How the education gap is tearing politics apart
In the year of Trump and Brexit, education has become the greatest divide of all – splitting voters into two increasingly hostile camps. But don’t assume this is simply a clash between the ignorant and the enlightened
By David Runciman
Oct 5 2016
On 23 February, Donald Trump stood before a rally of cheering supporters to celebrate a thumping victory in the Nevada Republican caucus – his third consecutive win, in defiance of the naysayers who had predicted that his bubble was about to burst. “If you listen to the pundits, we weren’t expected to win too much – and now we’re winning, winning, winning the country,” he bragged. “We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”
That last line provoked immediate waves of mockery. It sounded at the time like another one of Trump’s many gaffes – he loves that people do not get a decent education? Yet behind the mockery was a real sense of disquiet, which has not gone away: Trump loves the less educated because they appear to love him back. As the Atlantic reported in March: “The best single predictor of Trump support in the Republican primary is the absence of a college degree.” Education – or the lack of it – seemed to be propelling the Trump bandwagon.
The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy – 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.
Of course, there are other factors at play here. Race is one; gender is the other. The overwhelming majority of Trump’s supporters are white, regardless of their education levels. However, white men with a college degree split much more evenly between the candidates, whereas white women without a college degree still strongly favour Trump. Less educated voters who support Trump are not necessarily poor: many earn more than $50,000 (£39,000) a year. Trump scores particularly well among small business owners who did not go to college. These polling numbers – which are only indicative, since no one has actually voted yet – can be unpicked a hundred different ways. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that how people vote is increasingly being shaped by how long they spent at school.
What is happening in the United States has also been happening in the UK. The Brexit campaign had its own Trumpian moment, courtesy of Michael Gove, who told Faisal Islam in an interview on Sky News on 3 June that “the British people have had enough of experts”. Gove was also widely mocked – if not experts, who was he proposing to get to repair his car, fix his teeth, teach his kids?
But what he said struck a deep chord, because it contained a large element of truth. The experts Gove was deriding had been telling the British public that the risks of Brexit far outweighed any potential benefits. Gove insisted that the voters should decide this for themselves, on the basis of their own experiences, rather than listening to elite voices that had a vested interest in the outcome. Those voices came trailing educational qualifications, which had put them in their positions of authority – at the IMF, the Bank of England, the Treasury. Gove was asking voters lacking anything like the same educational qualifications to feel empowered to reject what they were being told. And in the referendum on 23 June, that is what they did.
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.