How Educational Differences Are Widening America’s Political Rift
The New York Times
September 8, 2021
The front lines of America’s cultural clashes have shifted in recent years. A vigorous wave of progressive activism has helped push the country’s culture to the left, inspiring a conservative backlash against everything from “critical race theory” to the supposed cancellation of Dr. Seuss.
These skirmishes may be different in substance from those that preceded them, but in the broadest sense they are only the latest manifestation of a half-century trend: the realignment of American politics along cultural and educational lines, and away from the class and income divisions that defined the two parties for much of the 20th century.
As they’ve grown in numbers, college graduates have instilled increasingly liberal cultural norms while gaining the power to nudge the Democratic Party to the left. Partly as a result, large portions of the party’s traditional working-class base have defected to the Republicans.
Over the longer run, some Republicans even fantasize that the rise of educational polarization might begin to erode the Democratic advantage among voters of color without a college degree. Perhaps a similar phenomenon may help explain how Donald J. Trump, who mobilized racial animus for political gain, nonetheless fared better among voters of color than previous Republicans did, and fared worse among white voters.
President Biden won about 60 percent of college-educated voters in 2020, including an outright majority of white college graduates, helping him run up the score in affluent suburbs and putting him over the top in pivotal states.
This was a significant voting bloc: Overall, 41 percent of people who cast ballots last year were four-year college graduates, according to census estimates. By contrast, just 5 percent of voters in 1952 were college graduates, according to that year’s American National Elections Study.
Yet even as college graduates have surged in numbers and grown increasingly liberal, Democrats are no stronger than they were 10, 30 or even 50 years ago. Instead, rising Democratic strength among college graduates and voters of color has been counteracted by a nearly equal and opposite reaction among white voters without a degree.
When the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy narrowly won the presidency in 1960, he won white voters without a degree but lost white college graduates by a two-to-one margin. The numbers were almost exactly reversed for Mr. Biden, who lost white voters without a degree by a two-to-one margin while winning white college graduates.