StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

A Data Point on "Epistemic Closure"

17 Apr 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

There has been a bit of a debate going on in the blogosphere the last few days on whether conservatives have achieved "epistemic closure." (Links and commentary here.) I won't get into the deep philosophical meaning the term. What it seems to mean in terms of the current discussion is that conservatives live in a cocoon or echo chamber in which they only read conservative magazines like National Review and the Weekly Standard, only listen to conservative talk radio, only watch Fox News and only visit conservative web sites. It's a closed loop in which any opinions or facts that conflict with the conservative worldview are either avoided, ignored or automatically dismissed on the grounds that they must be liberal or come from liberals.

I believe this view of how conservatives think is correct and want to pass along the moment when I first realized it in 2004.

Earlier that year, journalist Ron Suskind had published The Price of Loyalty based on extensive interviews with former George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. This book made many charges about the insularity of the Bush White House, the president's unwillingness to listen to any opinions that didn't confirm those he already had and others that have been confirmed by subsequent reportage.

I liked Ron's book and wrote a favorable column about it leading him to call me. We hit it off and would chat every once in a while afterwards. Basically, we were both trying to figure out the same things: What makes Bush tick? Where does he get his information? Why is he always so sure of himself? Is he capable of admitting error?

Then one day in mid-October I got a call from a woman at the New York Times Magazine saying she was fact-checking an article by Suskind that mentions me. I didn't think too much about it and confirmed that I had indeed said the things I was quoted as saying. What the fact-checker neglected to tell me is the context in which I was quoted or the extent. I learned this a few days later when the Suskind article went out on the wire.

I had been scheduled to do a radio show in Detroit on Wednesday about something or other and was asked if the subject could be changed. I asked what they wanted to talk about. They told me that they wished to discuss the big article about me in the New York Times Magazine. In fact, they said, the first two words in the article were my name and the first several paragraphs essentially quoted me verbatim.

I didn't see the article itself until Saturday night when the Times posted it online. Here are the first three paragraphs:

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'' The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .

''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''

The reason I bring all this up is because of what happened subsequently, which relates to the question of epistemic closure. A few days after the article appeared I was at some big conservative event in Washington. I assumed that my conservative friends would give me a lot of crap for what I said. But in fact no one said anything to me--and not in that embarrassed/averting-one's-eyes sort of way. They appeared to know nothing about it.

After about half an hour I decided to start asking people what they thought of the article. Every single one gave me the same identical answer: I don't read the New York Times. Moreover, the answers were all delivered in a tone that suggested I was either stupid for asking or that I thought they were stupid for thinking they read the Times.

I suppose this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. After all, the people I was questioning weren't activists from the heartland, but people who worked on Capitol Hill, at federal agencies, in think tanks and so on. They represented the intelligentsia of the conservative movement. Even if they felt they had no need for the information content of the nation's best newspaper, one would have thought they would at least need to know what their enemies were thinking.

This was the first time I really understood what is now being called epistemic closure. In the years since, it appears to have gotten much worse.

And the Times recently had to

And the Times recently had to admit that they hadn't been
paying any attention to non-liberal news sources.

Everyone, right or left, likes an echo chamber.

It's a shame you link to an

It's a shame you link to an article that the Times later had to revisit because they (indeed all of us) were mislead by said non-liberal news sources...

Thanks for the second link,

Thanks for the second link, in which Hoyt re-emphasizes just how provincial the Times was.

A notable difference

A notable difference is that conservatives have spent most of the modern media age complaining about the bias of the mainstream media. Once they organized themselves and their financiers adequately to create their own, they immediately went full-bore biased in their own direction. So much so in fact, that the example they set is actually changing the countenance of all media: we now see left-leaning media re-doubling and diving even deeper into partisanship just to match the froth worked up by Fox News, Conservative Talk Radio, etc.

It's a real shame that the shouters beat the thinkers to take the front seat in the ascent of conservative media. Does nobody, especially the country, any good.

