How the Diploma Divide Came to Dominate American Politics

From a Washington Post column by Jason Willick headlined “How the diploma divide came to dominate American politics”:

The most important U.S. political trend of this century is the march of college-educated White voters toward the Democratic Party — and of non-college-educated White voters toward the GOP. This trend hasn’t just changed election arithmetic; it has changed the way the right and left argue, pushing the Democrats to embrace experts, business and the status quo as Republicans grow increasingly at odds with established institutions.

Most attempts to explain the educational realignment focus on the White working class. Why did it sour on the Democratic Party? White voters without a college degree must have grown more authoritarian or racially resentful, the conventional thinking goes. George H.W. Bush won just 45 percent of Whites without a college degree who voted for one of the two major parties in 1992; Donald Trump won 65 percent in 2020. But Bush won college-educated Whites by four points while Trump lost them by 15 in the two-party vote share.

In a recent working paper, University of Pennsylvania political scientist William Marble offers a different account of this shift based on an analysis of public-opinion surveys going back decades. In Marble’s telling, Whites with college degrees, and not only the White working class, drove the polarization process.

Take economics. “From at least the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, there was essentially no difference in average attitudes on economic policy between college and non-college voters,” Marble finds. Beginning in 2004, however, college-educated White voters have moved steadily left on economic issues relative to the working class — so much so that “the education gap” on economics “is about half as large in magnitude as the party gap was in the 1980s,” the paper says.

Democrats have long favored more regulation and redistribution, while Republicans have favored more-libertarian economic policy. The GOP’s focus on market economics used to be an asset among voters with college degrees, the “winners” in the modern economy. Less so now. College-educated Whites increasingly favor progressive economics, aligning them with Democrats and leaving the GOP with a more working-class voter base.

There’s a significant debate today, at least among journalists and wonks, about whether the Republican Party can or should move left on taxation and spending, matching voters’ appetite for political populism with economic populism. Certainly, a GOP where the working class holds the balance of voting power will emphasize different economic policies than a Republican Party where professionals had greater influence.

But Marble’s findings throw cold water on the idea that the White working class is pining for redistributionist or social-justice-inspired economic policy. On the contrary: The group that has moved markedly against free-market economics is White voters with college degrees. As their views have become more influential in the Democratic Party, Whites without college degrees have decamped to the GOP.

What about noneconomic issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage? Unlike economics, the culture war has always divided Americans along educational lines, with the non-college educated holding more conservative views than the college educated. But this gap “has remained essentially constant over time,” Marble finds.

What has changed, he argues, is the amount of weight voters put on the culture war in deciding which party to vote for. Whites with college degrees tended to vote according to their culture war preferences in the 1980s and 1990s, while non-college-educated voters were more likely to vote based on economics or other candidate qualities. Now that gap has closed, and the White working class is registering its conservative social views electorally as strongly as White professionals have been registering their liberal views.

For example, Marble’s analysis suggests that in the 2000 presidential election, “non-college whites placed roughly half as much weight on moral issues as did college-educated whites. By 2020, they placed slightly higher weight on this dimension” than did college graduates. “Cultural attitudes on race and moral traditionalism are now drivers of vote choice for both the working and professional class,” Marble writes, pulling one toward the GOP and the other toward the Democrats.

The intra-GOP debate between “populism” and traditional conservatism can sound philosophical and abstract. But at a more basic level, it’s a debate about education polarization. Most institutions — in the private economy, in the national-security state, in science and health — are run by the college-educated. If the college-educated are an increasingly reliable Democratic constituency, then Republicans will trust institutions less. Conservative politics will inevitably take on a more populist tone, and Republican voters will be drawn to leaders who promise to use state power against those institutions.

The advocates of traditional conservatism against populism have many strong policy arguments — but they don’t have a good account of how to win a preponderance of college-educated voters back to the GOP. Though Trump accelerated their exodus, Marble shows that these voters had been shifting left for more than a decade before Trump’s rise.

Marble concludes that “the deep roots of the educational realignment across multiple issue domains suggests that these coalitions are likely to be stable into the foreseeable future.” In other words, populism in some form is here to stay in the GOP. Perhaps the most likely way Republicans could reconstitute their old coalition would be for the Democratic Party to implement a truly radical economic agenda, pushing educated elites back into the GOP’s market coalition. But traditional conservatives shouldn’t want that, either.

Jason Willick is a Washington Post columnist focusing on law, politics and foreign policy.

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