a while the excitement of dissent far exceeds the comforts of agreement?” …

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.