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Perspective: What jobs are social conservatives allowed to have in America?

Some students at the University of Florida say they feel threatened by the prospect of Sen. Ben Sasse leading the school. They clearly don’t know him

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Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., speaks during a Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing for Judge Merrick Garland to be attorney general in February 2021.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., speaks during a Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing for Judge Merrick Garland to be attorney general on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Al Drago, pool via Associated Press

Last week, protests erupted at the University of Florida after students learned that a sitting Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, was under serious consideration to be the university’s next president.  

Student protesters spoke of being worried whether the campus would still be “a safe space” for them given the senator’s conservative views on sexuality, marriage and abortion. One student told a Fox News reporter, “I feel that a lot of marginalized groups on campus will feel less safe and less secure.”

It was the senator, however, who had to be concerned about his safety; Sasse had to be escorted to his car by police. Leaders of the protest said they wanted to “make his life miserable.” And a labor union representing graduate students tweeted, “This will be your life every day if you accept a position here.”

For anyone familiar with Sasse — one of America’s most civil, thoughtful and well-reasoned political leaders — all this is both shocking and sadly predictable. In witnessing the backlash, it’s not hard to move beyond asking, “Is it OK for social conservatives to be university presidents?” to “What jobs are Americans who believe in classic Judeo-Christian values still allowed to have?” 

I will confess from the outset that this is a personal question for me. A college professorship was always my dream job, complete with a camel-skin jacket with the patches on the elbows. The spirit of bringing together the best ideas in a contestation of truth has always mesmerized me. And unlike other conservative graduate students, I had a wonderful experience at a very progressive psychology department full of remarkable mentors and classmates.  

But on at least two different occasions when my wife and I were seriously considering an opportunity at colleges on the East Coast and in the West, the fact that I openly identified as conservative proved a noticeable barrier. (In one case, my own friend on the faculty raised the possibility of bringing in a Latter-day Saint professor, arguing for “representation” on the faculty given that 25% of the student body were members of the church.  He told me recently how his colleagues “laughed off” the possibility). 

I would have loved to talk openly to his colleagues about what differences in our worldviews felt too ridiculous to even consider exploring. But that’s part of the problem — conversations like that are happening less and less, as like-minded faculty hire other like-minded faculty. In this way, the academy has become ideologically monolith in ways that may legitimately threaten the pursuit of truth itself since hypotheses and research programs are delimited by only one worldview. (As just one example, a 2018 social psychology text pointed out that the character and lives of conservatives were far more likely to be studied for signs of pathology and deviancy than liberals.)

Based on a 2018 analysis of 8,688 tenure track professors with doctorate degrees from 51 of the 66 top-ranked liberal arts colleges, Mitchell Langbert from Brooklyn College confirmed an enormous imbalance in political affiliation among these faculty, with a remarkable 39% of the colleges represented in his survey proving to be “Republican free” — with literally zero Republicans responding — and most of the rest being “absurdly skewed against Republican affiliation and in favor of Democratic affiliation.”  

While naturally varying across different colleges (military and religiously oriented schools, for instance, having many more conservative faculty), the distribution Langbert found across departments was fascinating. The only field in which Republicans outnumbered Democrats was engineering, with the skew increasing as you moved from the physical sciences to the social sciences and humanities. Every department of anthropology and communications surveyed were “Republican free.”

This isn’t how it’s always been. In 1984, only 39% of the American professoriate identified as left-leaning, a number that climbed to 72% in 1999. 

So, I’m clearly not alone in having struggled to find a place in the academy. But political skews aren’t exclusive to higher education. And such ideological imbalance is not always a problem. A 2015 review confirmed interesting political leanings across many different kinds of professions — with midwives, taxi drivers, flight attendants, park rangers, pediatricians and architects all more likely to lean left. In contrast, business owners, talk show hosts, engineers and surgeons were more likely to be conservative.

Again, these kinds of leanings may not be all that problematic, especially if there’s enough “viewpoint diversity” to still allow people with different views. It doesn’t matter if your flight attendant is a Democrat or Republican. Where this becomes challenging is where monolithic thought emerges. It is also challenging for people in the public eye. (Remember when Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich had to resign after he made a donation to support Proposition 8 in California?)

If you’re hoping to work in leadership in any profession with a lot of public exposure, be careful about exposing any political leanings. In many circles, the more elite the job, the higher the risk of anti-conservative bias. 

And depending on the profession you’re going for, at least be thoughtful about what you share. A randomized experiment eight years ago found that job seekers whose applications had cues of being the minority partisan affiliations (e.g., conservative in a very liberal area and vice versa) are “statistically less likely to obtain a callback than candidates without any partisan affiliation.” The authors concluded that people may “sometimes place themselves at a disadvantage by including partisan cues on their resumes.”

Which brings us back to Sasse, who has been deemed unfit to serve by the loudest and angriest activists on his campus.

When a classically liberal friend of mine, a respected civic leader in Florida’s capital, found out about the controversy, she said, “These folks have zero credibility if they think — of all people — Ben Sasse is a threat.”

The good news is if leaders stand up against the kind of bullying we’re seeing from the activist class, statistics confirm that coercive canceling efforts become less and less likely.  It’s kind of like responding to a 2-year-old’s tantrum by giving them what they want. Don’t be surprised if the tantrums get worse.

So ignore the bluster. Sasse would make a fantastic President Sasse. And good-hearted liberals can disagree with good-hearted conservatives on many important things while still seeking the full truth together. Let’s not ever give up on a world where that beautiful collaboration is still possible.

Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”