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The College Divide Is Threatening Democracy

The College Divide Is Threatening Democracy

For about 10 minutes, it looked like Trump-loving truckers might organize an embargo of New York City. 

The day the former President was handed a $355m fraud verdict, a trucker, who calls himself “Chicago Ray” on Twitter, posted a rant urging fellow truckers to refuse to deliver loads to New York City in protest. He explained, with all the insight we’ve come to expect from the MAGA crowd, “We’re tired of you mother f**king leftists f**king with Trump.”

Trump’s network of fake accounts and sock puppets seized on the tweet, promoting it wildly. Other truckers posted similar videos. Within a day, Murdoch’s New York Post was reporting on the trucker boycott as if it was a real thing. It wasn’t, but it could have been.

Though logistical obstacles to such a project would be daunting, the threat struck a nerve. The Big Apple doesn’t grow a lot of apples. It doesn’t make a lot of shoes or clothing. It doesn’t even have places to put its own trash. New York exists because of logistics workers like Chicago Ray. Wildcat strikes by truckers as recently as 1979 struck fear into politicians and voters, but those days are gone.

After all the noise, nothing happened. Chicago Ray deleted his call for a boycott within a few days and backed down. While Trump touted the devastating impact of a truckers’ strike on New York, the food kept flowing in and the trash kept flowing out. Your batty Aunt Linda thinks New York is starving, but not a single load was interrupted. Those big wheels kept on rollin’.

By contrast, look at the impact of the Women’s March on Inauguration Day, 2017. On November 9, 2016, a retired attorney named Teresa Shook posted to a Facebook group that “we have to make it really uncomfortable for the Trump Administration.” Shook had no experience with protest or organizing, but she was connected to powerful networks. Formal organization began within days. By January, their effort put more than 3 million people in the streets of cities globally, spawning a resistance movement that would swing elections for years. 

One glaring factor accounts for the difference in impact between these two protests – college. When Teresa Shook posted her message she wasn’t screeching into the digital void. Though she hadn’t previously been politically involved, she knew a lot about the system. More importantly, she had ready connections to others who could share their insights, connections and power. Teresa’s education and experience granted her a place in the retainer class – the people who know how things work. Armed with these advantages, she was able to magnify her political power while providing a platform for like-minded allies to do the same. 

When Chicago Ray posted his rant, the only people listening, apart from his peers, were right wing grifters looking to subvert his voice for fundraising, self-promotion and clicks. He enjoyed the brief glory of a retweet by Trump, then faded away. 

The rise of mass college education has been accompanied by a great national sorting. Those with the power and influence to make things work live ever more removed, both culturally and physically, from their less-educated cousins back in the old hometown. Odds are, Ray doesn’t have a lot of close relationships with college educated people. Like others in his circumstances, the channels by which his legitimate policy concerns might be interpreted, understood and translated into policy in our system are closed. 

Just a few decades ago, America’s Rays and Teresa’s would have lived down the street from one another. Their kids would have gone to the same schools. They’d know each other from local service clubs, church, PTA or other local organizations whose relevance has faded. Our educated and influential retainer class – the people who make politics work – has almost entirely lost its connection to workers without a college education. That divide has negative consequences for both.

Under Trump, Republicans have become the party of whites without a college education, in coalition with religious nuts and grifters. Whites without a college education made up a whopping 60% of Trump’s support in 2020. Their overwhelming support for Trump in the 2024 primaries have doomed his rivals. College educated whites, who not long ago were the backbone of the GOP, voted for Biden in 2020 by the highest margin in history. 

Since 1980, the percentage of Americans with a college degree has more than doubled. Half of American voters will probably have a college education by about 2035. Americans are divided by college.

Democrats are now a coalition of college educated whites and minority voters. As tenuous as the Democrats’ coalition is, that growing division between college and non-college voters will in time destroy their connection to less educated minority voters as soundly as it’s wrecked their ties to white blue-collar workers. Thanks to our college divide, the Democratic coalition sits across a fault line that could rupture at any moment, ending our democracy.

MAGA voters pushing to dismantle democracy aren’t doing it because there’s something wrong with them. They’ve lost their connection to the political system. Education has become the dividing line in our culture because it’s become a dividing line in our lives – marking the boundary between workers with real political influence and those left to twist in the wind. To understand why millions of otherwise decent people are voting for Fascism we need to understand how mass college education is transforming our culture.

