College graduates are now a firmly Democratic bloc, and they are shaping the party’s future. Those without degrees, by contrast, have flocked to Republicans.
College graduates attribute racial inequality, crime and poverty to complex structural and systemic problems, while voters without a degree tend to focus on individualist and parochial explanations. It is easier for college graduates, with their higher levels of affluence, to vote on their values, not simply on economic self-interest. They are likelier to have high levels of social trust and to be open to new experiences. They are less likely to believe in God.
The rise of cultural liberalism is not simply a product of rising college attendance. In fact, there is only equivocal evidence that college attendance makes people vastly more liberal. Far from the indoctrination that conservatives fear, liberal college professors appear to preach to an already liberal choir.
But it is hard to imagine the last half-century of liberal cultural change without the role played by universities and academia, which helped inspire everything from the student movements and New Left of the 1960s to the ideas behind today’s fights over “critical race theory.” The concentration of so many left-leaning students and professors on campus helped foster a new liberal culture with more progressive ideas and norms than would have otherwise existed.
“If you live in a community which is more liberal, there’s a self-reinforcing ratcheting effect,” said Pippa Norris, a professor and political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School who believes that the rise of higher education contributed to the rise of social liberalism throughout the postindustrial world.
As college graduates increased their share of the electorate, they gradually began to force the Democrats to accommodate their interests and values. They punched above their electoral weight, since they make up a disproportionate number of the journalists, politicians, activists and poll respondents who most directly influence the political process.
At the same time, the party’s old industrial working-class base was in decline, as were the unions and machine bosses who once had the power to connect the party’s politicians to its rank and file. The party had little choice but to broaden its appeal, and it adopted the views of college-educated voters on nearly every issue, slowly if fitfully alienating its old working-class base.
Republicans opened their doors to traditionally Democratic conservative-leaning voters who were aggrieved by the actions and perceived excesses of the new, college-educated left. This G.O.P. push began, and continues in some ways today, with the so-called Southern strategy — leveraging racial divisions and “states’ rights” to appeal to white voters.
The reasons for white working-class alienation with the Democrats have shifted from decade to decade. At times, nearly every major issue area — race, religion, war, environmentalism, guns, trade, immigration, sexuality, crime, social welfare programs — has been a source of Democratic woes.
What the Democratic Party’s positions on these very different issues have had in common is that they reflected the views of college-educated liberals, even when in conflict with the apparent interests of working-class voters — and that they alienated some number of white voters without a degree. Environmentalists demanded regulations on the coal industry; coal miners bolted from the Democrats. Suburban voters supported an assault gun ban; gun owners shifted to the Republicans. Business interests supported free trade agreements; old manufacturing towns broke for Mr. Trump.
A similar process may be beginning to unfold among Hispanic voters. The 2020 election was probably the first presidential contest in which the Democratic candidate fared better among voters of color who graduated from college than among those without a degree. Mr. Trump made large gains among voters of color without degrees, especially Latino ones. The causes of his surge are still being debated, but one leading theory is that he was aided by a backlash against the ideas and language of the college-educated left, including activist calls to “defund the police.”
For some Republicans, Mr. Trump’s gains have raised the possibility that it may be easier to appeal to working-class voters of color.
“It doesn’t seem quite as big of a bridge to cross as saying, ‘Let’s go back and win white suburbanites,’” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster who is writing a book on how the party might build a multiracial coalition.
True or not, it’s a view that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it leads Republicans to adopt strategies aimed at making it a reality.
There is no guarantee that the rising liberalism of the Democratic primary electorate or college graduates will continue. The wave of activism in the 1960s gave way to a relatively conservative generation of college graduates in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Perhaps something similar will happen today.
What can be guaranteed is that the college-educated share of the population — and the electorate — will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state where four-year college graduates represented the majority of voters in a presidential contest. In 2020, the state was joined by New York, Colorado and Maryland. Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut and others are not far behind. Nationwide, four-year college graduates might represent a majority of midterm voters at some point over the next decade.
The Rotting of the Republican Mind
When one party becomes detached from reality.
In a recent Monmouth University survey, 77 percent of Trump backers said Joe Biden had won the presidential election because of fraud. Many of these same people think climate change is not real. Many of these same people believe they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality. Moreover, this is not just an American problem. All around the world, rising right-wing populist parties are floating on oceans of misinformation and falsehood. What is going on?
Many people point to the internet — the way it funnels people into information silos, the way it abets the spread of misinformation. I mostly reject this view. Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?
My analysis begins with a remarkable essay that Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch pointed out that every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.
This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. “We let alt-truth talk,” Rauch said, “but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.”
Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.
While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.
People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.
People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers. The evangelists of distrust, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon, rose up to give them those stories and provide that community. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.
For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.
Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.
What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.
Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.