In retrospect - the Times was

In retrospect - the Times was correct to ignore this story. The "acorn pimp video" and its creators turn out to have edited the video to be misleading at best, and fraudulent at worst.

Why? A Hypothesis

I agree that the conservative movement tends to isolate itself from dissenting opinions and facts, which is truly sad. But my question is why do they do it, and why don't liberals do it to quite the same extent?

Observe the NYT, MSNBC and even Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert. They're all liberal, to be sure, but they deal with dissenting opinions and try to understand them.

-MSNBC employs Republicans like Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough, who outline their philosophies and debate them with the more liberal contributors.

-The NYT employs or has employed Bill Kristol, David Brooks, and more to explain their ideas, front and center.

-Colbert parodies conservatism, but it really, truly understands it (how else could he play his character so well?). Stewart often has Republicans and Republican strategists on his show to have real debates (as opposed to "who can yell louder" matches).

But I don't see anything like that on Fox News, which is usually not a battle between opposing ideas but more a battle between opposing party lines.

My hypothesis is that mainstream liberals tend to want to grapple with and understand what conservatives believe, whereas mainstream conservatives simply write liberals off as "stupid" or "evil," equating it with Stalinism.

To be sure, many liberals write off the right as stupid or evil (recall the Bush-as-Hitler posters at antiwar protests). But those aren't the liberals you see on TV, whereas conservatives like Beck or Limbaugh, who also compare the President to Hitler, are given megaphones and soapboxes. So why do you think conservatives are less interested in understand opposing ideas, relative to liberals?

Study Showed Conservatives Can Only Hold One View

There was a study several months back that indicated that psychologically, liberals were comfortable comparing different points of view (ie, living in a "shades of gray" world) while Conservatives became very uncomfortable if they had to juggle more than one viewpoint.

Some liberals of course pointed to the study as proof that conservatives aren't that smart, but that's not what the study indicated, just that their brains were wired to embrace absolutes (thereby ignoring/not noticing dissenting viewpoints, as is the main point of this article).

Unfortunately, the

Unfortunately, the dismissiveness (I don't reead the times) is a product of ignorance and laziness in my opinion. It is work to assimilate all of the competing views and to determine one's own opinion. Rather than do that they simply parrot the "company" line. I have a conservative golfing buddy who consistently makes statements that are prefaced with the words "they say". I keep pressing him as to who "they" are and he cannot respond. In my opinion "they" are Fox News hosts, the many unsourced emails, etc that make up the talking points loop. I saw an acquaintenence quoted in the local paper on tax day outlining her fear that Obama is spending us into oblivion and her worries for her children. This could be a legitimate concern if the person had not voted for bush, supported two unfunded wars, Medicare Part D, etc. It is very hard to have any meaningful discussion with people that do willfully ignore their complicity and simply parrot unsourced talking points.

A quick hypothesis: Liberals

A quick hypothesis:

Liberals are, more or less, pluralists or relativists when it comes to the nature of truth. This means that it is part of their epistemic methodology to try to analyze a situation from a variety of different perspectives in order to get a grip on the 'truth'.

Conservatives are, more or less, objectivists when it comes to truth. There's black, and there's white. And that's it. Nuance is weakness, listening to counter-perspectives adds nothing to the situation at hand. This means that once they think they have "the answer" everything that doesn't repeat that conclusion is evil, wrong, or hopelessly misguided.

I realized that, "Liberals

I realized that, "Liberals are, more or less, pluralists or relativists...Conservatives are, more or less, objectivists." just a few months ago from reading a SciFI book of all things.

The hard realization I had was that progressive pundits use hypocrisy to refute the ideas of conservatives. However, to a conservative objectivist hypocrisy is beside the point.

As a liberal it makes me less judgemental of conservatives than previously and also reduced my enjoyment of Jon Stewart to my horror.

There's a better term.

Manichaeanism:  A dualistic philosophy dividing the world between good and evil principles or regarding matter as intrinsically evil and mind as intrinsically good.

I dunno

Don't they all have Google Alerts set up for their own names?

