The upside of education polarization
Electoral disadvantage but cultural hegemony
I’ve written before about education polarization as a problem both for American society writ large and for Democrats’ ability to secure a Senate majority in particular.
And it is worth saying that education polarization really is the dominant political phenomenon of our time. The standard progressive narrative holds that Donald Trump is leading a movement grounded in white panic and his opponents are waging a battle for multiracial democracy. But as Ruy Teixeira wrote last week, it appears to be the case that the surge in Hispanic support for Trump was itself an education polarization phenomenon with Biden dominating among better-educated and higher-income Latino voters.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge a point Ethan Winter makes, which is that education polarization is hard to reverse in part because it bestows certain important advantages on liberals that they’d be loath to give up.
Probably the most obvious example of this is media coverage. Conservatives, of course, have been whining about liberal media bias since long before I was born, and for the longest time these complaints struck me as almost pure bullshit. But that’s become markedly less true in recent years — Trump faced much tougher media coverage than George W. Bush did, and at least on the campaign trail, Biden was treated much more lightly than Obama was.
I think this mostly isn’t about journalists changing their views; it’s about how polarization impacts the audience for mainstream news coverage. Vox and The New York Times obviously want all the readers they can get. But college-educated people have both more time to futz around on the internet and a greater inclination to read stuff, and they’re more valuable to advertisers. Everyone in the industry has enough “ethics” that there’s never going to be a meeting where they say “we used to bend over backward to a fault to avoid alienating conservative readers, but they don’t matter as much to the business side anymore so write whatever the fuck you want.” But journalism is, ultimately, a business, and these things matter.
A growing, thriving share of the electorate
All else being equal, a party would rather have a college-educated supporter than a non-college one, mainly because more-educated people are substantially more likely to vote. That’s especially true in midterms and becomes even truer in lower-salience, lower-turnout races.
Democrats have traditionally liked to think of themselves as the party that benefits from high turnout. If education polarization continues, this notion — another pillar of progressives’ mobilization delusion — will not hold.
The highly educated are also much more likely to donate to political campaigns.
The risk for progressives is that college graduates use their enthusiasm for voting and campaign contributions to dominate primaries and insist on nominating candidates who are going to lose. But to the extent that the professional class tempers itself a little bit, the big advantage of an educated electorate is that you have a base that’s ready to show up and open its wallets.
Greater participation is not, on its own, enough for college graduates to overcome the fact that they are a minority of the population. Democrats need to win over working-class voters. But it is also true that the educational attainment of the population is steadily rising.
Older, less educated cohorts are being replaced by younger, better-educated ones; each new youngest cohort is better-educated than the last, and that’s true at all levels of educational attainment.
Recent research also shows the strong and growing correlation between education and life expectancy. The minority of 65 year-olds who have a college degree are likely to vote for several more election cycles than their working-class cohort-mates.
Again, none of this changes the fact that BA-holders are only about a third of the population. You need to reach people outside the BA bubble. But it’s a growing third, and it’s a third that punches above its weight due to greater propensity to vote, greater longevity, greater financial resources, and greater generosity with those resources.
The education system itself
One very strong impact of educational polarization is that it’s given progressives control over the commanding heights of the education system itself.
Conservatives often express worry about this in terms of some kind of brainwashing of students happening on campus, but there’s very little evidence of that. What does happen, though, is that a big part of professors’ jobs is coming up with ideas to research and then trying to disseminate those ideas. When the overwhelming majority of the people doing that work have left-of-center political commitments, what you end up with is a lot of smart work being done on basically left-of-center projects.
Some of this work is just bad, ideological nonsense that only seems to pass muster thanks to the political blinders of the authors’ colleagues. But a lot of the work is really good. And academics with progressive ideas are now well-networked with like-minded journalists, sympathetic think tanks, and policy entrepreneurs.
This has come to make the left very, very powerful in the so-called “war of ideas.”
And that’s a very noteworthy change from the relatively recent past. During George W. Bush’s administration, the general perception was that the conservative movement was the one with the big, bold reform proposals while Democrats were in a defensive crouch — most comfortable just doing things like saying “no” to Social Security privatization. Today the right is on the defensive. Superficially, that’s because Democrats have a narrow trifecta in Washington. But even during Trump’s four years in office, the terms of debate were mostly set by progressive priorities, and Republicans defined themselves by what they were against.
In narrow electoral terms, this has just redounded to the GOP’s benefit. Most voters are change-averse, and being the party whose agenda is mostly nonsense is arguably preferable to having big ideas. But to the extent that you care about policy, Republicans’ Senate edge doesn’t infuse conservatism with a governing strategy.
Big policy concessions to the left
It’s also worth underscoring the extent to which the Republican Party’s ability to keep gaining non-college voters seems directly tied to them abandoning key planks of the conservative policy agenda.
The big economic policy argument of 2005 was about whether or not we should privatize Social Security. In 2010-12, we were talking about privatizing Medicare. Even after Donald Trump won an election on a promise not to cut those programs, then-Speaker Paul Ryan tried to convince him to flip-flop. On Medicare, Trump told him no. But on Medicaid, Trump embraced Ryan’s agenda as part of the Affordable Care Act repeal and it flopped. People remember that “skinny repeal” came within one vote of passing, but versions of ACA repeal that included the Medicaid cuts fell short by a much wider margin.
It would be convenient for the DCCC if Kevin McCarthy were to take off a mask, reveal that he’s really been Paul Ryan all along, and pledge fealty to the cause of entitlement cuts, giving Democrats an issue to use in the midterms.
But the reason to care about politics is policy, so losing votes because the other side has ceded ground on policy isn’t the worst thing in the world.
How durable is the GOP conversion on these principles? I’m really not sure. I don’t think this is the kind of thing that is worth trying to come up with a firm prediction about. Are we talking about a GOP trifecta starting in 2025, or will it take them until 2029? What will the interest rate and inflation climate be like by then? How large will the majorities be? Is the president going to be Donald Trump or someone else? It’s a lot of concatenating known unknowns.
What I do think is knowable is that the GOP will struggle to maintain its non-college gains if it goes back to austerity politics. So the current paradigm locks in an important set of policy wins for the left.
A shot at utopia
As bleak as the Senate outlook is under conditions of strong education polarization, there is an upside — progressives rule almost all the most prosperous portions of the country.
That creates the political opportunity to try to build the progressive utopia in one state, whether that be Massachusetts or California or wherever. People sometimes say this won’t work because of state-level balanced budget requirements, but this is doubly overstated. For starters, states issue bonds and borrow money all the time. Balanced budget rules do make it hard to do macroeconomic stabilization, but they don’t prevent debt-financed investments in high-ROI activities. And EU balanced budget rules constrain Finland, Denmark, Germany, etc., but that doesn’t stop them from having robust welfare states.
Plenty of blue states are bigger than Finland (New York and California are much bigger), and they have more than ample economic resources.
There are nonetheless daunting barriers to creating top-notch public services in these states. But they’re internal coalition issues and technical policy design issues — the opportunity is clearly there, and the more entrenched polarization becomes, the bigger the opportunity is.
All things considered, I still think this form of polarization is harmful to the country on a number of levels. But reversing it would be very challenging, and one reason that it’s challenging is that it’s not all bad. I do think, however, that if progressives want to persist on a course that’s going to make it inordinately difficult to secure congressional majorities, they need to think way more seriously about state-level policymaking.