Democrats are Too Educated for Our Own Good

Democrats are Too Educated for Our Own Good

By Chris Conrad '21; Graph by

Earlier this year, Democratic state senator Jeanne Dietsch argued that when it comes to education, “This idea of parental choice, that’s great if the parent is well-educated… But to make it available to everyone? No. I think you’re asking for a huge amount of trouble.”

The callous implication that working class parents don’t know what’s best for their children was all too obvious. Conservatives gleefully declared that “Republicans don’t need to make the argument that Democrats no longer represent the party of the working class. Democrats are now making that argument all on their own!”

I want to defend a controversial argument in this essay: they’re right.

Democrats are too educated for our own good. Over the last 50 years, democrats have gone from being the party of the working class to the party of the highly educated. This shift has been deeply counterproductive, driving the dramatic conservative shift in American politics that has occurred in the post-Reagan era.

Evidence of this shift is all around us.

A few months ago, when I asked a progressive friend why she voted for Warren over Bernie in the primary, she responded that “Warren is smart. The way she talks makes it clear that she knows what she’s talking about.” The implied “unlike Bernie” was all too clear.

Then again, it’s not surprising that Warren talks like a professor and Bernie talks like an activist who never went to grad school – that’s what they were before becoming elected officials.

That impulse to pick Warren because she sounds knowledgeable is the same impulse that makes us collectively bemoan how dignified and intelligent Obama’s rhetorical style was compared to Trump. Again, law professor Obama, B.A. Trump.

In the 50s, many democratic politicians were not college educated – Harry Truman was a high-school graduate. But as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan puts it, today, “it’s unthinkable that the college-educated base of the party would trust a high school graduate without a four-year degree to run for or hold a serious office. We don’t trust them, and would never vote for one of them. Why should they trust or vote for one of us?”

This points to something else – not only has the party elite become increasingly educated, the base has too.

I tortured myself a few months ago by slogging through Thomas Piketty’s new 1,100 page book on the ideology of inequality. In it, he presents data showing that across western Europe and the US, left political parties have completely reversed the composition of their voter base in the last 50 years.

Whereas democrats (and corresponding parties in France, the UK, Germany, etc.) used to draw their votes from uneducated, working class people, and Republicans from the educated and rich, that is no longer the case. In a few short decades, the trend has reversed – democrats own the educated, Republicans own the rich and uneducated, and the working class votes less in general.

Piketty argues (and I agree) that this reversal has harmed the left a lot – even in countries where the Southern strategy wasn’t giving the right an extra boost, the same trends are observed in the data.

His basic argument is this: the educational reversal is a result of New Deal-era social democratic policies like universal public education and cheap college – economic “winners” of globalization succeeded in the increasingly-knowledge based economy, and have now become the college-educated base of left political parties.

But crucially, by virtue of their education and success under globalization, the party elite and base are completely out of touch with the working class, the uneducated, those who lost under globalization.

And god does it show.

It shows when we laugh at clips of The Daily Show interviewing people at Trump rallies who contradict themselves in a single sentence and think to our (smart) selves “Trump supporters are so stupid.”

It shows when we’re quick to label every Trump supporter a racist, misogynistic bigot too stupid to realize that Trump is a compulsive liar.

It shows when we indignantly sputter at Fox News or Trump labeling us the out of touch, coastal liberal elite, who don’t understand the plight of real Americans.

It shows when we complain that uneducated working class whites are so stupid, voting for the Republicans, don’t they realize that the democratic policy platform is better for their class interests? Don’t they realize that the democrats want to help the poor, and Republicans want to help the rich? They’re so stupid, voting against their own interests…

It showed for me when Geoghegan wrote, “How many of us in the party’s new postgraduate leadership caste have even a single friendship, a real one, of two equals, with any man or woman who is just a high school graduate?” Because for me, that number is zero – all of my friends from high school went to college. What about you?

It shows when we complain about how much Republicans lie, how the very concept of truth itself is under threat! How dare Newt Gingrich assert that violent crime is going up when these ten empirical studies I’ve found say it’s going down! And the audacity of him, to say “as an elected official, I’ll take what people feel, and you can take the theoreticians.” The Republicans don’t even pretend to care about what’s true! God, what kind of idiot would believe Gingrich, believe Trump…

It showed when Hillary said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.”

This is the dark side to the educational reversal. We think we are so smart, so well-informed, so knowledgeable about politics.

We want the working class to vote for us, but we see them as less than us.

They are the less educated, less informed, less resistant to lies and propaganda. We are the educated, the informed, with such sharp critical thinking skills that we  are immune to our own party’s lies.