Its the Overton Window

Even at the height of the yippie/hippie/antiwar 60's, the farthest left radicals were never considered to be part of the leadership of, or spokespoeple for, the Democratic party, although Nixon's folks certainly painted them as such.

Yes, McGovern and Father Drinan and other liberals were strongly against the war, and strongly in favor of a whole range of social welfare and civil rights programs. But you never saw them encouraging, meeting with or trying to get out in front of the Jerry Rubins or Fred Hamptons of the period.

Contrast that with some of today's GOP leadership, actively encouraging the fringe elements of their own party and the Tea Partyers. Its an alernative reality all its own.

Epistemic closure

Speaking as a liberal, one of the disadvantages of the conservative's "epistemic closure" is not just that they have cut themselves off from the wider world, but also that the wider world loses access to them.

I'll admit, I spend very little time inside the conservative world. I don't watch Fox. I don't read the Weekly Standard. I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh. My world, in short, is one where conservative media doesn't really exist.

Now, this is a result of their withdrawal and my unwillingness to chase after them - the farther out into the far reaches of the galaxy they go, the less interested I am in following - but nonetheless, it does kind of leave liberals in a bit of an echo chamber of their own. It's a much bigger chamber, but it's a chamber nonetheless.

As bad as retreating into their own universe is for conservatives, I just want to point out that it's not great for the rest of us either.

No Data Point, Just a Liberal Opinion

Hi Bruce,

I find most liberals to show similar closure. Maybe it's just me, but I never feel as if most of my liberal acquaintances have actually read anything interesting in shaping their opinions about current events, politics or mostly anything. (I will confirm a disturbing tendency of some of my teaching colleagues to give their own knee-jerk liberal philosophy in situations that I feel warrant a much more balanced approach.)

In fact, I wish I could put most of my liberal and conservative acquaintances in a room with a "news topic" on which no one had yet reported anything in the media. I'm guessing they would only start shouting after one or more of them somehow misinterpreted something about the issue as either conforming to or opposing his or her preferred news source.

Best regards,

I disagree

I disagree. One need only look at changes in conventional wisdom among liberals (or at least Democrats) in the last twenty years, to wit:

*Gun control is not nearly the issue it was in the eighties. Liberals still by and large support it, but a they know that a substantial party block opposes it (mostly in western states) and so don't make a big deal about it.

*Liberals and democrats view free trade much more positively overall. NAFTA would've died in Congress if a Democratic president hadn't put a lot of political capital at risk to get it passed.

*If you read a "liberal" publication like the Atlantic or the New Yorker, you will see a very healthy give & take on the big ideas of the day. Just a few months ago an Atlantic *cover story* basically advocated that health care reform be scrapped in favor of a system that makes costs more transparent to end consumers.

Can you name a similar shift in Republicans? I can't unless you count the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which struck me as more tactical than philosophical.

(I was raised in a Republican household -- we used to get Xmas cards from the Reagans. Now I live in a very liberal small city that also has a great business environment, part of the reason I moved here.)

Oh the Irony...

Does anyone else think it's funny that a Human Events ad featuring Ann Coulter appears along with Bruce's post on the right wing echo chamber?

Why liberal look out and conservatives look in

I have read a number of hard ideological conservatives recognize if their views had informed governments around the world during the most recent economic meltdown, (do nothing - let the "free market" work") that would have plunged the world into a very deep, destabilizing depression. I think when humans know that facts will undermine a belief that human wants/needs to hold for emotional reasons, that human must avoid those subversive facts. Is is a himan trait, unfortunately the failure of conservatism as a guiding political philosophy which brings peace and prospertiy to this country has been proven the from Reagan and his deficits thru Gingrich and his government shutdown, culminating in the Bush-Cheney foreign policy and economic self immolating administration. So by all means if you have to hold to beliefs that are self-destructive and don't want to admit it - stay in your own echo chamber and yell as loud as you can so the real world can't be heard.

The Times - epistemically closed, or institutionally open?

