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Educated Fools

4 11 0

Here’s a little thought experiment: What would happen if, by a snap of the fingers, white racism in America were to disappear? It might be that the black and Latino working class would be voting for Trump, too. Then we Democrats would have no chance in 2020. We often tell ourselves: “Oh, we lost just the white working class because of race.” But the truth might be something closer to this: “It’s only because of race that we have any part of the working class turning out for us at all.”

How many of us in the party’s new postgraduate leadership caste have even a single friendship, a real one, of two equals, with any man or woman who is just a high school graduate? It’s hard to imagine any Democrat in either House or Senate who did not go beyond a high school diploma. (And no, I am not talking about Harvard dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.)

Still, it’s unthinkable that the college-educated base of the party would trust a high school graduate without a four-year degree to run for or hold a serious office. We don’t trust them, and would never vote for one of them. Why should they trust or vote for one of us?

It used to be otherwise. Yes, in the 1940s and 1950s, many a Democrat in the House or Senate had no four-year diploma: Even a president, Harry S Truman, did not. What’s more, those who did frequently went to night law school, or a teachers’ college, and at least still lived, or had a social life, in neighborhoods where no one over a long stretch of city blocks had college B.A.s. This was true even for the profession now cited as a sort of polemic shorthand for rule by the knowledge elite—the “liberal media.” As late as 1970, my friend Steve Franklin joined a city paper and was surprised to learn that most of the editors had never been to college—and of course they lived in neighborhoods all over the city with people who had gone to the same high schools they had.

Back then, many of these people understood that they could trust the Democratic Party for the same reason they could trust the liberal media. The Democratic Party of the 1950s and 1960s was probably much more corrupt and inept than the Democratic Party of today—but back then it lived in the neighborhood, as it no longer does today. Now the Democratic Party relies on think tanks in elite universities to find out what people back in those neighborhoods are thinking.

We don’t trust them, and would never vote for one of them. Why should they trust or vote for one of us?

In fact, the college graduates who are now the base of the party have moved working people out of the old neighborhoods. I think here of my own city—Chicago—where the members of the City Council whom columnists from Ben Hecht to Mike Royko used to mock now have more degrees than reporters of Hecht’s generation had. Here’s the finding of a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago: In 1970, one half of Chicago by census tract was “middle-income”—that is to say, the people who made up the old working-class machine vote, most of them without four-year college degrees. Now that “middle-income” group is just 16 percent. The bungalows in those formerly middle-income neighborhoods teeming with high school graduates now belong to high-tech entrepreneurs and investors in hedge funds.

I am a labor lawyer and should have known better, but when I ran for Congress in 2009 in my Chicago-area district and knocked on doors, the white working class I imagined to be around me was gone: They had disappeared like the Etruscans. Or they at least had gone somewhere way to the west of I-90 and I-94—the monster expressway known as the Kennedy, which divides the city the way the Mississippi divides America, well out of range of the higher-credentialed and better-capitalized parts of the city where it’s $15 for a glass of wine. We recently elected a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and the astonishing thing about her is not that she is female, or black, or gay—such things are routine in Chicago now—but that she is so totally from out of town: not born here, never went to high school or college here, or even in Illinois. She showed up for the first time in law school at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, which once did not count as Chicago at all.

This all fits the claim of the French geographer Christophe Guilluy about his own country in his 2016 book The Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France. Guilluy describes how the movement, if not the expulsion, of the working class from France’s most prosperous cities incubated the innovation and new modes of production that fuel the growth of the Knowledge Economy. The same thing is happening in places like Chicago and most of the other well-off and innovative capitals of information-age enterprise. Alexis de Tocque­ville blamed the French Revolution in part on the literal physical distance between an aristocracy pulled into Versailles and the rural France they left behind. Now those of us with postgraduate degrees and who are in the elite of the Democratic Party live in our own Versailles, and we don’t know any working-class people either—except perhaps the name of a barista at Starbucks or the woman who comes by at night to clean the office.

For those of us cut off from the white working class, it is easy to think the answer to inequality is: Imitate us. Why can’t they be like we are? I borrow this idea from The Light That Failed by Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev (2019), a book that explains why newly liberated ex-Communist countries turned away from liberal democracies to authoritarian or illiberal ones. Imitate us—be like we are—turns out to be one of the most grating forms of foreign policy on offer in a world of such great income inequality. But imitate us is also grating within a country with income inequality on the scale even of France’s, much less that of the United States. There are other geopolitical reasons beyond my ken for the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, but there is something about imitate us that helps account both for the rise of these forms of illiberal democracy and for the one that’s been hatched here.

The center left and progressive left—or the postgraduates who control both sides in the party’s debate—have a similar answer to inequality. Higher taxes? Yes. More welfare? Yes. And what else?

More college—a lot more college. What to do about lack of mobility? More college. What about competing in the global economy? More college.

Or if a few have started to detect the class snobbery here and added community college, it’s still … well, it’s still in the hope that the upward-striving student population will go on to obtain a four-year college degree. And yes, I know; we are living increasingly in a knowledge- and data-driven economy, managed by credentialed and accomplished symbolic analysts. So to them it’s obvious: How can the answer not be education?

Well, of course education should be the answer—yes, I know that—but it will be the answer only when it becomes a democratic education for a democratic workplace. 

Yes, then it will be the answer—but it is not the answer yet, and, in the meantime, college for all might only reinforce the top-down authoritarian corporate structure that is preventing education from being the answer.

Yet college for all is still the drumbeat of the party’s leadership, and if anything the drumbeat is even louder from much of the party’s new highly educated base. It was true not only in the eight years of Obama, but also for the intervals our party has been out of power in the White House—with Kerry, with Gore, with their advisers and economists, and most of all, with the people who listen to NPR and read The New York Times and have college degrees of a caliber and pedigree that most college graduates do not have.

For this group, there is only one way to do it: Imitate us, the people who are the helicopter parents, whose parents were professionals, whose presidential candidates are Rhodes scholars or presidents of the Harvard Law Review. Can college for all solve the problems of this country? Well, it worked for us. Even some of the social Darwinians were subtler in rubbing it in.

I hate to pick on Barack Obama, because I genuinely like him and admire his legacy. But let me cite his famous speech on inequality, at Osawatomie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt, before his Bull Moose candidacy, had once delivered a rousing tirade on inequality. It’s here where Obama at last acknowledged income inequality........

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