Democrats' college degree divide
More educated Democrats are more progressive across the board
Educational attainment is an important and much-discussed political divide in the United States, with the discourse most focused on looking at the white population as two separate groups: whites with college degrees and the more conservative non-college whites.
But taking a different cut at the data can help to illuminate crucial dynamics in American politics.
Democratic voters comprise a multiracial but predominantly white group of college graduates and a larger group of non-college voters. The non-college share of the Democratic coalition is split about 50:50 between white (of which non-college whites are such a large share of the American population that they accounted for fully one-third of Joe Biden’s voters, despite voting overwhelmingly for Trump) and non-white individuals. It is overall much less liberal on a range of issues, especially social and cultural ones.
And this divide has important implications for Democratic Party politics.
This working-class wing provides the majority of the votes, but the college grad wing provides essentially all of the staff, including in the White House and on Capitol Hill. But also in the agencies, at the Super PACs, at party-aligned nonprofits. College graduates also dominate the media, not just in the sense that the media is made by college graduates, but in that media made for college graduates is considered prestigious and highbrow in a way that local TV news or the Joe Rogan Experience is not. And while racial differences and racial representation are hot topics in progressive politics, in practice working-class Black and Latin people are “represented” in the councils of power by the college-educated co-ethnics who may have very different ideas.
Most pollsters don’t break out the data in a way that lets you distinguish between college and non-college Democrats, but a few do, and we got in touch with others to share the information with us.
College-educated Democrats are more progressive
Gallup generously shared the crosstabs on several of their issue polls, and one of the biggest gaps between college and non-college voters was on abortion, with college-educated Democrats dramatically more likely to identify as pro-choice. I wouldn’t attach too much specific meaning to what “pro-choice” or “pro-life” means to poll respondents in practice, but the gap in identification here is big. And it seems to correspond with a general disposition to think abortion should be more or less available.
Another very large gap is on immigration. I’m a college-educated Democrat who thinks we should increase immigration levels; so are most of my friends. But among non-college Democrats, this is a minority view. And while immigration cuts aren’t popular on either side of the education divide, they are much more popular among working-class Democrats.
Those are the biggest splits, and they’re on “cultural” issues where you stereotypically think of upscale Democrats as being on the left.
But what’s interesting when you look across a big suite of Gallup polls, is that though the graduate gap is bigger on cultural issues, the professionals are most left-wing on all topics, including the Affordable Care Act and approval of labor unions.
While cultural issues are the primary driver of the degree divide, more educated people are just more ideological and more “consistent” than working-class people. They know the right answer to the labor union question, so they give it more consistently.
Certainly that's what you seem to see in this Data for Progress poll asking two classic populist questions about prescription drugs — Medicare price negotiations and caps on price increases. In both cases, college graduates are significantly more likely to say they “strongly” support these popular ideas while working-class Democrats are more likely to say they don’t know.
Long story short, it’s not just progressive cultural politics that is more strongly felt among educated professionals — it’s ideological stridency in general.
College graduates have somewhat different priorities
Another interesting source of information comes from Navigator Research, which has been asking an interesting series of questions about which topics respondents believe the White House and Congress should be focusing on and which they actually are focusing on. Navigator’s public data doesn’t break it down this way, but with their help, we can show you where college and non-college Democrats differ.
The big one here is that while both college and non-college Dems favor more focus on climate and health care, there is a much stronger lean toward climate for college educated professionals.
This is another one where I think the educated professionals have it right, and the most important thing is to reach some kind of deal: Biden’s clean energy tax credits pass, and in exchange, Joe Manchin gets basically whatever he wants.
But I think it’s important for the college-educated liberals who operate in progressive politics to be somewhat self-aware about this. Elite actors in Democratic Party politics pull the party not just to the left of the median voter but to the left of the median Democratic Party voter. This is often rationalized in terms of deluded ideas about mobilization, but it mostly just reflects sincere first-order belief.
Democratic elites are to the left of their voters
Because I live in Washington, D.C. and write about politics and policy for a living, I know a lot of people who work professionally in political spaces.
And among such people, there are fairly furious factional battles that pit “establishment” or mainstream Democrats against progressive insurgents like Elizabeth Warren, Pramila Jayapal, or the Squad. I don’t want to denigrate the significance of these fights. But the participants in these fights — especially those from the progressive wing — tend to miss that “establishment” Democrats are themselves very left-wing.
Alexander Furnas and Timothy LaPira did this great study last year where they surveyed a group of what they call “political elites,” defined as “those who hold significant authoritative roles in government, or those outside government whose occupations position them to influence those inside government as a significant part of their job.” They looked at a population of “thousands of unelected bureaucrats, judges, media pundits, campaign consultants, lobbyists, think tankers, commissioned military officers, lawyers, scientists, and business and nongovernmental organization leaders.”
They found that among Democrats, elites are a lot more left-wing than voters.
As with the grad gap, the mass/elite gap is largest on social issues. But even on the wealth tax, the elites are further left.
Once you get out of the cramped headspace of factional infighting, this makes perfect sense. Lots of people who vote for Democrats aren’t all that political and just think Republicans have scary ideas or are racists. But the people who actually dedicate their careers to Democratic Party politics are progressive. They may not all be as left-wing as Bernie Sanders, but they are much more uniformly left-wing than the typical American or even the typical Democrat. So the way you move the ball left on policy is to get those elites in power, not spend tons of time worrying about your efforts to “push” them to do good things.
The missing labor voice
Something that’s worth calling out here is the declining influence of labor unions in American politics. A lot of left-wing people see this as an important problem, and I tend to agree with them.
But we would probably disagree on the reason, because I think the big issue is that organized labor is a potential counterweight to the factional influence of left-wing college graduates. That probably would push overall American politics to the left, because if Democrats were more moderate they would win more elections and then pass more moderately progressive views. A stronger labor movement that’s not institutionally invested in the abortion issue might have been able to prevent a situation where Biden’s campaign staff bullied him into flip-flopping on the Hyde Amendment. And a somewhat more moderate national message on abortion might have helped pick up another seat or three and made it easier to pass laws.
What a lot of progressives have in mind, though, is an outdated model where labor-backed candidates do battle against “corporate dems.” Today, Democratic donors are more left-wing than rank-and-file Democratic voters — which is all part of the same phenomenon. Stronger unions, particularly unions of working-class people (as opposed to graduate students or digital media startup employees) would be a moderating influence.
In the world that we have, though, everyone would benefit from simply acknowledging these realities. Financial considerations and intra-elite politics push Democrats to the left. And the social peers of Democratic staffers — their friends from school and their siblings and the acquaintances of their spouses who they met at a party once — are an unrepresentative, further-left sample relative to the non-college majority of Democratic voters. If you’re aware of those dynamics, you can make good decisions and navigate them constructively. But if you’re not, you won’t.