How did this trend toward mass higher education develop and where is it going? How did education come to override class as a touchstone of identity? And why are whites without a college education so much more likely to support Trump? It may take a while to put all this together, so in the meantime, keep on truckin’.


  1. Another fault line in the Democratic coalition is the culture wars, in particular the far left language police. I’ve heard commentary ranging from libertarian Bill Maher to progressive Anna Casparian complaining about the totally ridiculous changes such as substituting “birthing person” for “woman” on medical forms. If educated White people are rolling their eyes, imagine how it plays with blue-collar, more religiously inclined minority groups. Is that Biden’s fault? Certainly not, but American voters don’t have the best track record in being fair and reasonable when assigning blame or credit. Otherwise the GOP wouldn’t be polling as better for the economy.

  2. Glad to see you are still active.

    What you profess is probably true. But what difference does it make?
    You are talking like an history prof in 1932 Germany.

    The tyrant and his death cult are on track to re-take power. The courts are with him, 454 million not-withstanding. And remember, the left show up in the streets with cell phones. The death cult, they show up with assault rifles.

    What are you prepared to do to stop the tyrant?

  3. “Half of American voters will probably have a college education by about 2035.”

    I’m not sure if that’ll be true by 2035. I see a slight decline in your cited educational-attainment chart from 2020 to 2022. Perhaps that’s the pandemic effects, but I do wonder about the breakdown per age-bracket or generation? Are more-affordable-to-them-at-the-time college-educated boomers are dying off faster than price-slammed Xers to Zs can replace them in the ranks of the college-educated?

    1. The operative word in the sentence you quote is “voters”.

      Not everyone votes. People with college degrees are significantly more likely to vote than people without. So even though the general population in 2035 won’t be 50% college educated, 50% of the electorate will be.

      Also, the decline yo noted in 2020-2022 is the upshot of the pandemic. It might take until the end of the decade, but it should return to the prior trend line.

    2. There was a dip in enrollment during the pandemic. Then there’s the fact that the generation of teenagers approaching college age is smaller (and ever smaller after that), than the cohort before them. Then there’s the additional factor that Republicans are aggressively attacking the concept of higher education itself. This is beginning to suppress college enrollment in some of the reddest states.

  4. Great to hear from you Chris! Hope Cali is treating you and your family well.

    It’s difficult to think too far ahead in the current political situation, but, one must continue to hope reason will prevail and the political process will survive.

    I believe we do a disservice by giving deference to traditional four-year college without appreciating the value of affordable programs involving technical and vocational skills. There is a need for both.

    I had a recent opportunity to attend a fine presentation by the administration of a robust local community college. I was impressed by the nimbleness of their curriculum. This college responds to local job market needs while providing a seamless segue to the local university should the students wish to alter course. The college communicates closely with local businesses, market trends and current needs. This administration is attentive to the success of its students and they feel it.

    How does this relate to the topic of the post? After all, isn’t this the goal of all educational institutions? And, how does this affect our democratic election process? It simply acknowledges the critical role education plays in growing a responsible society that can make responsible decisions. In turn, this yields a more civil, diverse, intelligent and productive society. Absent personal satisfaction and financial security, divisions and resentment fester along the fault lines you described.

    Should America escape the disaster of trump redux, hopefully we will be able to begin the long road back to a more responsible, democratic society. The path begins with education.

    1. I agree with you that it’s risky to think more people getting college degrees will solve our problem. I think in a lot of ways, what we’re struggling with is a Constitution that doesn’t work anymore. France has had 5 constitutions in the time we’ve had one. A friend made this comment yesterday: “[The Constitution] is now a sclerotic superannuated anachronism. The constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson calls Article 5 the “Iron Cage” because it makes changing it so difficult. That is what conservatives like about it, that and because as constitutions go it was revolutionary then and is now basically a conservative document.”

      I’m reading an excellent book now called “One Nation Under Guns” by Dominic Erdozain. He’s from Great Britain, and I’m so grateful that he’s chosen to be an American citizen, and lives in the South. He makes a lucid case that the 2nd Amendment makes no sense except in terms of the “well-regulated militia.” He locates that within the philosophical discussions of the time. But of course one problem with our system as it has developed is that the Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court says it means, and in the Heller decision, they decided it was about an individual right to guns. I think this issue and the abortion issue may destroy this country. Blue and red states will not tolerate each others’ positions on them. We may split into several countries if we can’t find a way to get more realism.

