As a college professor who also follows politics fairly closely, I’ve been noticing a lot of commentaries about how universities are making the political divide in America worse. I think that’s ridiculous (and the tl;dr version of this post is college educated people are leaving the Republican party not because college “makes” people into Democrats, but because the party has gone crazy). I guess these ideas have been in the air for a couple years now, though it’s gotten a bit more intense lately.
The version of this most in my mind now is Will Bunch’s After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It, which I finished listening to a couple ago. There’s a lot to unpack in that book about things he got right and wrong (IMO), and I completely agree with this review in The New York Times. But in broad terms, Bunch argues higher education is the primary cause of political division and the rise of “MAGA” conservatism in the United States. Universities perpetuate a rigged meritocracy, they’ve grown increasingly liberal (I guess), and they have become horrifically expensive, all of which puts college out of reach for a lot of the same working class/working poor people who show up at Trump rallies.
This kind of thing seems to be in the air nowadays. For example, there’s this recent article from New York magazine, “How the Diploma Divide Is Remaking American Politics” by Eric Levitz. There’s no question that there have been shifts in how education aligns with political parties. Levitz notes that Kennedy lost the college-educated vote by a two-to-one margin, while Biden lost the non-college-educated vote by a two-to one margin. Levitz goes on to argue, with fairly convincing evidence, that higher education as an experience does tend to present people with similar ideas and concepts about things like science, art, ethics, and the like, and those tend to be the ideas and concepts embraced by people who identify as Democrats.
Or at least identify more as Democrats now– because as both Bunch and Levitz point out, college graduates were about equally split between the two parties until about 2004. In fact, as this 2015 article from the Pew Research Center discusses, more college graduates identified as Republicans between 1992 (where the data in that article begins) and 2004. And I’m old enough to vividly remember the presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 and how one of the common complaints among undecided voters was Bush and Gore held the same positions on most of the major issues. How times have changed.
Anyway, U.S. universities did not tell state legislatures and voters during the Regan administration to cut funding to what once were public universities; politicians and voters did that. Higher education did not tell corporate America that a bachelors degree should be the required credential to apply for an entry-level white collar position, even when there seems little need for that kind of credential. That standard was put in place by corporate America itself, and corporate America is lead by the same people who said we shouldn’t support higher education with taxes. In other words, the systematic defunding of public higher education has been a double-whammy on poor people. The costs of college are putting it financially out of the reach of the kinds of students who could most benefit from a degree, and at the same time, it makes it easier for parents with plenty of money to send their kids (even the ones who did poorly in high school) to college so they can go on to a nice and secure white collar job.
I’m not saying that higher education isn’t a part of the problem. It is, and by definition, granting students credentials perpetuates a division between those who have a degree and those who do not. Universities have nothing to do with company polices that require salaried employees to have a bachelors degree in something, but universities are also very happy to admit all those students who have been told their entire lives that this is the only option they have.
But the main cause of the political division in this country? I’m not even sure if it’s in the top five. For starters– and Bunch acknowledges this– the lack of decent health care and insurance are at least as responsible for the divide between Americans as anything happening in higher education. A lot of Americans have student loan debt of course, but even more have crippling medical debt. Plus our still unfair and broken health care system enables/causes political division in “spin-off” ways like deaths and ruined lives from opioids and the Covid pandemic, both of which impact people who lack a college degree and who are poor at a higher rate. Plus the lack of access to both health care and higher education for so many poor people is both a symptom and a result of an even larger cause of political division in the U.S., which is the overall gap between rich and poor.
Then there’s been the changes in manufacturing in the U.S. A lot of good factory jobs that used to employ the people Bunch talks about–including white guys with just a high school diploma who voted for Obama twice and then Trump– moved to China, and/or disappeared because of technical innovations. One particular example from Bunch’s book is of a guy who switched from an Obama voter to a wildly enthusiastic MAGA Trump-type. Bunch wants to talk about how he became disillusioned with a Democratic party catering to educated and elite voters. That’s part of it, sure, but the fact that this guy used to work for a factory that made vinyl records and music CDs probably was a more significant factor in his life. I could go on, but you get the idea.
