And while many white voters deeply disliked Trump, they disliked Democrat Hillary Clinton even more. Of those who had negative feelings about both Trump and Clinton, Trump got their votes by a margin of 2 to 1. Votes for Trump seemed to signal a rejection of the norms and values for which Clinton stood more than an outright embrace of Trump. He was viewed unfavorably, for instance, by 61 percent of Wisconsinites, but 1 in 5 in that group voted for him anyway.
The most important divide in this election was not between whites and non-whites. It was between those who are often referred to as “educated” voters and those who are described as “working class” voters.
The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump. College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump. This is an indictment of the monolithic, insulated political culture in the vast majority our colleges and universities.
As a college professor, I know that there are many ways in which college graduates simply know more about the world than those who do not have such degrees. This is especially true — with some exceptions, of course — when it comes to “hard facts” learned in science, history and sociology courses.
But I also know that that those with college degrees — again, with some significant exceptions — don’t necessarily know philosophy or theology. And they have especially paltry knowledge about the foundational role that different philosophical or theological claims play in public thought compared with what is common to college campuses. In my experience, many professors and college students don’t even realize that their views on political issues rely on a particular philosophical or theological stance.
Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives 5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.
While some of the political differences between educated and working-class voters is based on a dispute over hard facts, the much broader and more foundational disagreements are about norms and values. They turn on first principles grounded in the very different intuitions and stories which animate very different political cultures. Such disagreements cannot be explained by the fact that college-educated voters know some facts which non-college educated voters do not. They are about something far more fundamental.
Think about the sets of issues that are often at the core of the identity of the working-class folks who elected Trump: religion, personal liberty’s relationship with government, gender, marriage, sexuality, prenatal life and gun rights. Intuition and stories guide most working-class communities on these issues. With some exceptions, those professorial sorts who form the cultures of our colleges and universities have very different intuition and stories. And the result of this divide has been to produce an educated class with an isolated, insular political culture.
Religion in most secular institutions, for instance, is at best thought of as an important sociological phenomenon to understand — but is very often criticized as an inherently violent, backward force in our culture, akin to belief in fairies and dragons. Professors are less religious than the population as a whole. Most campus cultures have strictly (if not formally) enforced dogmatic views about the nature of gender, sexual orientation, a woman’s right to choose abortion, guns and the role of the state as primary agent of social change. If anyone disagrees with these dogmatic positions they risk being marginalized as ignorant, bigoted, fanatical or some other dismissive label.
Sometimes the college-educated find themselves so unable to understand a particular working-class point of view that they will respond to those perspectives with shocking condescension. Recall that President Obama, in the midst of the 2012 election cycle, suggested that job losses were the reason working-class voters were bitterly clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The religious themselves, meanwhile, likely do not chalk their faith up to unhappy economic prospects, and they probably find it hard to connect with politicians who seem to assume such.
Thus today’s college graduates are formed by a campus culture that leaves them unable to understand people with unfamiliar or heterodox views on guns, abortion, religion, marriage, gender and privilege. And that same culture leads such educated people to either label those with whom they disagree as bad people or reduce their stated views on these issues as actually being about something else, as in Obama’s case. Most college grads in this culture are simply never forced to engage with or seriously consider professors or texts which could provide a genuine, compelling alternative view.
For decades now, U.S. colleges and universities have quite rightly been trying to become more diverse when it comes to race and gender. But this election highlights the fact that our institutions of higher education should use similar methods to cultivate philosophical, theological and political diversity.
These institutions should consider using quotas in hiring that help faculties and administrations more accurately reflect the wide range of norms and values present in the American people. There should be systemwide attempts to have texts assigned in classes written by people from intellectually underrepresented groups. There should be concerted efforts to protect political minorities from discrimination and marginalization, even if their views are unpopular or uncomfortable to consider.
The goal of such changes would not be to convince students that their political approaches are either correct or incorrect. The goal would instead be educational: to identify and understand the norms, values, first principles, intuitions and stories which have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education. This would better equip college graduates to engage with the world as it is, including with their fellow citizens.
The alternative, a reduction of all disagreement to racism, bigotry and ignorance — in addition to being wrong about its primary source — will simply make the disagreement far more personal, entrenched and vitriolic. And it won’t make liberal values more persuasive to the less educated, as Trump victory demonstrates.
It is time to do the hard work of forging the kind of understanding that moves beyond mere dismissal to actual argument. Today’s election results indicate that our colleges and universities are places where this hard work is particularly necessary.