A class divide over education portends danger for a democratic people
Only fifty-three percent of Republicans think a college degree is worth pursuing, according to a public opinion poll released earlier this month. By contrast, seventy percent of Democrats believe in the value of a college degree.
How did the Republican Party, which for nearly a century and a half was the home of the affluent and college-educated, become the party of those opposed to a college degree? Republicans today are not only more likely than Democrats to lack a college degree but are also more likely to oppose the very idea of college. One 2019 Pew survey showed that fifty-nine percent of Republicans (but only eighteen percent of Democrats) believe that colleges have a negative influence on the country.
Such a sweeping realignment in a party that was long the bastion of the college-educated is unprecedented. At the center of this realignment is a conflict over values—specifically, the values of equality and pluralism, which were embraced by the educated mainline Protestants who were the party’s base for decades.
College-educated mainline Protestants joined the GOP not only because the party’s economic principles accorded well with their own self-interest but also because Republicans’ longstanding commitment to nondiscrimination, frugality, and moral rectitude accorded well with the principles of equality and fairness that mainline Protestant churches endorsed. The GOP was, after all, the first party to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment, and in the mid-twentieth century it included a sizable number of supporters of civil rights.
In the mid-20th century, the mainline Protestant establishment took the lead in promoting these values, but after the 1960s, the leadership shifted to the colleges. At most colleges, regardless of whether the students or faculty were mainline Protestants, the values of mainline Protestantism—such as democracy, social equality, pluralism, and the importance of reason and science—pervaded the educational curriculum.
For several decades, the majority of college graduates did not see a conflict between these values and the principles of the Republican Party. As late as 1994, fifty-four percent of American voters with college degrees identified with the Republicans; only thirty-nine percent supported the Democrats. Not until 2007 did Democratic registration outstrip Republican registration among the college-educated. And even those with a postgraduate education—the educational cohort most likely to support the Democrats today—waited until the first few years of the George W. Bush administration to leave the Republican Party, according to public opinion polls.
Before the George W. Bush administration, the party’s moderate libertarianism on economic questions seemed compatible with the value of equality of opportunity. Free trade, amnesty for undocumented immigrants, an expansion of rights for the disabled, and a commitment to increased federal commitment to education—all of which were policies supported by the Republican administrations in the 1980s and 1990s—were hardly incompatible with the principles of democracy and equality of opportunity that most colleges espoused.
But something changed with the George W. Bush administration. Perhaps it was the party’s newfound southern evangelical base, with its opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps it was a tax cut that exacerbated wealth inequality. Perhaps it was the new talk of privatizing Social Security. Perhaps it was the Iraq War. Most likely, it was the combination of both a hawkish neoconservative foreign policy and a newfound image of southernized social conservatism hostile to gay rights that alienated northeastern Republicans, who abandoned the party in droves. The departure of a majority of all college-educated Americans soon followed. Especially for a younger generation of voters, there was a growing perception that the Republican Party was wrong on the environment, wrong on income inequality, and wrong in its invasion of Iraq. In each case, the party was acting against the values that pervaded college campuses—and, eventually, college-educated voters decided that they couldn’t go along with this.
In 2008, college-educated Americans and, to an even greater extent, those with a graduate degree, threw their support to Barack Obama and the Democrats. Since then their support for the Democrats has only increased. By 2017, fifty-four percent of college-educated voters were Democrats, and only thirty-nine percent were Republicans—exactly the reverse of college-educated voter preferences in 1994. And among voters with graduate degrees, Democrats now had a 2-to-1 advantage, even though there had been no discernible partisan preference among those with graduate degrees as late as the beginning of the 21st century.
But the Republicans did not suffer for long, because they almost immediately began picking up the votes of non-college educated voters. Until 2008, a majority of voters without a college degree supported the Democrats, but that changed in the 2008 election. Now a majority of voters without a college degree—especially white voters without a college degree—were Republicans, a trend that accelerated over the course of the next decade.
Why white voters without a college degree hated Barack Obama and every succeeding Democratic presidential candidate to a greater degree than they had opposed Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry is not entirely clear, but perhaps it was partly because they associated Obama with the pluralistic, multicultural values of an educational establishment they believed had failed them or prevented their success.
When white working-class voters entered the Republican Party, they did not simply appropriate Republican values; they changed them to match their interests. They turned a party that had once supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants into a party that made restrictive immigration policies a central goal. They turned a party that for decades had supported free trade into a protectionist party threatening trade wars with China. They turned a party that had supported restrictions on handguns as recently as the 1970s into a party that opposed all forms of gun control. And they turned a party of medical professionals into a party that opposed the medical establishment’s advice on COVID safety measures.
These stances alienated many college-educated professionals in the sectors that as recently as the beginning of the twenty-first century had been most supportive of the Republican Party. Only a decade or so ago, business schools were one of the few places on college campuses that were friendly to Republicans, but with protectionist trade measures that most economists oppose, or stances on climate change and COVID safety that break with the scientific establishment, sectors of academia that were never bastions of progressivism have broken with the GOP and allied with the Democrats. By 2016, a survey of tenure-track professors at forty leading American universities showed that among economics faculty, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than four to one. And the economists were the most conservative among the academics. Among historians, there were thirty-three Democrats for every one Republican.
Can the GOP remain a viable party without college-educated voters? In a country where only thirty-two percent of the population has a college degree, the answer may be yes. The result is not likely to be good for the American democratic project or for the pluralistic values colleges have espoused. But perhaps the degree of the hostility of many Republican voters to the college establishment is a sign of how deep the class divide over education has become—and how great the need now is for college educators to find a way to bridge it.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of several books on religion and American politics, including God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.