Friday, November 18, 2016

The Great Recalibration: College-Educated Voters and the 2016 Election

Many gallons of ink have been poured analyzing the white working class’s role in Trump’s victory, but far fewer on another phenomenon that’s only recently come to light (and seemed in doubt before the election): Trump wasn’t that far off from winning college graduates as well, independent of race.  The Times showed him losing 45 to 49 versus Clinton among college graduates, a far cry from the blowout that was supposed to happen among the more educated group.

This was a group that Peter Thiel singled out as well during his speech on Halloween:
“Our youngest citizens may not have huge medical bills, but their college tuition keeps on increasing faster than the rate of inflation, adding more every year to our $1.3 trillion dollar mountain of student debt.  America has become the only country where students take on loans they can never escape, not even by declaring bankruptcy.  Stuck in this broken system, Millennials are the first generation who expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents.”

Thiel was crossing various lines that are not often crossed: a prominent figure from Silicon Valley contradicting the liberal plus libertarian ideological strains that are dominant there, and a gay man granting support to the standard-bearer of a party that LGBT people have consistently shied away from (though Trump managed to increase the tiny share to 14% this time around).

The indefatigably contrarian Thiel has made literally billions at the acme of the tech industry, a world that looked like it was starting to despise him for endorsing a candidate that threatened various of the ways that their business worked (especially that expansion of the H1-B visa class for skilled foreign workers that Mark Zuckerberg was pushing so hard for).

It is unsurprising that the voices that are most included in the national dialogue are those of the most secure and successful (few of whom would “expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents”), and so Thiel viewed himself as speaking for the others who had paid a hefty sum for an education without reaping vast rewards in return, others whose anxieties could at best be shared with their friends.  But on election day, the voters who had remained fairly quiet in the discussion beforehand delivered a resounding cry that was heard the world over.

Making accurate assumptions about the psyches of these voters as a group is difficult, because so many of them won’t self-identify, and even the ones who do may not actually divulge the truly intimate details of what motivated them.  This is particularly true of the heavily scrutinized and protean alt-right, whose lifeblood seems to be in relatively anonymous circles online.  While the actions of various trolls have achieved great notoriety, the relatively low volume of online alt-right activity still leaves a massive question mark over the numerous millions of voters with undergraduate degrees – whether they secretly sympathized with alt-right viewpoints on immigration, affirmative action, and free speech, or whether they were driven by Thiel’s more respectably phrased appeals to a robust middle class and the value of communities that had been slowly dissolved by forces of trade and globalization.

Trump’s movement is often lumped together as “far-right” along with France’s National Front and other European nationalist parties, but it is interesting that Steve Bannon and many others from within the movement rather envisaged, as he put it, “an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment.”  It is fair to say that many of these burgeoning political movements in the US and Europe are indeed more moderate on economic issues (cf. Thiel’s argument about infrastructure spending and making government function better rather than annihilating it) and more restrained with the military (as Trump recently reiterated his call on 60 Minutes to pull back from foreign adventures and spend more money on – drumroll please – infrastructure spending).  What is noteworthy with Trump that distinguishes him a little from some of the European movements is his more moderate stance around social issues as well.  How often have Republican candidates given contributions to Planned Parenthood?  His early donations to AIDS funds, strong relationships with gay folk in entertainment, and spirited appeals to the value of the LGBT community in the wake of the Orlando massacre and at the RNC convention put him well apart from so many other prominent Republicans, and especially from the more marginal religious populists of recent election cycles such as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.  “Far-right” might apply to certain policies (perhaps why Trump modified proposals such as the temporary Muslim ban), but, when words matter, the term may also be an attempt to keep the nationalists at bay.

Which brings us to immigration.  I am truly curious what proportion among those post-collegiate voters agreed with his general trend on immigration.  Returning to the Times data, only 32% of all voters who said immigration was the most important issue to them voted for Clinton.  Clearly Trump harnessed a passionate base of voters who saw in him a presidential candidate who seemed likely to follow through on a truly conservative immigration policy, and clearly the fear that Latinos would completely abandon him proved false, as he pulled a greater proportion of them than Romney or McCain.  Nationalist views are usually attributed to less educated voters, but there has been significant intellectual output on the conservative side of the issue, from Harvard professors Samuel P. Huntington and George Borjas, the latter of whom argues that immigration has played a major role in our national inequality and in the erosion of the middle class.  My professor Ed Lazear at Stanford provocatively argued that assimilation tended to stop working when the numbers of any specific first-generation group became too high.

I suspect that cultural conservatism is more prevalent among the college-educated than has been thought, but I would be curious indeed to see deeper research into attitudes here.  Many of the polls taken have had leading questions (“do you support a path to amnesty if the following conditions are satisfied…?”), and haven’t drilled down on education level while also probing into what may motivate their attitudes.

It will be vital to both parties to understand what is happening in this dimension, as few pundits in either seemed to understand it before the surprise victory.  Trump may have found a new balance of policies that will have lasting potency in terms of channeling the populist energy and discontent that fueled an unprecedented sea change in our political landscape – and one that seems likely to echo in Europe in the coming months.

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