Race, college education, and partisanship

When looking at the election results with a friend on Tuesday night, especially Florida and Georgia (and, okay lots of red state Senate results), there’ so much still going on here with race.  No matter how much John Roberts thinks we are passed it all and don’t need the Voting Rights Act (I swear Shelby County v. Holder is looking more like Dredd Scott every day).  Anyway, I loved Adam Serwer’s take on “tribalism.”

It’s fashionable in the Donald Trump era to decry political “tribalism,” especially if you’re a conservative attempting to criticize Trump without incurring the wrath of his supporters. House Speaker Paul Ryan has lamented the “tribalism” of American politics. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has said that “tribalism is ruining us.” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a bookwarning that “partisan tribalism is statistically higher than at any point since the Civil War.”

In the fallout from Tuesday’s midterm elections, many political analysts have concluded that blue America and red America are ever more divided, ever more at each other’s throats. But calling this “tribalism” is misleading, because only one side of this divide remotely resembles a coalition based on ethnic and religious lines, and only one side has committed itself to a political strategy that relies on stoking hatred and fear of the other. By diagnosing America’s problem as tribalism, chin-stroking pundits and their sorrowful semi-Trumpist counterparts in Congress have hidden the actual problem in American politics behind a weird euphemism… [emphasis mine]

A large number of Republican candidates, led by the president, ran racist or bigoted campaigns against their opponents. But those opponents cannot be said to belong to a “tribe.” No common ethnic or religious ties bind Heitkamp, Campa-Najjar, Delgado, or the constituencies that elected them. It was their Republican opponents who turned to “tribalism,” painting them as scary or dangerous, and working to disenfranchise their supporters…

If Republicans ran on their policy agenda alone, they would be at a disadvantage. So they have turned to a destructive politics of white identity, one that seeks a path to power by deliberately dividing the country along racial and sectarian lines. They portray the nation as the birthright of white, heterosexual Christians, and label the growing population of those who don’t fit that mold or reject that moral framework as dangerous usurpers…

In the Trump era, America finds itself with two political parties: one that’s growing more reliant on the nation’s diversity, and one that sees its path to power in stoking fear and rage toward those who are different. America doesn’t have a “tribalism” problem. It has a racism problem. And the parties are not equally responsible.

As someone who uses tribalism myself– pretty much as a short-hand for reflexive negative partisanship– I stand by that use of it.  But, Serwer is basically right– our larger problem is not the tribalism, but that one party tribe is so motivated by racial resentment and xenophobia to accomplish their political ends.

And, I was going to do a separate post on one of the most interesting features of the Trump years– the growing partisan gap among whites based on college education.  Adam Harris with a nice summary:

According to exit polls, 61 percent of non-college-educated white voters cast their ballots for Republicans while just 45 percent of college-educated white voters did so. Meanwhile 53 percent of college-educated white voters cast their votes for Democrats compared with 37 percent of those without a degree.

The diploma divide, as it’s often called, is not occurring across the electorate; it is primarily a phenomenon among white voters. It’s an unprecedented divide, and is in fact a complete departure from the diploma divide of the past. Non-college-educated white voters used to solidly belong to Democrats, and college-educated white voters to Republicans. Several events over the past six decades have caused these allegiances to switch, the most recent being the candidacy, election, and presidency of Donald Trump.

Last night’s results confirm that the diploma divide is likely here to stay—especially if the GOP maintains its alignment with Trump and the nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiments he hangs his hat on. The gap is likely to be one of the most powerful forces shaping American politics for decades to come.

But here’s the thing.  This diploma divide is really a divide in racial attitudes, which map pretty closely to education:

From the mid-1990s to 2008, the diploma divide was small, if not negligible. Even though the Democrats had become the party of civil rights and a broad, multicultural coalition, they were also still the party of unions, which were largely made up of non-degree-holding whites. Therefore, white people with and without college degrees were equally as likely to be Democrats or Republicans.

But in 2008, the election of Barack Obama, a black man, signaled that the Democrats were becoming the party of progressive racial politics. “Obama’s presidency simplifies the politics of race,” Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, says. “If you were a low-educated white, you were much more likely to know about the partisan differences on race [after Obama] than you were before.”

That change didn’t show up in the party-affiliation data right away, but that’s common, Tesler says. It often takes more than one election for people to switch their party identification. But by 2012, white voters without a college degree were distinctly more likely to vote Republican than those with college degrees…

There’s a question that splits Americans neatly in two. Every year, on its American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute asks Americans whether they “think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” Fifty percent of Americans say that it’s gotten better in this year’s poll, and 47 percent say that it has gotten worse.

But for white voters, the answer to that question is split by education level. Fifty-eight percent of college-educated whites this year say that America has gotten better since 1950, while 57 percent of non-college-educated whites say that it’s gotten worse. When President Trump says “Make America great again,” the again is instructive. He’s capitalizing on the nostalgia that non-college-educated white voters have for America’s past. “That harkening back to a supposed golden age where things were better has a really, really strong appeal for whites without a college degree,” Jones said.

That nostalgia, however, is for a time when black Americans and other minority groups had significantly fewer civil rights. And a Republican rhetoric that centers a longing for an era of white prosperity, rife with racist violence against black people, is why it’s impossible to understand the diploma divide without accounting for racial resentment. Needless to say, black Americans and other minority groups aren’t as keen on returning to the past.

And here’s the real key:

When researchers control for voter attitudes on race in addition to white voters’ education level, Tesler says, the diploma divide disappears. No other factor, he says, explains the education gap as well—not economic anxiety, ideology, income, or gender.

Got that?  It’s not about a college education, per se, it’s about racial attitudes, which are closely linked with college education.  If you are a racially resentful college grad in 2018 you are likely a Republican.  If you are a racially liberal white high school graduate, you are likely a Democrat.  It’s just that racial liberalism is way more common among those with college degrees (obviously, a subject worth it’s own post).

So, here we are, 2018 America and, amazingly it’s (almost) all about race.  And, damnit, I’m going to just say my side/tribe is right on this one, rather than the side that delusionally believes white people in America face more racism than Black people.

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