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How the diploma divide splits both parties

Democrats and Republicans couldn’t be farther apart in political outlook. With distance comes fear and loathing: Each party views the other not just as misguided but as an alien menace to their idea of America.

Nonetheless, neither party is monolithic. Each has internal cleavages, varying shades of opinion reflecting differences in race, class, ethnicity, gender, religion and age. When it comes to deciding elections, the fault line that matters most is the diploma divide.   

Since 2008, white voters with college degrees have gravitated steadily toward the Democrats. According to researcher Zach Goldberg, they outnumbered non-college white Democrats for the first time in 2020, and now probably also exceed the GOP share of college-educated whites.

Republicans already have a massive advantage among blue collar whites, and in recent election cycles have made inroads among non-college Hispanics, Asians and (on the margins) Black men.  

This educational polarization has inverted the historical relationship between party and class. The Democratic majorities that dominated U.S. politics from the 1930s to the 1980s were built on a bedrock of working-class support. Republicans historically did better among business and religious leaders, the WASP upper class and college-educated suburbanites.

The New Deal alignment is dead, and nothing has taken its place. Today, the two parties are at rough parity in electoral strength. Only by reaching across their respective diploma divides will the parties find the voters they need to build lasting majorities.

That won’t be easy, because the divide is a prime source of friction within the party coalitions, not just between them.

For example, as the 2024 presidential cycle gets underway, Republicans are sorting themselves into two camps: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. What separates them is education.

The hard core of Donald Trump’s support is white, non-college voters; he won roughly two-thirds of them in 2016 and 2020. Yet his choleric brand of white identity politics also is driving college-educated voters out of the GOP. Joe Biden in 2020 won 61 percent of voters with a four-year degree or higher, including 57 percent of white voters.

Since then, Trump’s Republican support has continued to slip. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of conservative Republicans who approve of Trump has declined by seven points. The sharpest fall has come among GOP college graduates: Now just 49 percent view him positively, down from 63 percent in 2021.

Fearing that Trump is an electoral albatross, a growing chorus of GOP leaders and donors is urging Republicans to turn instead to “a new generation of leaders.” But with 74 percent of Republicans still expressing warm feelings and rock steady support from his blue-collar base, Trump could grab the party’s nomination again in a crowded primary field.

The diploma divide also poses a two-fold dilemma for Democrats. First, they’re  losing ground among all working-class voters. Second, the party’s priorities are increasingly defined by college-educated and affluent white liberals, not its nonwhite rank and file.

“Since 2012, nonwhite working-class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election (2020) and particularly among Hispanics,” writes liberal political analyst Ruy Teixeira. Even as he lost to Biden by 7 million votes, Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote leapt by 10 points, from 28-38 percent.

The midterm results, however, suggest that Republicans don’t need Trump on the ticket to appeal to disaffected minority voters. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis ran 27 points ahead of Trump among nonwhite working-class voters, Teixeira notes.

Both in deep-blue California and key swing states Pennsylvania and Arizona, Democratic governors won their races but ran behind Biden’s 2020 performance among nonwhite working-class voters.

Democrats’ dwindling working-class base is embarrassing for a party that likes to see itself as the champion of the little guy. The diploma divide, by shifting Democrats leftwards, is widening the ideological rift between white progressives and working-class voters of all kinds.

A recent Gallup poll found that a record 63 percent of white Democrats described themselves as liberal in 2022, compared to just 26 percent of voters nationally. Black and Hispanic Democrats were more than 20 points less likely to call themselves liberals.

Higher levels of education are strongly correlated to higher incomes, greater political participation and cultural liberalism. Affluent white liberals are more preoccupied with post-material or social justice issues – the iniquities of capitalism, structural racism, LGBT rights, a green New Deal – than the kitchen-table economic concerns of working-class voters.

On a wide range of issues, from crime and policing, guns, immigration, abortion and gender identity, Black and Hispanic Democrats express more moderate-to-conservative views than white, college-educated Democrats. That’s why they are increasingly tempted to defect to the GOP.

Democrats need a new strategy for bridging their diploma divide. It’s a matter of basic electoral math: To win in 2024 and have any realistic shot at realigning U.S. politics around a new, center-left majority, Democrats need lots more working-class voters.

President Biden’s “blue collar agenda for rebuilding America” is rhetorically on point but doesn’t go nearly far enough. To build a bigger and more ideologically balanced coalition, Democrats should embrace cultural moderation and put non-college voters’ aspirations for economic opportunity and upward mobility at the center of their governing agenda.

Otherwise, the parties will keep drifting toward polar extremes — with dire consequences for U.S. democracy.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags College education Latino vote white working class working class voters

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