The real political divides

Fordham University Prof. Charles Camosy:

The most important divide in this election was not between whites and non-whites. It was between those who are often referred to as “educated” voters and those who are described as “working class” voters.

The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump. College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump. This is an indictment of the monolithic, insulated political culture in the vast majority our colleges and universities.
As a college professor, I know that there are many ways in which college graduates simply know more about the world than those who do not have such degrees. This is especially true — with some exceptions, of course — when it comes to “hard facts” learned in science, history and sociology courses.

But I also know that that those with college degrees — again, with some significant exceptions — don’t necessarily know philosophy or theology. And they have especially paltry knowledge about the foundational role that different philosophical or theological claims play in public thought compared with what is common to college campuses. In my experience, many professors and college students don’t even realize that their views on political issues rely on a particular philosophical or theological stance.

Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives 5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.
While some of the political differences between educated and working-class voters is based on a dispute over hard facts, the much broader and more foundational disagreements are about norms and values. They turn on first principles grounded in the very different intuitions and stories which animate very different political cultures. Such disagreements cannot be explained by the fact that college-educated voters know some facts which non-college educated voters do not. They are about something far more fundamental.

Think about the sets of issues that are often at the core of the identity of the working-class folks who elected Trump: religion, personal liberty’s relationship with government, gender, marriage, sexuality, prenatal life and gun rights. Intuition and stories guide most working-class communities on these issues. With some exceptions, those professorial sorts who form the cultures of our colleges and universities have very different intuition and stories. And the result of this divide has been to produce an educated class with an isolated, insular political culture.
Religion in most secular institutions, for instance, is at best thought of as an important sociological phenomenon to understand — but is very often criticized as an inherently violent, backward force in our culture, akin to belief in fairies and dragons. Professors are less religious than the population as a whole. Most campus cultures have strictly (if not formally) enforced dogmatic views about the nature of gender, sexual orientation, a woman’s right to choose abortion, guns and the role of the state as primary agent of social change. If anyone disagrees with these dogmatic positions they risk being marginalized as ignorant, bigoted, fanatical or some other dismissive label.

Sometimes the college-educated find themselves so unable to understand a particular working-class point of view that they will respond to those perspectives with shocking condescension. Recall that President Obama, in the midst of the 2012 election cycle, suggested that job losses were the reason working-class voters were bitterly clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The religious themselves, meanwhile, likely do not chalk their faith up to unhappy economic prospects, and they probably find it hard to connect with politicians who seem to assume such.

Thus today’s college graduates are formed by a campus culture that leaves them unable to understand people with unfamiliar or heterodox views on guns, abortion, religion, marriage, gender and privilege. And that same culture leads such educated people to either label those with whom they disagree as bad people or reduce their stated views on these issues as actually being about something else, as in Obama’s case. Most college grads in this culture are simply never forced to engage with or seriously consider professors or texts which could provide a genuine, compelling alternative view.
For decades now, U.S. colleges and universities have quite rightly been trying to become more diverse when it comes to race and gender. But this election highlights the fact that our institutions of higher education should use similar methods to cultivate philosophical, theological and political diversity.

These institutions should consider using quotas in hiring that help faculties and administrations more accurately reflect the wide range of norms and values present in the American people. There should be systemwide attempts to have texts assigned in classes written by people from intellectually underrepresented groups. There should be concerted efforts to protect political minorities from discrimination and marginalization, even if their views are unpopular or uncomfortable to consider.

The goal of such changes would not be to convince students that their political approaches are either correct or incorrect. The goal would instead be educational: to identify and understand the norms, values, first principles, intuitions and stories which have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education. This would better equip college graduates to engage with the world as it is, including with their fellow citizens.

The alternative, a reduction of all disagreement to racism, bigotry and ignorance — in addition to being wrong about its primary source — will simply make the disagreement far more personal, entrenched and vitriolic. And it won’t make liberal values more persuasive to the less educated, as Trump victory demonstrates.

It is time to do the hard work of forging the kind of understanding that moves beyond mere dismissal to actual argument. Today’s election results indicate that our colleges and universities are places where this hard work is particularly necessary.

