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Japan in 2020: Making Sense of Professors in Overwhelmingly Insular American Universities

The author looks at studies of the political affiliations of American university professors to understand their academic bias.



I sympathize with my Japanese friends when they wonder what American professors could be thinking.

The American professors sneer at the egalitarian entrance examinations to the national universities, and urge the schools to adopt sex quotas. They cheer the Kaiho domei’s accusations of anti-dowa racism. They instinctively accept the most implausible Korean claims about forced abductions and sexual slavery in the wartime brothels. They accept equally evidence-free claims about forced labor to the coal mines. And about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? For anyone who might venture anything positive about him, they display utter contempt.

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There are reasons for all this, and they go to the place universities occupy within the dangerously polarized world of American politics. Most basically, the prominent humanities and social science departments are places of near-total political conformity. Overwhelmingly, the faculties support the Democratic Party, and generally support the left fringe of the Party at that. 

Racial preferences have been a key component of the Democratic platforms for at least several decades — hence, the instinctive sympathy for the Kaiho domei. Sex preferences have been almost as central, and for almost as long — hence, the disdain for egalitarian admissions. 

The instinctive professorial sympathy for the Korean claims is more complex, and goes to the current agenda in American humanities (and sometimes social science) departments. The scholars most apt to study Japan tend to come from humanities disciplines, like anthropology, history, and literature.  Within these departments, faculty focus increasingly on racism, sexism, and imperialism. Korean activists claim that racist and sexist Japanese soldiers kidnapped young girls for the comfort stations. They claim that imperialist Japanese soldiers drafted Korean men at bayonet-point into the Japanese coal mines. In both accounts, they tell a story that fits perfectly the standard template by which many humanities scholars instinctively view the world.

The political conformity within American universities makes the environment overwhelmingly insular. Within the humanities and social sciences, professors will seldom see articles by someone who might question their political preferences. They will seldom encounter a workshop where the speaker might contest their partisan assumptions. They will seldom meet either a colleague or a graduate student who does not share their political instincts. The only Republicans a professor might meet are the occasional outspoken undergraduate or the local auto mechanic. 


These are testable empirical propositions — which scholars have tested. A scholar interested in the issue can approach it in two general ways: through campaign contributions or through voter registration records.

Political donations are public information in the U.S. A researcher can easily locate the national data set online and examine the political contributions made by faculty members at a university. In many states, moreover, voters can declare their party preference when they register to vote. In states that make these records public, a researcher can search the party affiliation of those faculty who live in the communities near the university.

For example, one group examined contributions made by professors at several prominent universities during the 2012 elections. The following table gives the total contributions by university employees, followed by the percentage of those contributions that went to Democratic candidates: 


University              Total                % Democrat

Yale                          $567,789       97%

U Chicago                  686,253        96

Cornell                       646,121        95

UC Berkeley              3,144,466        93


Columbia                  1,109,513        90

U Penn                       693,455        89

Harvard                    2,488,429        85

U Michigan                  649,822        85

MIT                            649,097        85


Source: Center for Responsive Politics, Top Contributors to Federal Candidates, Parties, and Outside Groups, OpenSecrets.org, visited Apr 1, 2014.

Similarly, in 2005 two professors published a study in which they used voter registration records to explore the party affiliation of UC Berkeley and Stanford professors. Consider several of the more important departments: 


Consider the disciplines whose scholars most often write about Japan:  anthropology, sociology, history, and political science. All of these departments are overwhelmingly Democrat. A not unreasonable worry for a Republican student considering graduate school in anthropology, sociology, or history would be that he simply will not be hired in a top department. 

These tables are for 2012 and 2005. There is good reason to think matters have become far more partisan since those years. Barack Obama was a polarizing president. He tried to govern from what was then the fringe left, and did not offer to compromise. When a congressional stalemate ensued, he implemented his policies by regulation. 

 By 2016, many conservatives saw the country as lurching dangerously to the left. As Hillary Clinton seemed inclined to carry forward the Obama agenda, they voted for Donald Trump — for the simple reason that he would not continue the Obama programs. Obviously, Trump has become an even more polarizing president than Obama.

 Eight Obama years and four Trump years have created tensions so severe that they have turned American universities into dangerously intolerant places. If Abe has managed to build a strong alliance (and possibly even a friendship) with Trump, for many university faculty this itself is reason to despise Abe.

 Living and working within ideologically hermetic worlds, many professors cannot understand how anyone thoughtful would vote for Trump.  Unfortunately for my thoughtful Japanese friends, neither can they understand why any Japanese would support his apparent friend Abe.


Author: J. Mark Ramseyer

Mark Ramseyer is a professor at Harvard Law School in the United States.


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. OneAmericanScholar

    January 22, 2020 at 9:14 am

    Professor Ramseyer presented some insights regarding the state of U.S. universities. Indeed, in recent years, political correctness, virtue signaling, and personal politics increasingly permeate academic institutions, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

    Many students, rather than learning critical thinking, learn "cancel culture." Ideally, it should be anathema to academia when scholars suppress facts (that challenge their worldview) and discourage open and honest discussions.

    Ramseyer recognizes the pernicious consequences when ideology supersedes facts, mentioning that some American professors have accepted implausible and evidence-free historical claims.

    The great irony is that academicians believe they are promoting a more just, fair, and better world. But, the rub is that justice and fairness are subjective. Sadly, some intellectuals cannot acknowledge their own biases and prejudices. Reinforcing this problem is the "echo chamber" effect, where one is surrounded by people expressing the same views. Ramseyer points out that an overwhelming majority of faculty members at several prominent U.S. universities are affiliated with the same political party.

    Given this problem, what can one do? Here, I can offer only ideas. First, one should become versed in the art of persuasion. Second, it is important to know if the people one is trying to reach are reasonable and rational. Generally, ideologues cannot be swayed, regardless of the weight of evidence refuting their beliefs. Some academicians undoubtedly belong to this camp, but not all, and these more open-minded intellectuals will revise their opinions if facts and evidence are presented the right way.

    Name-calling, insults, and other invectives are counterproductive. Disrespectful language closes ears whereas respectful language may open them. One should also recognize that some may be afraid to speak out, lest there be consequences – personal, financial, or professional.

    Because academicians believe they are making the world better, one should try to find common ground there. Perhaps one should start by saying: "I think you, like me, desire justice. I've uncovered some new facts. Would you like to know what I've found?" Or, "There is a lot of misunderstanding on this topic, which I didn't realize until I started to do my own research. Perhaps you would like to hear what I've discovered." Also, it should be pointed out that misconceptions hurt people of today, by not exposing underlying causes (e.g., social and economic inequality). To prevent today's disadvantaged people from suffering such tragedies, history must be told accurately.

    Books on the art of persuasion provide further examples of ways to communicate effectively. Insightful books include Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and Gerry Spence's "How to Argue and Win Every Time." Such books are a must-read.

    Finally, those seeking to clear up misconceptions should never give up. Although many or even most academicians many not listen, if only one in a hundred revise their opinion, it is a start.

    Prof. Ramseyer should be given "props" for his efforts.

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