But again, I think these arguments that higher ed has caused political polarization because there are now more Democrats with college degrees than Republicans are backwards. The reason why there are fewer Republicans with college degrees now than there used to be is because the GOP, which has been moving steadily right since Bush II, has gone completely insane under Trump.
There have been numerous examples of what I’m talking about since around 2015 or so, but we don’t need to look any further than the current events of when I’m writing this post. Paul Pelosi, who is the husband of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was violently attacked and nearly killed by a man who broke into the Pelosi’s San Francisco home. The intruder, who is clearly deranged in a variety of different ways, appears to have been inspired to commit this attack from a variety of conspiracies popular with the MAGA hardcore, including the idea that the election was fixed and that the leaders in the Democratic party in the US are intimately involved in an international child sex ring.
US Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the attacks after they happened on Friday, but just a few days later, Republicans started to make false claims about the attack. For example, one theory has it that the guy who attacked Paul Pelosi was actually a male prostitute and it was a deal gone wrong. Others said the story just “didn’t add up,” and used it as an example of how Democrats are soft on crime. Still other Republicans– including GOP candidate for governor in Arizona Kari Lake and current Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin— made jokes about what was a violent assault on the campaign trail. And of course, Trump is fueling these wacko theories as well.
Now, I’m not saying that college graduates are “smarter” than those who don’t have college degrees, and most of us who are college graduates still have a relatively narrow amount of knowledge and expertise. But besides providing expertise that leads to professions– like being an engineer or a chemist of an elementary school teacher or a writer or whatever– higher education also provides students at least some sense of cultural norms (as Levitz argues) about things like “Democracy,” the value of science and expertise, ethics, history, and art, and it equips students with the basic critical thinking skills that allows people to be better able to spot the lies, cons, and deceptions that are at the heart of MAGA conservatism.
So right now, I think people who are registered Republicans (I’m not talking about independents who lean conservative– I’ll come back to that in a moment) basically fall into three categories. There are people who still proudly declare they are Republicans but who are also “never Trumpers,” though never Trumpers no longer have any candidates representing their views. Then there are those Republicans who actually believe all this stuff, and I think most of these people are white men (and their families) who have a high school degree and who were working some kind of job (a factory making records, driving trucks, mining coal, etc.) that has been “taken away” from them. These people have a lot of anger and Trump taps into all that, stirs it up even more, and he enables the kind of conspiracy thinking and racism that makes people not loyal to the Republican party but loyal to Trump as a charismatic leader. It’s essentially a cult, and the cult leaders are a whole lot more culpable than the followers they brain-washed.
Then there are Republicans who know all the conspiracies about the 2020 election and everything else are just bullshit but they just “go along with it,” maybe because they still agree with most of the conservative policies and/or maybe they’re just too attached to the party leave. But at the same time, it’s hard to know what these people actually believe. Does Trump believe his own bullshit? Hard to say. How about Rudy Giuliani or Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy? Sometimes, I think they know it’s all a con, and sometimes I don’t.
Either way, that’s why college grads aren’t joining the Republican party– and actually, why membership in the Republican party as a whole has gone down, even among people without a college degree. It certainly isn’t because people like me, Democrat-voting college professors, have “indoctrinated” college students or something. Hell, as many academic-types have said long before me, I can’t even get my students to routinely read the syllabus and complete assignments correctly; you think that I have the power to convince them that the Democrats are always right? I wish!
In other words, these would-be Republicans are not becoming Democrats; rather, they are contributing the growing number of independent voters, though ones who tend to vote for Republican candidates. I’ve seen this shift in my extended family as my once Republican in-laws and such talk about how they are no longer in the party. My more conservative relatives didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 and probably won’t in 2024 either, but that doesn’t mean they are going to vote for Biden.
One last thing: I’m not going to pretend to have the answer for how we get out of the political polarization that’s going on in this country, and I have no idea how we can possibly “un-brainwash” the hardcore MAGA and Qanon-types. I think these people are a lost cause, and I don’t think any of this division is going away as long as Trump is a factor. But there is no way we are ever going to get back to something that seems like “normal” without more education, and part of that means college.