If you aren’t convinced yet, I saved my best story for last.

Remember my friend who voted for Warren? A few weeks ago, she complained to me that “People who aren’t informed about politics shouldn’t vote” because so many people are fooled by Republican lies into voting against their own interests. When I pointed out how anti-democratic this was, she argued that smart people should be the ones making policy.

This is the anti-democratic impulse lurking behind our educated veneer. How far have we fallen? How elitist have we become? We like to think we’re the party of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized. But when the economically downtrodden vote for Trump, we cast them off as stupid bigot and secretly wish that they couldn’t vote.

To me, democracy means everyone gets to vote. No exceptions. No poll taxes, no language tests, no felon disenfranchisement, no tests to see if a voter is “well-informed” (educated) enough to qualify to vote.

If you agree with my friend, if you secretly (or openly) wish we lived in democracy of the educated, by the educated, for the educated, then I’m sorry. You’re part of the problem.

Because let’s not forget: it was conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke who argued that government should be run by a “noble aristocracy” because the aristocrats (the rich) were most qualified to make governing decisions, the unwashed, uneducated peasants would plunge the country into chaos with their shortsighted thinking and easily inflamed emotions.

Is this not our present political moment? The uneducated Trump voters whose emotions are so easily inflamed by Republican lies? Give government to the Obamas and Warrens of the world, the ivy-league law professors, the technocrats, the PhDs. Because they know what they’re doing. They’re qualified. Hillary was the most qualified presidential candidate in history!! Why didn’t she win?!

I do not care if you think this diagnosis is factually true – that Republicans are liars, that Trump supporters are racists, that technocrats make good representatives. I care about what you have forgotten.

What you have forgotten is that Obama did not win by talking like a law professor. He won on Hope and Change, by mobilizing people’s emotions, on the belief that we can do better, that we can make this country a better place to live in.

Why do you think Biden always tells stories about his mom and dad, about losing his family in a car crash? Why is Biden’s eulogy for McCain the best speech I’ve watched in my life? Why do you think Bernie was the candidate who won primary voters without college degrees, and the only candidate who won much more of his support from the uneducated than the educated?

It’s because they understand the same thing that Gingrich does: politics is about emotions, not facts.

The most powerful moments in the primary debates were the ones with emotional resonance – Warren talking about a family splitting insulin, not Warren talking about the detailed specifics of her plan to make college free for (almost) everyone.  

The way Warren talked most of the time appealed to college students like me for whom technocratic language resonates, the way Bernie talked appealed to the working class, the uneducated. Is it any wonder that he outperformed Warren in the primaries?

Here is one number I want you to remember. 70%.

That’s the percentage of Americans alive today without a college degree.

Seventy. Percent.

At the end of the day, this is the reason we need to change course. We cannot win in the long run if we are the party of the educated. As Geoghegan writes, “This is a high school nation.

During the New Deal era, democrats reigned supreme – workers were (and still are) the majority of the country, the rich and educated are a minority.

Beyond the numbers though, I think I’ve already pointed out the other reasons this is a losing strategy. It’s not just that college educated people are less than a third of the country.

It’s the scorn, the contempt we so routinely display for the uneducated workers of this country (especially working class white folks who increasingly vote Republican). It’s our blindness to the primary role of emotions in political communication in favor of relying on fact-checking and worship of “studies.” It’s the elitism, the snobbery, the “basket of deplorables,” the “stupid people who vote against their own interests,” it’s the anti-democratic impulse that if only we could stop everyone who isn’t smart from voting…

As Geoghegan writes, “We liberals talk about… the working class as if the working class were not in the room. If we knew any of them personally, we might shut up. Who in the GOP would go to a NASCAR rally and talk about there being no hope for anyone without a four-year degree? No wonder so many members of the working class flip us the finger.”

We are not the party of the working class.

But we can be again.

Listening to Bernie speak gives me the same hope Obama did. Hope for a working class, multi-racial, multi-gender democratic party that can reverse the havoc that four decades of conservative neoliberalism has wrought on healthcare, education, the environment, inequality, and democracy itself.

And I know. “Bernie lost twice! Corbyn lost in the UK! Working class populism doesn’t work!” But you forget. Before there was Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, who lost. The Southern Strategy lost (badly) before it won. Left-wing working class populism will be the same. Besides, Biden is running on the most progressive platform in history (a result of the progressive wing’s influence), and Bernie outperformed the establishment’s expectations.

Ultimately though, it’s about more than the policies. It’s about our ethos – how we talk to, and talk about, the working class, the uneducated, those less fortunate than ourselves.