"Yet another budget wonk" tells us that the Times too suffers from "epistemic closure" or the echo chamber. His evidence? A column by the Times's public editor, hired to be an internal watchdog, criticising all manner of internal operation from reporting to writing to headline choice to photo choice to story choice. Yes, the Times pays someone fairly well to criticise it on a weekly basis, to keep journalists as honest as they can be kept, to point out blind spots. The same Times that realised it had a blind spot regarding conservatives, and shortly after the 2004 election (I believe) hired a reporter to cover "conservatism". As clumsy as that last move was in my view, it shows an institution institutionally aware of its weaknesses and of the weakness of any organ, no matter how old or trusted.

Can you imagine this from Fox News? The National Review? The Weekly Standard? If the thought makes you laugh, it should. Conservatism is not an intellectual school nor even a political philosophy; it has become what it has devoured. It is a religion. This is why it is so gut-wrenchingly painful to watch (for example) the National Review try to cover the moral collapse of the Catholic church. A closed intellectual system cannot heal itself, because where would restorative, reinvigorating thought come from?

Limits of the MSM

This comment diverges a bit from the main point, but I cannot help but observe that one of the critiques of the MSM is that it gives up on adversarial or even skeptical reporting of those in power (at least until those in power become obviously unpopular) in order to gain access.

Reading the portion of the Times article Bartlett cites, I was struck by how rarely the MSM pointed out, especially in the early years of Bush's presidency, that Bush's much vaunted decisiveness sprang from a "sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do." This was not a truth widely acknowledged from 2000 - 2006, and not all that much afterwards. In fact, to the extent that liberals suggested this was the case, they were derided for not understanding the ways of religious people.

To put it another way, does any one think that the majority of Americans in either 2000 or 2004 understood they were electing a president whose decisions were not amenable to ordinary reasoning? Decisions that could not be modified by new information or reality itself? That the 2001 tax cuts, for example, were to Bush divinely mandated, & not just a political position? & if it's true that this was Bush's view, & yet few of us understood this, then what was the purpose of all the dearly purchased access? And what was the purpose of so much horse race chatter about policy (e.g., the tax cuts were required to humor the base) if no such mundane calculations were involved?


It's worth noting that the article that quoted me was not written by a Times reporter, but by a free lance writer. It was to the Times' credit that it published it. But that sort of reportage should have been in the news pages.

Relationship between "divine" decisions & competence

Perhaps you have insights into one of the things that has puzzled me most about Bush's tenure -- leaving aside ideology, Bush never seemed very competent -- he seemed clueless about how to effectively follow up on his decisions to see that they were implemented along the lines he wanted them to be. He also seemed unable to put into place a reasonable number of highly competent subordinates. Although I am liberal, my father (who was an executive for a very large company until his retirement) is not, yet we both agreed on this -- if anything, my father was more scathing in his judgments.

To the extent that you agree Bush had a problem effectively managing, do you think it stemmed from his belief that God set his policies? Perhaps if you thought you were doing what God told you to do, you would assume God would handle the follow up? Did he have that sort of view?

Similarly, Bush & those around him seemed oddly credulous. Remember his embrace of Putin & Chalabi? Whatever Bush's reasons for waging war on Iraq, I don't think it was his plan to strengthen Iran, yet that was a direct effect of his war, and it had no greater cheerleader than Chalabi. Was Bush a sucker because he thought his divine guidance saved him the need to subject his plans to a kind of "smell test?" (Few adults would be hesitant to trust a convicted embezzler.)

It's insecurity, not religious belief

I think that the key thing driving Bush's behavior were feelings of insecurity. He preferred to spend most of his time living in a fantasy world because if he paid too much attention to what was actually happening he might encounter an emotionally painful truth.

An example of how this played out it was in the search for a Vice President. Cheney was chosen to run the search because Cheney stated that he was not interested in the job, and therefore was in a position to give objective advice. Cheney then turned around and recommended himself for the job.

If Cheney had pulled that stunt with most presidential candidates (particularly if the candidate had an MBA), he would never work for that person again. But for Bush to fire Cheney, or demand that Cheney recommend someone else, Bush would have to acknolwledge that he should have never approved the choice of Cheney to run the search in the first place. Rather than do that, he made Cheney Vice President.

