The Less-Educated Voter

As I try to understand what happened in the recent American presidential election I often encounter fake news as a reason the election went the way it did. But I’m more upset by the real news accounts and analysis of the election results that claim, in short, this election was the triumph of the less educated over the educated—the idiocracy wins!

If only it were so simple, but then it would challenge us to think hard about education, a topic that barely came up during the election campaign.

So many analyses claim that it was the less-educated citizens, by whom they usually mean people without college degrees, who drove populism in the electorate. For instance, Francis Fukuyama wrote this global analysis:

Mr. Orbán, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan all came to power in countries with an electorate polarized between a more liberal, cosmopolitan urban elite—whether in Budapest, Moscow or Istanbul—and a less-educated rural voter base. This social division is similar to the one that drove the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s rise in the United States.

The assumptions made by Fukuyama and other analysts about less-educated voters are disputable; after all, a majority of highly educated people voted for Trump. The Pew Research Center writes:

Trump won whites with a college degree 49% to 45%. In 2012, Romney won college whites by a somewhat wider margin in 2012 (56%–42%). Trump’s advantage among this group is the same as John McCain’s margin in 2008 (51%–47%).

Statistician Nate Silver crunched the numbers this way:

White voters, who make up 69% of the total, voted 58% for Trump and 37% for Clinton. Non-white voters, who make up 31% of the electorate, voted 74% for Clinton and 21% for Trump.

Among college-educated whites, 45% voted for Clinton—39% of men and 51% of women (the only white demographic represented in the poll where the former secretary of state came out on top). But 54% of male college graduates voted for Trump, as did 45% of female college graduates.

It seems from the data that being white might be a better indicator of voting in this election than earning a college degree, but that issue isn’t being discussed much in the America media. A British newspaper, The Guardian, summed up the election results quite succinctly in their Nov. 9 headline:

White and wealthy voters gave victory to Donald Trump, exit polls show

Most white voters of both sexes and almost all ages and education levels backed the Republican

The standard U.S. media story is that those who found a voice with Trump are those who are economically left behind because they lack college degrees—but many of the college graduates who voted for Trump apparently also feel left behind. Populism works for college graduates, too. Just getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job; indeed, some college professors work part-time or get public assistance to make ends meet.

Some writers about the election preferred to use the phrase “without college degrees” to describe voters, which is more accurate since schooling is not the same as education. After all, many people take some college courses and decide college isn’t working for them; some just take the courses they need to earn a particular certificate; and others, like homeschoolers, may take a variety of extension, online, and correspondence courses from higher education institutions that can eventually lead to a four-year degree. However, pollsters consider all of these people as “less educated” because they haven’t completed four years of college when they reach voting age.

Educational attainment is the other term you often encounter in these reports, and it refers to the successful consumption of education degrees among individuals and groups. The more degrees a country has, the higher its educational attainment is, which is a rubric for a country’s overall intelligence.

The funny thing is that the vast majority of Americans have never been college graduates. From 1910 (2.7%) to 1960 (7.7%) college graduation rates were in the single digits. Then, from 1970 to 1990, the rate exploded to 21 percent of persons age 25 and over who had completed college; it is at about 33 percent today.

The United States survived wars and financial depressions and created significant prosperity and social improvements throughout this time with the majority of our population never attending or completing college. Also, during this same period, many smart, academically certified people supported horrible power structures, regimes, and practices throughout the world. Educational attainment is an inaccurate measurement and a poor proxy for intelligence and citizenship in a humane society.

President Harry S. Truman did not have a college degree yet he is considered one of the 10 best presidents according to many polls and opinions. Why is the American media making less-educated voters the story behind the election results and not white privilege, economic injustice, legal decisions that enshrine corporate power over individual rights, and the many other issues that face ordinary Americans in these disruptive times?

I think it is hurtful and inaccurate to portray a large segment of Americans as less educated—a phrase that evokes negative connotations, such as being ill informed or just dumb—simply because they haven’t consumed as much schooling as college graduates. An informed citizenry can and should have things clearly explained to it without each citizen being required to pay for and complete a four-year college degree to understand the issues put before them.

Our belief that education is an equalizing force in American society is a farce. It is apparent that schooling reinforces class divisions and privilege—quality education and access to better opportunities is determined by one’s zip code more than one’s school—and this has been true for a long time.

I think Robert Reich has the best take on what happened in this election: “What has happened in America should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure.”