How Educational Differences Are Widening America’s Political Rift

The cultural fault lines in the United States have moved in recent years. The conservative pushback against “critical race theory” and the purported deletion of Dr. Seuss is just one example of how a wave of progressive activity has helped shift the country’s culture to the left.

While the specifics of each conflict are bound to be unique, they all reflect a larger trend that has been developing in American politics for the past half century: a shift toward a polarisation based on cultural and educational differences rather than the class and income differences that characterised the two major parties for much of the twentieth century.

Graduates of elite universities have shifted cultural standards to the left and gained enough political clout to push the Democratic Party further to the left as their numbers have risen. This has contributed to the loss of the Democratic Party’s historic working-class base, which the Republican Party has successfully wooed.

Some Republicans even hope that the growing divide in education would eventually help them win over minorities who don’t have degrees. Donald J. Trump’s success with minorities and his failure with white voters may both be explained by a same phenomenon. Trump successfully exploited racial animus for political advantage.

In 2020, President Biden was able to secure the support of approximately 60% of college-educated voters, including a majority of white college graduates, which boosted his standing in affluent suburbs and swing states.

According to the census, 41% of all voters in the most recent election were adults with at least a bachelor’s degree. The American National Elections Study from that year found that only 5% of voters had college degrees.

Despite the growing liberal leaning of the college-educated population, the Democratic Party is weaker now than it was ten, thirty, or fifty years ago. However, the trend of increasing Democratic strength among college-educated and nonwhite voters has been met with a roughly equal and opposite trend among white voters without a college degree.

In 1960, when John F. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, narrowly won the presidency, he gained white voters without a degree but lost white college graduates by a ratio of around two to one. For Mr. Biden, the statistics were almost exactly backwards; he lost white voters without a college degree by a ratio of 2:1 to white college graduates.

White voters without a college degree made up just 27% of Mr. Biden’s 2020 support, according to Pew Research, a significant drop from the roughly 60% of white voters without a degree who supported Bill Clinton just 28 years earlier. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that the growing influence of liberal college graduates is driving away working-class voters, making college graduates an even larger share of the Democratic Party.

Despite the longevity of the relative liberalism of college graduates, the Democratic advantage among this demographic is a relatively recent occurrence. Even when more likely to vote Republican, college graduates have consistently been more likely to identify as liberal than voters without a college degree.

Voters without a college education are more likely to focus on individualist and parochial causes of racial inequality, crime, and poverty, whereas those with a degree prefer to see these issues as systemic and complex. For college graduates, who tend to be more financially secure than the general population, it’s simpler to vote their principles rather than their immediate material needs. Their social trust and willingness to try new things are likely to be higher. They tend to have fewer religious convictions.

There are several factors at play, not just an increase in college enrollment, that have contributed to the emergence of cultural liberalism. In fact, there is mixed evidence that higher education leads to a more liberal worldview. Liberal professors appear to be preaching to an already liberal choir, rather than indoctrinating students as conservatives fear.

The student movements and New Left of the 1960s, as well as the concepts driving today’s battles over “critical race theory,” would not have been possible without the role played by colleges and academia throughout the last half century of liberal cultural change. A new liberal culture with more progressive views and values than would have existed without the concentration of so many left-leaning students and academics on campus has been fostered.

According to Pippa Norris, a political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, the expansion of higher education led to the global spread of social liberalism. “If you live in a community which is more liberal, there’s a self-reinforcing ratcheting effect,” she said.

Graduates of postsecondary institutions became a more sizable voting bloc, putting pressure on the Democrats to cater to their interests and ideals. Since they made up a disproportionate share of the media, politicians, activists, and poll respondents who most significantly impact the political process, they punched above their electoral weight.

At the same time, the party’s old industrial working-class base was in decline, as were the unions and machine leaders who formerly had the power to tie the party’s MPs to its rank and file. The party had little choice but to extend its appeal, and it adopted the ideas of college-educated voters on practically every issue, slowly if fitfully undermining its old working-class base.

Republicans extended their doors to historically Democratic conservative-leaning voters who were upset by the acts and perceived excesses of the new, college-educated left. The so-called Southern strategy, wherein the GOP appeals to white voters by playing on racial tensions and “states’ rights,” was the impetus for this movement and remains an element of it to this day.

The grounds for white working-class estrangement with the Democrats have evolved from decade to decade. Nearly every significant topic (including race, religion, war, environmentalism, weapons, trade, immigration, sexuality, crime, and social welfare) has at some point been a cause of Democratic problems.

The Democratic Party’s positions on these seemingly unrelated issues have had one thing in common: they have reflected the views of college-educated liberals, even when they conflict with the apparent interests of working-class voters, and they have alienated some number of white voters without a degree. Coal workers deserted the Democrats as environmentalists urged stricter regulations on the sector. Suburbanites voted for the assault weapon ban, and gun owners voted Republican. Business interests supported free trade agreements; old manufacturing communities broke for Mr. Trump.

It’s possible that something similar is happening with the voting habits of Hispanics. In the 2020 election, the Democratic candidate did better among college-educated voters of colour than with those who did not complete high school. Mr. Trump made huge gains among voters of colour without degrees, notably Latino ones. The origins of his surge are still being discussed, but one leading explanation is that he was supported by a backlash against the beliefs and rhetoric of the college-educated left, notably activist calls to “defund the police.”

Mr. Trump’s victories have given some Republicans hope that they can more easily win over voters of colour from the working class.

“It doesn’t seem quite as huge of a bridge to cross as saying, ‘Let’s go back and get white suburbanites,’” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster who is authoring a book on how the party may establish a multicultural coalition.

Whether or whether this is actually the case, if Republicans act in ways that reinforce this belief, then the prediction will come true.

There is no guarantee that the increased liberalism of the Democratic primary electorate or college graduates will continue. The surge of activism in the 1960s gave way to a very conservative group of college graduates in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Maybe something like that will occur today.

For the foreseeable future, one thing is certain: the percentage of the population with a four-year degree or higher will continue to rise.

In the 2016 presidential election, Massachusetts made history by being the first state where voters with bachelor’s degrees or higher made up a majority. Along with New York and Colorado in 2020, Maryland also joined the club. Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut and others are not far behind. At some point in the next decade, college grads may make up a majority of midterm voters across the country.