Similar considerations explain why people who screwed up in the Bush Administration could be awarded the Presidential medal of freedom rather than being shown to the door.

I don't think that Bush's management problems stemmed from his belief that God set his policies. I think that convincing himself that God set his policies was one way he had of dealing with feelings of insecurity. Indeed, if he has actually believed, deep down, that God set his policies, that might have given him the self confidence to spend less energy pretending to himself that he was an effective president, and putting more energy into actually being an effective president.


I've always thought W's relationship with his father explained much of what he did and why. 

I agree. It has always seemed

I agree. It has always seemed to me that there are basically three ways that a kid with a famous parent can deal with that fact. (1) S/he can be secure enough to think: good for my famous parent, and go on to live his or her own life. (2) S/he can rebel. Provided s/he doesn't OD or something, this often works out fine in the long run. (3) The really bad scenario: s/he just doesn't have the inner wherewithal to come out from under the famous parent's shadow. S/he does things that the famous parent also did much too often to be explained by chance: e.g., going to the same prep school the same university, and then going into the same line of work. S/he coasts on the famous parent's reputation and contacts and gets all kinds of mileage out of being the famous parent's kid without really admitting it. S/he resents the famous parent for overshadowing him/her, again without admitting that s/he could just have decided not to be overshadowed. Periodically, s/he might pick fights with the famous parent ("mano a mano", etc.), but s/he doesn't have the self-confidence or the self-respect to just detach him/herself from the famous parent and live life on his or her own terms. -- This is just corrosive to one's self-esteem. If you've ever met someone like this, it's excruciating to watch.

It was clear to me from the getgo that GW Bush was type 3. I would occasionally hear people talk as though the fact that his Dad had behaved a certain way or favored a certain policy meant that he would too, and I'd say to myself: I don't think so.

About his management style: Bush had never successfully managed anything. His oil companies failed. He was a front man for the baseball team. Texas has a very, very weak governorship. It would have been extraordinary if, with this record, he had successfully tackled one of the more difficult management jobs on the planet. Of course, he wouldn't have failed as badly as he did had he shown any inclination to recognize and compensate for his own deficiencies, but unfortunately he didn't.

Daddy Dearest? Not all of it.

Jeb was "the smart one". GWB has quite thoroughly nuked Jeb's chances of being President. Some major family drama there.

To be fair, Jeb's daughter the drug fiend would kill his chances anyway. (GHWB has 5 grandchildren: 4 have arrests or convictions and the fifth narrowly escaped a restraining order against a girlfriend. I really don't want to hear about the Kennedys, ok?)

Political Theology

The problem is more troubling than meer bias or cocooning. There is a very persuasive argument by the LSE historian John Grey, that the theological utopianism that was such a feature of the totalitarian left until the collapse of the USSR has migrated into the democratic right in America at the beginning of the 21st century. It is incredibly dangerous development and has happened very much under the radar. His argument can be found in his book Black Mass (2007)


I agree that liberal utopianism appears to have collapsed. With no socialist paradise that they can aspire to, liberals have become technocrats resigned simply to making government work. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a Utopian vision of going back to the 1880s when taxes were low, there was no government regulation, no Social Security and no Medicare. There has actually been a debate about this in the libertarian blogosphere lately. One of the big problems with this vision of Utopia is that it applied only to white men. Blacks and Asians suffered from segregation and extreme prejudice, woman couldn't vote and married women had virtually no rights at all. Some Utopia. Nevertheless, Utopian visions have enormous power in motivating people until they achieve their visions and discover that they are more like Hell than Utopia. God only knows how many millions had to die under Communist tyranny before the left finally realized that its Utopia was fatally flawed. I hope the right doesn't put us through a similar experience before they realize their Utopia is no better.

Bush as religious nut

Bruce, I call bullshit.

Your comments were a sensation on the Internet, posted everywhere and widely discussed.

