An Ignorant Plot?
By Bryan Caplan
I could take umbrage, but I see where the accusers are coming from. In the last election, the education gap between Trump supporters and opponents was indeed enormous. Trump – or at least his public persona – is proudly ignorant. Wouldn’t it help Trump’s successors if education levels fell?
I doubt it. While it’s possible that Trump has sparked an historic party realignment, the safe bet says that (a) Trump is an outlier, and (b) we’ll return to the long-run trend. And over the long-run, there’s surprisingly little connection between education and partisanship. As I explain in my book:
In the data, the well-educated are only microscopically more liberal. In the General Social Survey, people place themselves on a seven-step scale, where 1 is “extremely liberal,” 4 is “moderate,” and 7 is “extremely conservative.” An extra year of education seems to make people .014 steps more liberal. Taken literally, over seventy years of education are required to shift ideology a single step. Statistical corrections make education’s impact on ideology look stronger, but it stays weak.If the effect on ideology is slight, the effect on partisanship is slightly perverse. As education rises, people grow less Democratic. The General Social Survey’s respondents place themselves on a seven-step scale, where 0 is “strong Democrat,” 3 is “independent” and 6 is “strong Republican.” An extra year of education seems to make people .071 steps more Republican. Statistical corrections makes this effect look weaker, but education still appears to mildly boost support for the party that teachers and professors disfavor.
education. After all, education has risen dramatically over the last
century, but America’s partisan composition has been quite stable. If
education matters, then, it matters because – regardless of average
national education – people with similar education levels
politically cluster together. In technical terms, education largely
works via peer effects – and peer effects are inherently double-edged:
To isolate education’s influence on society, however, you must unpack how education sways students. Is the mechanism “leadership” – planting teachers’ ideas in students’ heads? Then education remolds society. Is the mechanism “peer effects” – sorting kids into distinct groups? Then education mainly reshuffles society without remolding it.Suppose you funnel an extra kid into college. His peer group seismically shifts. Given human conformity, the freshman will likely try to blend in with his new peers. College youths are less religious, for example, so one would expect the student to veer in a secular direction. This does not imply, however, that college makes society less religious. The existence of college splits kids into two subcultures with opposing peer effects. If college kids are less religious than average kids, then non-college kids must be more religious than average kids. Members of each subculture adjust their behavior to locally fit in. Religious conformity pressure in the non-college pool offsets secular pressure in the college pool. Net effect on society’s religiosity: unclear, even if college demonstrably makes students less religious.
Voter turnout rises sharply with education. Substantial effects of education on turnout usually linger after statistically correcting for income, demographics, intelligence, and so on. Despite some thoughtful naysayers, limited experimental data also show extra education boosts turnout.The catch: Education has sharply risen over the last century, but turnout has gently fallen. This could mean offsetting factors masked education’s pro-voting effect. But several prominent researchers instead conclude that turnout depends on relative education. People don’t vote because they’re educated, but because they’re more educated than others. This once again suggests peer effects: The longer you stay in school, the more politically active your social circle, and the more politically active you become to fit in.