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Friday, July 31, 2015


Bloomberg News ran a focus group in New Hampshire recently for a dozen or so Republican voters supporting or favorable to Donald Trump, and their videotaped report has stimulated a good deal of interest on the TV talk shows [I cannot seem to find a link to it -- my apologies.]  The commentators on MSNBC have been obsessing over it for the past several days, trying to understand how and why these apparently sane and decent folks can feel so positively about someone as egregiously objectionable as Trump.  [The participants' second choice, almost unanimously, was Herman Cain, by the way.]  The consensus emerging from the discussions is that a large number of Americans are fed up with "Washington insiders" and offended by political correctness and the disparaging snobbish way that the "elites" view them, and Donald Trump, billionaire and all, is their kind of guy.  The Talking Heads all nod when one of their number says this in one way or another, but they are clearly mystified.  I agree with the characterization I have just given, but odd as it may sound, I do not think those who are saying it actually understand what their words mean.  I have written about this before, but it is important, so I am going to write about it again.

Let me start with a fact that I have invoked before.  In the United States today, roughly two-thirds of all adult men and women do not have four-year college degrees -- Bachelor's Degrees, as they are called in America.  When I went off to college in 1950, only five percent of adults had college degrees.  The number has been rising more or less steadily in the sixty-five years since, so among adults in the cohort of Americans in their forties or fifties, to which most of the Focus Group participants appeared to belong, many more than two-thirds do not have college degrees.

In contrast, virtually everyone who comments on politics on Television does have a college degree, and many of them, of course, have advanced degrees.  [Rachel Maddow, for example, has a D. Phil. from Oxford, where she began her studies on a Rhodes Scholarship.]  When these folks talk on TV about elitism, they mean the snobbery of people who have Ivy League degrees rather than degrees from State Universities or lesser private institutions. 

Once again, a few facts are called for.  There are just shy of 2,500 degree-granting four year colleges and universities in America.  [Two-thirds are private, but because of the size of the big state universities, sixty percent of college students are enrolled at public institutions.]  If you can tear your eyes away from the two dozen famous elite institutions, you find maybe three hundred others that anyone has heard of who does not actually live in the town where they are located.  All of these are, by any rational criterion, elite institutions in the context of a higher educational sector with two thousand five hundred total colleges and universities.  And the graduates of the least distinguished of these two thousand five hundred are still head and shoulders, in educational credentials, above the two-thirds of Americans who do not have college degrees at all.

Because of the racial, religious, ethnic, occupational, and economic self-segregation that defines the American residential landscape, it turns out that many, if not most, of the people with college degrees know mostly, or sometimes only, people with college degrees, while most of the people without college degrees know mostly or sometimes only people without college degrees.  This is obviously true of the professional opinionaters on Television.

Now, I suggest to you that these facts are understood intuitively by the people who do not have college degrees, even if they are not understood by the people who do.  It is always the case that those at  the bottom  of any social hierarchy -- the slaves, the servants, the workers, the women, the gays and lesbians forced into the closet -- have a more clear-eyed and ironically complex understanding of the facts of power and privilege than those at the top.  This is not exactly an original observation.  Indeed, it was a staple of seventeenth and eighteenth century French comedy -- think Figaro.

So you can be sure that when the non-degreed two thirds listen to TV talk about elitism, they understand quite well that they are excluded not merely from the inner circle of those who "went" to Harvard or Yale or Princeton but from the privileged circle of those who went to any of the two thousand five hundred colleges and universities.

Is this all just a matter of pride, of amour propre?  Of course not.  It is a matter of jobs, of salaries, and of life chances.

In America today, if you do not have a college degree, you cannot even dream of being a doctor or a lawyer.  You cannot be a college professor.  You have virtually no chance of ever being admitted to a corporate management training program [please spare me the news that Bill Gates dropped out of college!]  You cannot be a high school teacher.  Indeed, you cannot be an elementary school teacher.  You cannot be an FBI agent.  In many municipalities, you cannot even be an ordinary police officer.  There are countless state, local, and federal government jobs you can never hope to get.  You can work at Walmart, but if the Walmart website is any indication, you have virtually no chance of ever being a Walmart store manager.

If you are a high paid opinionated Television commentator, you may not know any of this, and you almost certainly have not given it any thought even if you do know it.  But if you are one of the two hundred million Americans without college degrees who are listening to you bloviate, you damned well do know it, because your life chances depend on knowing it.

I think it is a fair guess that Bernie Sanders is the only person running for the presidency in either party who actually has those two-thirds of Americans on his or her mind all the time.  But at least Donald Trump beats up relentlessly on the other Republican candidates who smell like elitists [even if, like Scott Walker, they actually dropped out of college.]

There is a great old story about Jack Kennedy when he was first running for the Senate from Massachusetts as the fair-haired privileged son of his rich rum-running father.  As the story goes, he was campaigning at a factory in Southie, surrounded by workingmen. and he confessed that he had never held a regular workingman's job a day in his life.  One of the men around him called out, "Ah, Jack, you dear boy, you haven't missed a thing!"

Sometimes, those at the bottom take up one of those at the top as their hero.  That is what working-class Boston did with Jack Kennedy , and that seems to be what working-class Republicans right now are doing with Donald Trump.


Jerry Fresia said...

Scroll down and you'll get a video of the NH focus group:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

thank you, Jerry.

Michael said...

"It is always the case that those at the bottom of any social hierarchy -- the slaves, the servants, the workers, the women, the gays and lesbians forced into the closet -- have a more clear-eyed and ironically complex understanding of the facts of power and privilege than those at the top."

And there you gave a fairly nice expression of why standpoint epistemology is (rightly) popular with feminists and social scientists.

formerly a wage slave said...

This is the kind of post that I, personally, find most valuable. I just do not have the time these days to allow my attention to wander too far from my own projects--- vestigial though they are--- and there are too many other demands in my life that rob me of my time. So your more expanded reflections are too demanding for me. But when you offer up this sort of commentary on the passing scene, I am very glad.

LFC said...

The link below indicates that in 2012, 43.9 percent of whites between 25 and 64 had "at least a two-year college degree." The figures were lower for Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos; higher for Asian-Americans. Assuming most of Trump's supporters are white, the 43.9 percent figure may be relevant. Not that it necessarily undercuts the point in the post, but it does suggest that more may be involved than 'the credentialed' vs. the 'non-credentialed'.