But this is all crap anyway, because the most significant "epistemic" bind fold has always been the utter ignorance and wilful misrepresentations of non-leftist ideas by leftist in the MSM and in the universities, etc.

The people who originally put waste in the pool were the leftist -- I'd wafer that it was a lifetime of getting a stream of one-sided and ignorant leftist cant from he leftist intellectuals who dominate the world of the MSM and the universitiess which eventually encouraged Bush to just turn off of the leftist spin box.

This may be a tragedy, but the leftist are the ones who fouled the pool and made their product unconsumable (take a look at the foul product produced by Newsweek as an example or the foul product which is the NY Times editorial pages).

You can't blame anyone but the leftist journalist and second-hand dealers in ideas for their appalling and well earned reputation for incompetence, bias, and "epistemic bubble" behavior.

Liberal bias

I don't deny that the media had a liberal bias for a long time and the universities continue to have such a bias. But I think that the liberal bias in the media is a thing of the past. However, conservatives are too invested in the idea of liberal bias to admit it. I also think liberal bias in the universities is much diminished from when I was in school in the 1970s. 

Academia is an odd place

Academia is an odd place these days. There are groups such as lit departments that themselves suffer from deep epistemic closure. The community consists of professors training students to be professors (since it's difficult to make a living "practicing English") and they don't have to explain themselves to the outside world. Most such groups seem to remain enthralled by obsolete Marxist doctrines (though as an aside, Capital remains a foundation work for understanding finance).

Engineering, on the other hand, has to deal with reality much more frequently. Engineers may be more or less liberal or conservative.

Leaving the ivory tower for the real world was a powerful education for me...

It appears that if you say

It appears that if you say "leftist" and "foul the pool" enough, you have made an argument. Unwittingly you prove the closed mind point of Mr. Bartlett's original post. There is not a single fact in there, no citation of evidence, just a repetitious use of pejoratives.

the most significant

the most significant "epistemic" bind fold has always been the utter ignorance and wilful misrepresentations of non-leftist ideas by leftist in the MSM and in the universities, etc.

The fact that your argument -- such as it is -- consists entirely of throwing around insults like "leftist spin box," and labelling various liberal (or reputedly liberal) publications as "foul products", doesn't exactly buttress the case for an open conservative mind.

Young people left or right

Young people left or right don't read the newspaper, Bruce.

This is a fact about the product your peer group produces, not abou ideology.


I never said it was about ideology, only that technological, social and economic change has had political consequences insofar as the production and consumption of news is concerned. 


Bush had contempt for journalists and wonks since college -- you guys simply didn't know what really matter in "the family business".

I mean, he was a two term President, and you wonks and journalists merely nagged from the sidelines.

This has nothing to do with God.

This has to do with content for people who are amateurs and wanna bes when it comes to the family business Bush knows better than
all the people in journalism and the tanks who hate him on class and leftist ideology grounds.

The leftist never earned his respect -- and there aren't really strong grounds for suggesting the the leftist journalist and second hand dealers in ideas should get any respect.

The studies of party and

The studies of party and ideological affilliation published by Dan Klein suggest that it is not:

"I also think liberal bias in the universities is much diminished from when I was in school in the 1970s."

I think Harvey Mansfield remains the only registered Republican in the polisci department at Harvard, as a typical example.

Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans even in the econ departments. 

University bias...

If conservatives are under-represented in Higher Education, don't you think that could possibly be explained by every policy, economic and otherwise, that Republicans have promoted has failed spectacularly, repeatedly, in front of everyone...?

When the results of your 'policy' are increased wealth disparity between the top 1% and everyone else AND a middle-class income loss...when unfunded foreign wars, galactic debt, and unfunded mandates like Medicare Part D are part of the Republican economic legacy...when every fetus waving, fag-bashing, immigrant hating faction in America is welcomed into the Republican Party...don't you think this might be better reasons that conservatives aren't respected (or represented in Universities)...?

If everything you do fails, it matters not your intent and you should re-examine your premise(s)...

