The education gap and its implications

In October last year, my colleague David Runciman wrote a sobering piece in the Guardian under the headline “How the education gap is tearing politics apart”. His starting point was an observation in The Atlantic in March 2015 that the best single predictor of Trump support in the Republican primary was the absence of a college degree.

“The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy”, he wrote,

with the educated on one side and the less educated on another – is an alarming prospect. It points to a deep alienation that cuts both ways. The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works. Bringing the two sides together is going to be very hard. The current election season appears to be doing the opposite.

Trump continues to poll far ahead of Clinton among voters who did not go to college, while Clinton still leads by a considerable margin among college graduates. This is a significant change from 2012, when the picture was far more mixed. Four years ago, the college-educated vote was almost evenly split, with graduates favouring Obama over Romney by a narrow margin, 50 to 48. Recent polling puts Trump’s lead over Clinton among white men without a college degree at a sobering 76 to 19.

Turning then to Brexit, David observed that:

Voters with postgraduate qualifications split 75 to 25 in favour of remain. Meanwhile, among those who left school without any qualifications, the vote was almost exactly reversed: 73 to 27 for leave. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last month confirmed that “educational opportunity was the strongest driver” of the Brexit vote. Again, there were plenty of other factors at work – including a significant generational divide. Older voters were far more likely to vote leave, which partly helps to explain the education gap, since the rapid expansion of higher education in recent decades means older voters are also much less likely to have attended university. But the Rowntree report concludes that educational experience was the biggest single determinant of how people voted. Class still matters. Age still matters. But education appears to matter more.

Now from the BBC comes a more localised breakdown of votes from nearly half of the local authorities which counted EU referendum ballots last June. Among the findings are:

  • Confirmation that local results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters – populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave. (The data for this analysis comes from one in nine wards); and

  • The level of education had a higher correlation with the voting pattern than any other major demographic measure from the census.

And if you wanted a vivid graph of this, here’s the correlation diagram:

This is really sobering stuff. It shows, in a picture, why a failure to invest in education and tackle educational underachievement eventually imposes massive social costs (possibly including the breakdown of democracy). It’s not rocket science, either. In an information economy, people who are poorly educated are always going to find it hard to find employment. And when they do it will be in precarious, exploitative, under-paid jobs. No wonder they voted the way they did — for the first charlatan who came along and said he could fix it.

Understanding what happened

From an extraordinary essay by Jedediah Purdy in The New Republic:

We know from our everyday lives that much of our decision-making is not entirely rational. But Trump has played on a deep sense of unreality about the political process. His candidacy reflected the peculiar idea that someone “strong” and “smart” could singlehandedly master a complex world, untangle the politics of the Middle East and the South China Sea, renegotiate trade agreements, and see behind the obfuscations of intelligence agencies. This is a bizarre view of what it means to act in politics. It combines the epistemic amateurism of the conspiracy theorist with the virtual self-assertion of a first-person-shooter video game. It is an approach to politics tailored to people for whom politics is a domain of fantasy.

And this:

It is perfectly clear that both economic inequality and racism fueled support for Trump. Only the left is equipped to explain how these two factors are entangled, by looking at the experience of life under capitalism. In this economy, most people lack important forms of security and control over their lives. They answer to bosses, who answer to investors, who answer to global flows of goods and capital. As Marx pointed out long ago, the system assigns the roles, and people fill them. An investor need not be a greedy person, nor a boss a bossy one; but if they do not maximize returns in the face of competition, they will be replaced by someone who will try harder, so they had better be prepared to act greedy, or bossy, or—in the case of the line worker—diligent and subservient.

When no one talks about how the system itself produces economic insecurity and a loss of control, scapegoating falls on the groups and individuals closest at hand. Immigrants particularly get scapegoated because often they are willing to take low-paying jobs or lack legal authorization to work. When no one in politics talks about brutal economic realities—including a merciless and de-unionized labor market, the unfettered mobility of capital, and the investor-driven imperative to squeeze every possible “efficiency” out of people—then your competitor for wages on the building site becomes the only economic rival you can actually see. Racism and xenophobia are not merely symptoms of economic anxiety, and are not to be morally or politically excused on account of hard times. But they are likely to be stronger and more politically effective when there appears to be no other way for people to address their sense of helplessness.