Political Diversity at Universities Could Help Temper Polarization

The argument for ideological diversity on campuses is strengthened by the growing political polarization in society. Political polarization is costly, because citizens then are more likely to dismiss a policy position based on the identity of its supporters and opponents than on the merits. Polarization also makes it harder to reach compromises, and compromises are more often likely to lead to political stability than ideas with a more narrow range of ideological support.

One of the reasons for polarization appears to be that citizens today are more able to live in ideological and partisan cocoons than in the past. They can look at the websites they like and not at those that might challenge their views.   Cities and towns also sort themselves out more by political beliefs. Those opposing the predominant views of the their current residence are more likely to move to a more politically hospitable climate.  Apparently, Republicans and Democrats even choose to follow different celebrities although they do admire a golfer or two in common.

The most obvious place where citizens should learn to interact with ideological opponents and confront arguments that will challenge their views is the university. But this experience is less likely if the gatekeepers of ideas are almost uniformly of one political persuasion. And so many of our modern universities are ideologically monochromatic.  Campaign contribution records show that these place are even more Democratic than our most Democratic states and communities.

Intellectually heterodox professors are likely to help temper political polarization by introducing students to a wider variety of political and social ideals.  And as importantly, by constituting a more politically diverse community an ideologically diverse academy will serve as a model of civil and civic fellowship where competing ideas can produce a richer discourse and more thoughtful policy than one dominated by a single view.

I sympathize to some degree with the counterargument that universities should be focused solely on the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge and not pay attention to the social consequences of their operation and structure. But that ship has sailed. Almost every campus today is committed to having an ethnically diverse campus, because of its putative social and educational advantages. Given the dangers of political polarization, how can universities justify the outreach to achieve such diversity, while refusing to take any steps to end their political homogeneity? At the very least they should establish mechanisms to make sure that they are not discriminating against conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians. It is the precisely the kind of discrimination made all the more likely by the current climate of political polarization that they are uniquely suited to temper for the future.