Epistemic closure indeed...

cognitive uniformity in the university

Dan Klein's studies show that uniformity of leftist / Demo affiliation is much more extreme today than it was in the 1970s in almost all academic fields outside hard science .....

"it. I also think liberal bias in the universities is much diminished from when I was in school in the 1970s."

Liberals and epistemic closure.

Great piece, Mr. Bartlett. Let me share a story with you.

In the early 90's, I, a VERY left-leaning liberal, was hired to take care of the computer systems for the Offices of President Reagan, located at the top floor of the Fox Tower in Century City (Nakatomi Tower in "Die Hard," for reference purposes). The office staff was full of young interns and a few trusted security personnel and secretaries who were nice beyond belief. His Chief of Staff, James Ryan, was one of the most gracious people I'd ever met and he personally escorted me to meet the man I had basically despised as a young (and not so smart) ideologically driven college student in Los Angeles.

I was nervous, but still excited, about meeting a real world leader, and was led into the President's office where a very warm gentleman in a perfectly tailored suit greeted me with a firm handshake and generous smile. Mr. Ryan couldn't help immediately telling the President I was a flaming liberal and Reagan immediately jumped into a story about how much he respected FDR (and indeed, had met him) and then proceeded to gush praise on all sorts of left-leaning politicians, thinkers, and world figures HE RESPECTED. Indeed, as I scanned the bookshelves around him there were works from ALL manner of philosophers and columnists. I was dumbstruck at how well he could recall events and places that illustrated his more nuanced views than were presented in the public sphere (remember, he was in the grip of Alzheimer's and the internet hand not yet established itself at the main vehicle for information). I can't help thinking that this man, the hero of today's conservative movement, would probably be dismissed by the very closed system you describe!

Over the following several months, I continued to visit and struck up a friendship with their office administrator, Karen, until Mr. Reagan's health had finally deteriorated to the point where he could no longer come into the office and they began the shutdown process. During said months I got to eat countless lunches with him and his staff (open minded to such frustrating levels they actually tempered my own opinions), brought many of my wife's conservative friends up there for photos, and even got a rare baseball signing from him. And though I could never come fully around to Mr. Reagan's republican world view, I certainly respected that his world view was shaped by a full complement of careful thought and experience. Incidentally, the President NEVER ONCE cited god or religion in our conversations or any I heard him engaged in.

Today, I'm sort of a liberal/libertarian, as are most of those with whom I associate. I try to keep an open mind and associate with as many different types of people as possible, counting as one of my best friends a certifiable Christian fundamentalist who sounds every bit as crazy as some of the Tea Partiers shown on the news. I read NRO, Sullivan, you, and even cruise over to Drudge to see how nutty he's getting at any given moment. And when I read the fiery and hateful rhetoric being pushed as the conservative movement these days, I simply take myself back to that wonderful penthouse office in Century City and remember that warm smile, jars of jelly beans, and gentle schooling that wonderful man gave me and hope the bubble will open up - if even a tiny fissure.

Reagan & Goldwater

would both be excluded from today's conservative movement for various heresies.

Reagan's character

Thanks for sharing your memories Mr. Denchasy.

While I was never a conservative and now despise the movement since I think they're neither serious or capable of governance, I was a Bill Milliken* / Gerald Ford moderate proud to vote for Ronald Reagan twice. My last straw when I left the party after twenty-nine years in the party was their unanimously approving Sen. McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin for VP at the 2008 GOP convention. That convinced me no one remained who was concerned about the party's ability to govern (as opposed to their focusing on electability).

I am a fairly ardent student of Mr. Reagan and his broadmindedness relative to today's conservative is rarely revealed though the current President's initiatives on nuclear weaponry is bringing back fond memories of Mr. Reagan's willingness to abandon conservative talking points to achieve optimal outcomes, if it required an approach that was liberal.

Michigan's long-time Republican governor.

Greg: It's unclear to me why


It's unclear to me why there being larger numbers of democrats -- or liberals -- in academia translates into the university being overwhelmed by epistemic closure on the side of the left (unless you are claiming that closure has _led_ to those numbers, but this would be total speculation).

