Republicanism Used to Signal Education and Status

Pew Research has some interesting findings that make intuitive sense.

While a majority of the public (55%) continues to say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days, Republicans express increasingly negative views.

A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.

I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and the Republicans I encountered at that time, while relatively few in number, would have been nearly unanimous in valuing higher education. They were primarily motivated to vote Republican by three factors. One was simple tax aversion and the sense that the federal government had grown too bloated and was wasteful and ineffective. The second was that the country was reeling financially, interest rates were sky high, and they were ready to give someone other than Carter a chance. The third was related to status, and voting Republican was a way of asserting your position on the top of the American food chain. There really wasn’t anything anti-intellectual about any of this, although that began to seep in as people began making apologies for the Reagan administration’s more hard-to-defend positions and policies.

I’m aware that I had an unusual upbringing and that anti-intellectualism was always a major component of Reagan’s national appeal, but it has certainly grown and grown and grown in the intervening decades. I think it’s now at the point where higher education is seen as a threat by most Republicans, which is what I take from these polls numbers. Presumably, these colleges corrupt the morals of their children by undermining the legitimacy of the conservative worldview. Maybe some portion of these survey results has to do with the exploding cost of college and their perceived ability to make a good return on investment, but the polls show no movement among Democrats, some of whom would be making the same negative assessment.

It’s really not compatible with being a country club Republican to have a negative view of a college education. A college degree confers respectability and signals status. Likewise, crudely expressed racism is not consistent with respectability with these folks. They’re still tax averse enough to vote for a Mitt Romney, but Trump’s vulgarity is too much for a lot of them.

This is the playing field where the national realignment is taking place. Obama did modestly well in places like the Philadelphia suburbs, but Clinton crushed there. We all saw that same dynamic play out recently as people analyzed the special election in Georgia’s affluent well-educated 6th congressional district.

The flip side of this is, of course, that Trump more than made up for this by running up numbers in areas where a college education is not the norm. The result is that the Republican Party becomes less a party signifying status and more one signifying resentment.

They also become increasingly impervious to advice from so-called experts or the consensus of the scientific community. They don’t listen to the media. They swallow any kind of nonsense so long as it is couched in grievance.

More and more of them home school their kids to protect them from the opinions of educated people, and fewer and fewer of them want their children to go off to college where their religious and political views may be undermined.

It looks to me like this is something that started off small but has taken on a snowball effect. How much did right-wing media like Fox News create this effect and how much did they just figure out how to cater to it?

Whatever the answers to those questions, a lot of groundwork had to be laid before we could get to the point that Donald Trump could win the Republican primaries. The assumption among most people was that the damage would stop there, but it turned out that the rot had expanded into the general electorate. It turned out that Trump got the better half of the trade when he kissed off respectable status-conscious Republicans in exchange for votes from people for whom college education is a positive ill.

How do we get back from this nadir?

I don’t know, but offering free college seems like it might not do the trick.

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