College grads and highly specialized societies
By Scott Sumner
Julius Probst directed me to a list of the share of whites that are college educated in various states. (See the list at the bottom of the post.) Note that the 10 states with the highest college share all voted for Joe Biden, as well as 8 of the next 10. Only Texas and Utah were exceptions, at #12 and #19.
At first glance the explanation seems obvious; white college grads voted strongly for Biden. I believe that’s only part of the explanation; they actually didn’t vote all that overwhelmingly for Biden. Rather, college grads also reshape the broader society in a way that is friendlier to the modern Democratic Party.
When I was young, middle class people would mow their own lawns. As time went by, the “middle class” tended to segment into the upper middle class and the working class, with different lifestyles. Working class people still cut their grass, while upper middle class people frequently hire others to do so, often immigrants from Latin America. Perhaps white people who cut their own grass tend to vote for Donald Trump, while those that hire others vote for Biden, as do the people they hire.
More broadly, in upper middle class areas there’s been an explosion in service industries, everything from pet grooming to nail salons to full service car washes. Many working class immigrant people migrate to affluent professional cites, where they provide services to upper middle class professionals. And while Hispanics shifted slightly toward Trump in the latest election, in absolute terms they still voted overwhelmingly for Biden.
The symbiotic relationship between affluent professions and the immigrant communities that provide services to them creates a very different society from what you see in more “self-sufficient” working class states like Kentucky and Arkansas (the bottom two states on the list.) Indeed if you look at the bottom ten states, only one voted for Biden.
And that one exception–Nevada– is itself very interesting. Biden won Nevada because of strong support among Hispanic voters. While Nevada does not have a big group of college educated whites, it does have a huge tourist industry, catering to affluent travelers. Thus it has lots of the same low-skilled service jobs that you see in places like California, and the immigrant population to match.
This idea is familiar to those who have studied racial politics in America. States with large (but minority) black populations such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia mostly voted for Trump. But that’s not because lots of blacks voted for Trump. Rather having a large black population reshapes society. It makes the non-blacks behave differently, more likely to vote overwhelmingly for the candidate that blacks are not voting for. In contrast, whites in Vermont probably don’t think about the preferences of their tiny black population when casting their ballots.
The states full of affluent whites and large immigrant populations are likely to be relatively open to immigration, trade, specialization, etc. They will also tend to be more urban. This creates a dilemma for Democrats. How can they appeal to this group, and also to the factory workers to whom Bernie Sanders was trying to appeal (albeit not necessarily successfully?) America is too complex a society for either political party to have a neat and tidy solution to coalition building in a two party structure. There will always be strange bedfellows. Furthermore, as society changes over time, the parties will evolve into new and different coalitions. For the moment, the Dems are the “college plus minorities” party. Who knows what they’ll be in 50 years?