I believe Bruce's hypothesis here is that there is something about the culture of the right (as opposed to the left) that seems to lead more readily to epistemic closure. If that's true, academia could be full of democrats but still not suffer from closure, or at least suffer from closure to a degree that would be far less than what would be expected if academia was full of republicans.

"Leftists" in media and academia?

The idea that the MSM is full of "leftist intellectuals" is just plain silly. In today's corporate media?? There are very few "leftists" -- and definitely extremely few "intellectuals"! Good grief! Is there any major figure who could seriously be called both?
Use of the term "leftist" here is pretty suspect, anyway -- trying to make it sound like liberals are in the same category as Mao Tse-Tung.
As for liberals being prevalent in academia, one hypothesis that occurs to me is simply that smart, well-educated people tend to gravitate to smarter ideas, which tend toward the liberal, more often than not. Perhaps this is my own bias, though! Another possible explanation is that conservatives tend not to be as interested in academic subjects or the academic life -- they would rather be out there trying to amass money and power.
Regardless, it is certainly the case that if you read conservative commentators or watch/listen to the Fox-type media figures, or the politicians on the current right, you find very few who seem to be very smart, sane, or honest, let alone "intellectual" or even curious. Who of them are actually interested in ideas, thinking, or knowledge? Who among them actually come up with their own opinions -- and aren't afraid to reconsider them? Even someone like David Brooks is really a fairly pedestrian and banal "thinker." The only exception I've found is Andrew Sullivan, who I love to read. I agree that really interesting, thoughtful and individualistic characters like Goldwater (or W. F. Buckley) would be rejected by today's conservatives. Sad.


I think you guys are putting too fine a point on "academia." Not only do I know a LOT of conservatives in academia, I think that there is a certain amount of self-selection in ending up a professor at Harvard of the very sort that Mr. Bartlett is describing. People who wouldn't touch the NYT with gardening gloves on are not ABOUT to apply to teach at Harvard. Yale, maybe. And yet I find that both are a hotbed of conservatism in the older sense of the word.

I think that what you define as "liberal" includes a certain open-mindedness with regard to science, difference, uncertainty. A certain willingness to entertain that you might be wrong, and behave accordingly. If so, then yes - that is definitely a majority of academia, but by no means all of them.

Manipulation of the great unwashed masses

How many conservatives have actually read Burke?

Then again, how many modern liberals have read Hobhouse?

Speaking of nuance, the founders feared mass democracy not simply because it represented "mob rule" but because they understood how easily demagogues could influence the Hoi Polloi and shape their opinions through simple-minded propaganda.


He didn't create the idea of conservatism; he merely articulated it exceptionally well. As Russell Kirk long argued, conservatism at its core has nothing to do with politics or policy; it's an attitude, a temperament that says we should tend to favor the tried and true over the new and untested, that we should always oppose change simply for the sake of change, that human nature never changes, that Utopianism often leads to tyranny, etc. There is nothing inherently right or left about this concept of conservatism. In fact, one can argue that the Soviet Union was one of the most conservative places on earth.

I would also note that just because someone hasn't read Burke (or Shakespeare or Darwin or Kant et al.) that one is not affected by him. We mostly absorb ideas of great thinkers through others. For example, we trust that our priests, ministers and rabbis have studied the Bible and the ideas of great theologians so that we don't have to. Same with Burke. Whether conservatives have read him or not--and the vast, vast majority never have and never will--isn't necessarily an indicator of his influence.

Was told by my earliest

Was told by my earliest instructors (even in math) that to be certain of anything is to be a fool. This in 1946, and that perception has been proven over time as well as an uncertain maxim can be. Thus liberalism and thus reactionism. And that's for sure!

Hmm, it's unclear to me that

Hmm, it's unclear to me that you've been anywhere near a university in 40 years ..

"It's unclear to me why there being larger numbers of democrats -- or liberals -- in academia translates into the university being overwhelmed by epistemic closure on the side of the left"

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