O C F I T B L O G Legal Study Finds Law Professor Contributions to Political Campaigns Skew Overwhelmingly Democratic

Study Finds Law Professor Contributions to Political Campaigns Skew Overwhelmingly Democratic

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A.E. Houseman plays Harvard law Prof. Kingsfield in the classic 1973 movie, “The Paper Chase.” (NA)

 

Notre Dame law Professor Derek Muller—a leading election law scholar—has posted a study he conducted of the partisan distribution of political donations by law professors between 2017 and 2023. Not surprisingly, they skew overwhelmingly towards Democratic candidates:

I identified 3148 law faculty who contributed only to Democrats in this 5+ year span—95.9% of the data set of those identified as contributing to either Democrats or Republicans in this period. Another 88 (2.7%) contributed only to Republicans. And 48 others contributed to both Democrats and Republicans.

The dollar figures were likewise imbalanced but slightly less so. About $5.1 million went to Democrats in this period, about 92.3% of the total contributions to either Democrats or Republicans. About $425,000 went to Republicans. (Around $6000 went to others.)

The overall result here is far from surprising. Lots of previous studies find that law professors are skew towards  the political left. Still, the extent of the imbalance is notable. Exclusively Democratic contributors outnumber exclusively Republican ones by over 35 to 1. That’s a larger disproportion than in previous studies.

In addition, Democratic contributors outnumber Republican ones at every single school included in the study, usually by large margins. My own law school (George Mason University) is often considered right-wing. Nonetheless, Muller finds we had 11 Democratic contributors and only six Republican ones; two people contributed to candidates of both parties (for the record: I did not make any political contributions to either party during this period). That figure of six is the highest number of exclusive GOP donors at any school in the study.  By contrast, there are many schools with dozens of Democratic contributors.

The disproportion is comparable large measured by money totals, rather than numbers of contributors. Faculty at only two schools (Northwestern and Wayne State) contributed more to Republicans than Democrats. In the case of Northwestern, the disproportion is quite large: $167,245 contributed to Republicans versus $64,460 given to Democrats. But this figure is misleading. Muller’s data shows that Northwestern had 32 faculty who contributed to Democrats, compared to only one who gave to Republicans (this individual apparently also gave money to at least one Democratic candidate, as well). This one individual is so committed to the GOP that he or she gave more than twice as much to their campaigns as his 32 Democratic-contributing colleagues gave to the Democrats combined!

Muller notes a few caveats about the data, most notably that faculty with strong political views don’t necessarily donate to candidates. For example, Muller’s own school, Notre Dame, had 14 Democratic contributors during the time-frame studied, and no Republican ones. But Notre Dame does in fact have several prominent conservative or libertarian legal scholars. Similarly, Northwestern had more than one right-of-center faculty member during this period (I know of about four or five). There are cases like this at other schools, too.

In addition, the time-frame likely reduces the number of Republican donors, compared to previous eras. The period covered in the study (2017-23) is the era of the Trump takeover of the GOP, which famously alienated many highly educated people who previously backed the party. Almost by definition, lawprofs fall in the highly educated group. I myself stopped voting for the GOP in presidential elections during the Trump era, and likely some other conservative and libertarian lawprofs did the same. A 2005 study of elite law school faculty campaign contributions also found a large Democratic skew, but a bit smaller than that in Muller’s study of the 2017-23 period.

Another caveat is that people might donate to a candidate because they think he or she is a lesser evil compared to the available alternatives, not because they actually like that person’s ideology or the agenda of their party. I voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in 2016 and 2020 on such lesser evil grounds, even though I have little love for them or their party. I just found Trump to be even worse. While I did not donate any money, myself, it’s possible some lawprofs donate to lesser-evil candidates, as well as vote for them. We cannot always assume that people who donate to a candidate or party necessarily share their ideology.

Finally, a disproportionate number of non-left wing legal academics are libertarians (myself included). For obvious reasons, they may be disinclined to contribute money to either major party. Some might instead give to the Libertarian Party or its candidates (Muller found a total of only $6000 in donations to third-party campaigns). But many might not because they believe the LP has no chance of winning or because they are disillusioned by the awful Mises Caucus takeover of the party in 2022 (near the end of the study period).  Studies focusing on campaign contributions probably undercount libertarians.

There are likely other limitations to the data, as well. Still, when all is said and done, the ideological and partisan imbalance in legal academia is very large. Muller’s data further confirms it.

At this point, readers may wonder why it matters what law professors’ views are. It’s not like lawprofs are an important voting bloc, or a major source of campaign funds (with the possible exception of the big GOP donor at Northwestern!). I explained why lawprofs’ views matter in a previous post:

[L]aw professors can influence the views of law students, who—of course—go on to be the next generation of lawyers. Lawyers, in turn, have disproportionate influence on a wide range of public policies. A high proportion of politicians and other policymakers are lawyers, as—of course—are nearly all judges. Maybe lawyers shouldn’t have so much influence. But they do.

Finally, a good many lawprofs have a direct influence on the development of law and public policy. Courts often adopt ideas that were first developed by academics….

Even outside the courts, lawprofs sometimes have significant influence on government policy. For example, Harvard law Prof. Cass Sunstein has helped influence governments around the world to adopt policies based on “nudging” and other forms of “libertarian paternalism.”

Because of this influence, it would be good if there were more ideological diversity in legal academia. Studies indicate that ideological diversity can improve the quality of discourse and scholarship. If all or most scholars in a given field have similar views, that increases the likelihood that some key issues and arguments will be ignored or at least relatively neglected.

As I have emphasized before (e.g. here and here), the desirability of greater ideological diversity doesn’t mean schools should adopt affirmative action for non-left-wing legal academics, or that we should strive for a legal academy that “looks like America” in terms of the distribution of partisanship and ideology. But much can be achieved simply ending or significantly reducing ideological discrimination in faculty hiring.

As with racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination, ideological discrimination not only reduces diversity, but also reduces the quality of scholarship and teaching. Lower-quality candidates with the preferred views often get hired in preference to better-qualified dissenters. Thus, we can potentially increase diversity and quality at the same time.

Even if discrimination ended completely, we would likely have a disproportionate number of left-wing and Democratic lawprofs relative the proportions of these groups in the general population. Among other things, highly educated people—especially in the Trump era—tend to skew left, or at least against the conservative right. But ending discrimination would nonetheless make legal academia more ideologically diverse than it is now.

 

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