I think Geoghegan said it best: “But more than a change of program, the whole party, left and center left, needs a change of heart.”

2 thoughts on “Democrats are Too Educated for Our Own Good

  1. Hi Chris,

    Your analysis leaves out the fact that Black and Hispanic Americans, who are less likely than the general population to have a college degree, are also overwhelmingly Democrats. They, not college-educated white Americans, are the base of the Democratic Party. Now, I wonder what they would say about the supposed class bias among Democrats? Perhaps you have the cause and effect backwards: the departure of white Americans without college degrees from the Democratic Party did not cause the conservative shift of the past forty years – it was an effect of it. Republicans have become the masters of white identity politics, and the white working class has embraced these appeals with open arms.

    Like you, I’m also hopeful about the prospect of multiracial social democracy in this country. But I’m not willing to ignore the way in which race informs who we mean when we talk about “working class Americans”, nor I am naive enough to expect that left-wing politicians will be able to wave away the corrosive racial politics of the Republican Party simply by changing their tone a bit. Solidarity means working to build a durable coalition for progress, not hand-wringing about the loss of a nostalgic New Deal coalition—one, I might add, that was built on Southern white supremacy.

  2. Hey David,

    Thanks for your comment, you raise a lot of good points! A few stray thoughts in response:

    1) I wish I’d spent more time discussing race in the piece – I originally intended to have a whole section dealing with questions of whether race is a better explanation of the conservative shift in American politics (Piketty’s book, which inspired this piece, spends a lot of space examining this) but I ended up without space to deal with it in a nuanced way, and for that, I apologize. At the cost of being lengthy, I’ve added a lot of that nuance to this comment.

    2) The Geoghegan piece that I reference a lot has a line that I found pretty compelling: “We often tell ourselves: ‘Oh, we lost just the white working class because of race.’ But the truth might be something closer to this: ‘It’s only because of race that we have any part of the working class turning out for us at all.'”

    3) I think you’re right to be cautious about the prospects for winning back working class whites who have bought into the white identity politics of Republicans. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, but it won’t happen overnight – it’ll be difficult. I think we might diverge in that I think it’s a worth pursuing and you might not? Maybe I’m just too optimistic about the possibilities of the multi-racial working class populism that characterized Bernie’s framing strategy (remember all that anecdotal evidence of white working class Trump voters supporting Bernie in the primary?)

    More importantly though, I don’t think the white working class is this homogenous, irredeemably racist bloc (that idea is exactly what I’m criticizing in the piece). Piketty’s data indicates that most of the working class (bottom 50% of income earners) doesn’t vote at all. This means a lot of white voters have not bought into the GOP’s white identity politics – if they did, their turnout would be at a peak today, which it isn’t. This, to me, suggests that most of the white working class has become disillusioned with both parties because they think neither represents their interests – which is also why I think we could include these people in the party’s base without having to compromise on racial justice (which is the obvious problem with trying to win back racist white voters).

    5) I don’t think I have the causality backwards. Piketty’s data (and I’m summarizing a lot here) show that the educational reversal happened within every conceivable demographic – age, gender, income, marital status, and yes, race. In other words, even just looking at women, or just looking at black Americans (or white Americans), you see the same trend – in the 50s, lower levels of education predicts voting Democrat, and today, the highly educated vote Democrat, whereas the less educated increasingly do not. To simplify, educated white Americans vote Democrat, uneducated white Americans either don’t vote, or vote Republican. Educated black Americans vote Democrat, uneducated black Americans are much less likely to vote (but they probably still vote Democrat if they do).

    This suggests that the educational reversal is a fairly robust phenomenon with greater explanatory power than the Southern Strategy explanation. If education wasn’t important and race was all that mattered, you would expect uneducated working class whites to turn out at roughly the same rate as educated whites and vote for the same party – but this isn’t what happens. Same goes for black Americans – you’d expect uneducated black Americans to have the same turnout as educated black Americans, which again, is not what we observe. Low turnout among the uneducated seems to suggest that they don’t think it’s worth voting for either party, because neither represents their interests – Democrats’ primary constituents are the educated, Republicans’ primary constituents are the rich.

    Additionally, the educational reversal (and subsequent decline of left-wing parties) occurs everywhere else in western Europe – and in those countries, nativist anti-immigrant xenophobia occurs decades after the Southern Strategy starts in the US. So racism can’t explain the conservative shift in most of Europe, but the educational reversal can. Less educated workers who lost under globalization stopped voting for the left (stopped voting altogether) because neither party represented their interests – both parties were pro-neoliberal globalization.

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