Camosy explains not merely last week’s post-election protests, but why there has been less voter complaint than you might think about UW System cuts this decade. I can tell you from experience that UW System people really do not grasp that voters might not like their values getting not only short shrift, but derided in the UW System classrooms those voters’ tax dollars built by UW System faculty paid for by those tax dollars.

Meanwhile, Mathew Ingram looks at a different group:

If you’re looking for a word to describe the feeling in the nation’s newsrooms after a Donald Trump win, “shell-shocked” would probably be a good one. How is this possible when every poll and prediction site said that Hillary Clinton would win? How could everyone have gotten it so wrong?

The inescapable fact is that most of the mainstream media got it wrong because they simply couldn’t believe that Americans would elect someone like Donald Trump. Denial can be a powerful drug.

In part, that’s because much of the East Coast-based media establishment is arguably out of touch with the largely rural population that voted for Trump, the disenfranchised voters who looked past his cheesy exterior and his penchant for half-truths and heard a message of hope, however twisted.

As the editor of Cracked put it in a very perceptive essay: “If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called ‘Cost of Living.’”

But there’s more to it than just that. As I tried to explain in a previous post about Trump’s rise, he took advantage of a media landscape that has never been more broken, more fragmented and more open to misinformation, disinformation, and even outright hoaxes and lies.

In the end, all of the fact-checking, all the digging done by people like David Farenthold of the Washington Post, and all of the editorials and endorsements were like spitting into the wind.

One of the downsides of the fractured media landscape is that it’s easier than ever to sit in an echo chamber or filter bubble and preach to the converted. Newspaper readers believe what they want to believe, and so do those on Facebook—and never the twain shall meet.

Much of what mainstream media did to try and puncture Trump’s ascendance, including reporting on his offensive remarks about women and his “dog whistle” comments on immigration, probably had the opposite effect. They reinforced his image as an outsider, as someone in tune with “real” American values—as a “force for change.”

That’s not the only blame that the media deserves either. Much of the early coverage of Trump, and even well into his campaign, treated him as a joke, as entertainment, as a sideshow.

The assumption was that Trump was such a buffoon, such a huckster , that the American people would surely see through his tricks and lies. All that was required was to point at him and laugh, to reveal the ignorance of his campaign or the poverty of his ideas. And that was a fatal mistake.

Meanwhile, Trump fans and Clinton-haters were not even listening—they were reading InfoWars and Breitbart News and listening to Glenn Beck or Morning Joe, or reading websites that few in the traditional media had ever even heard of. Sites that told the “truth” Trump supporters wanted to hear.

All of this was exacerbated by the current media landscape, one in which mainstream media outlets are desperate for revenue and reliant on a click-based or eyeball-based business model—one that gave Trump billions of dollars in free coverage.

How many articles were written about Trump simply because editors knew that they would get clicks, even if they legitimized the crackpot theories of people like Alex Jones of InfoWars? How much of what the media engaged in was really an exercise in “false equivalence,” in which a dubious story about Hillary Clinton’s use of email was treated the same as Trump’s sexual assault allegations or ties to Putin?

Cable news fell into this trap as well, putting Trump surrogates on for hours and treating them like experts or pundits. CBS president Les Moonves said it best when he said that Trump “may not be good for America, but [he’s] damn good for CBS.” He went on to say:

The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald.

Moonves said later that he was joking, and perhaps he was—but he still summed up the cable TV phenomenon better than anyone else has. Everyone loves a horror show, and everyone loves a horse race, and that’s what the TV news gave them every day of the election campaign.

Facebook also played a role, given the fact that huge numbers of people rely on it for news, and much of that news was either distorted or outright fake. Those filter bubbles became even stronger. And the electorate believed what it wanted to believe, not what traditional media told them to believe.

Here’s the bottom line: The most powerful thing about the digital disruption of media is that it has allowed so many new channels of information to spring up that anyone can become a news publisher and distributor, and anyone to choose who they trust and who they believe.

But that strength is also a double-edged sword. It allows us to find sources that cater to our beliefs instead of challenging them, and it allows us to see what we want to see, not what is actually there. Trump voters were arguably guilty of doing that, yes, but most of the media did the exact same thing.

The related theory, posited by James Taranto last week, is that after seeing defenses of Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” for decades, voters didn’t particularly care about Trump’s leering, or Trump University, or anything else. They voted for Trump to stick it to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the media, etc.



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