The 'diploma divide' in American politics

The “diploma divide” is now a defining feature of American politics. You can see it in the network exit poll: Democrat Joe BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE carried college-educated white voters by 35 percentage points; non-college whites were virtually tied. Non-college white men — Trump’s “base” — voted 70 percent for Trump.

As a result, two conflicting patterns now define American politics. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. That has been true for nearly 100 years. At the same time, the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. That trend has been building since 1980.

Students invariably ask, “What happens to people who are wealthy and well educated?” The answer is, they’re “cross-pressured” — pulled in different directions. If they vote their economic interests, they vote Republican. Those who give priority to their typically liberal cultural values vote Democratic. These differences created one of the most conspicuous features of the 2020 campaign: the battle for the suburbs, where a lot of educated, higher income white voters live.


Most suburbanites voted for Biden. They appear to have given priority to their liberal values (pro-science, pro-diversity) over their conservative economic interests (low taxes, pro-business). President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE’s values — apparently racist and openly hostile to science — were deeply offensive to well-educated voters.

One of the most perplexing features of the election was the fact that Trump’s loss did not seem to do much damage to the Republican Party. He wasn’t another Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon — Republicans whose unpopularity was costly for the GOP. The polls predicted a “blue wave” for Democrats this year. There was no blue wave. The vote to oust President Trump was highly personal, not ideological or partisan. He never achieved majority job approval or favorability from the voters. Even in apparent defeat (apparent to everyone except him), Trump is angling to retain control of the Republican Party.

What drives the diploma divide? In a word, populism.

Populism entails resentment of elites. Left-wing populism targets the wealthy elite. You see it when Bernie SandersBernie SandersMcConnell warns Biden not to 'outsource' Supreme Court pick to 'radical left' Briahna Joy Gray discusses Pelosi's 2022 re-election announcement Ocasio-Cortez: Supporting Sinema challenge by someone like Gallego would be easy decision MORE attacks Wall Street and “the one percent.” Right-wing populism targets the educated elite. You see it when conservatives attack experts and high-minded liberals who use “cancel culture” to enforce political correctness.

The fatal flaw of liberals is condescension. Ordinary voters who lack fancy degrees are quick to sniff out condescension when liberals speak disdainfully of people who “cling to guns or religion” or call Trump supporters “deplorables.” One reason why Joe Biden won: He doesn’t have a trace of condescension.


Donald Trump is not an ideologue. Many conservative intellectuals don’t trust him because he lacks a coherent philosophy of government. He is not a man of ideas. He’s a man of impulses, which he shares with a lot of unsophisticated Americans.

Governing by impulse is dangerous, but it’s also thrilling to Americans who admire Trump’s defiance of accepted norms. It’s the oldest populist theme in the world — “Up the Establishment!”

Trump’s signature economic achievement — a huge tax cut for the wealthy — was anything but populist. At the same time, however, he embraced protectionist trade policies. Protectionism is regularly denounced by the economic establishment but popular with workers who feel threatened by “globalization.” Moreover, Trump’s indifference to the skyrocketing national debt — now larger than the entire national economy — produced not a peep of protest from “Tea Party Republicans.” Debt doesn’t seem to bother Trump. He has always lived on debt.

Trump never pursued his 2016 campaign promise to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Big public works spending would have won a lot of support from Democrats, who saw jobs. Trump very likely saw big public works the same way Roman emperors did — as a way to showcase your power.

There was also a populist element in Trump’s skeptical approach to the pandemic. Many Americans hate the idea that the government can close down the economy, shut businesses and throw people out of work — even in the name of protecting public health. They see a locked down economy as a bigger threat than the coronavirus. Many Americans consider face masks a symbol of government overreach (“suppression muzzles”).


A lot of voters liked Trump’s populist values but found his autocratic behavior deeply offensive. He put his political self-interest ahead of the national interest. Moreover, Trump thrived on conflict. Every issue became a battle between “us” (Trump supporters) and “them” (liberals and Democrats). He took a country that was already divided and divided it even more. He was anything but a healing figure.

Trump learned a major lesson from his television career: Conflict gets high ratings. Viewers love to watch a good fight… but they don’t necessarily want to be involved in the fight.

Trump exploited the division of the country for his own benefit, setting “the masses” against the educated elite and leaving the country with a bitter diploma divide. No other president has ever done that. It may have invigorated his party. But it also cost him his job.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).