      1. I fully concur with you regarding the difficulty of amending the Constitution. It is far too difficult. At this point, we would do better with a new Constitution, but that could be even worse. One of the worst aspects is the equal state representation in the Senate. But the Constitution makes that impossible to change.

        Even if the Constitution was easier to amend. the real problem creating gridlock in our government are the various rules in both Houses of Congress that allow a minority to prevent passage of legislation that they dislike. The most striking is the filibuster in the Senate that is solely a creation of Senate rules. Similar rules in the House of Representatives allow a a small minority in the majority party to create gridlock, as has occurred in the current Congress.

        In some cases Congress refuses to exercise the power it has under the Constitution to resolve issues. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate federal elections. It could impose uniform election methodologies, eliminate gerrymandering and eliminate voter suppression, Though in some cases it has attempted to do so and the Supreme Court has often ruled those attempts unconstitutional. But then Congress also has the power to control the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the number of justices and otherwise regulate the Supreme Court and has all but refused to use that power.

        The list of problems with the Constitution is lengthy. However, overall I feel that the Government could be made functional again by changes that the Congress could accomplish without amending the Constitution:
        1. Eliminate the Senate filibuster and rules in the House giving a minority veto power.
        2. Increase the size of the House to 600-700 members, adopt a rational means of determining the size of the House and mandate automatic decennial adjustment of the number of representatives in accordance with the rule adopted for adjusting the size. I personally favor the cube root rule, which would set the size of the House to correspond to the cube root of the US Population. Another method is the Wyoming Rule, which would set the nominal population ratio to be equal to the population of the least populous state. There are several rules that have been proposed. They all have advantages and disadvantages.
        3. Increase the size of the Supreme Court to say 13 members, impose a mandatory code of ethics with some teeth and implement senior status provisions applicable to the lower courts to the Supreme Court. Additionally Congress needs to limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, where possible. The Constitution gives Congress the explicit power to do so.
        4. Implement standardization of federal elections to eliminate gerrymandering, and voter suppression in accordance with the power Congress presently has. Considerable care will be required in drafting this legislation to prevent Supreme court interference. But by implementing Supreme Court reform and limiting its jurisdiction, that issue might be resolved. Again the Constitution presently gives Congress that power.
        5. One issue that needs to be resolved and might require a Constitutional amendment is elimination of the electoral college in favor of the the national popular vote. The National Popular Vote interstate Compact might be a workaround, but personally I am very dubious as to its Constitutionality. Nevertheless, increasing the size of the House to 600-700 members would drastically lower the possibility of an electoral college inversion, with the present methodology of assigning electors. But that is a state matter that Congress does not have the power to control. Far better would be biting the bullet and amending the Constitution to eliminate the EC. That might be possible if the Congress became functional again, with the first four reforms.

        The first four reforms would not require amendments. The problem of electoral college inversions might not be as great an issue with reforming the size of the House so it is more in line with the size of the population and mandating a decennial adjustment of the size of the House as was originally intended by the drafters of the Constitution.

  5. This college divide is closely related to an urban-rural divide in my opinion. I’m pretty sure that the rate of college completion in urban areas is far higher than in rural areas. If you look at the political map of America, the rural areas are all red and the cities are all blue, or close to it. We need to do something to revive our rural areas. In my opinion, we have too many people trying to live in expensive cities where they can’t make it. We should consider paying $1,000 a month for people to move to rural areas and small towns. They could easily live on that in most of those areas.

    1. The latter is a manifestation of the former. For what it’s worth, the education divide also explains a great deal of the gender divide, since more women are completing college than men. The education divide also explains the black and Latino rightward shift.

      Many colleges have tried giving money or forgiving loans for people who work in underserved areas. But this doesn’t solve the problem of population density being positively correlated with creativity and robust economic growth.

      1. There are a lot of people who want to be creatives in expensive big cities, but in some cases they can’t make it there. Competition is intense. We should try to counsel them to move away and offer this resettlement funding. This would be a big boon to the economies of small towns. And they might be able to continue doing some of their creative work there.

    2. In a perverse sense of way, I believe the remote work trend may help in that regard. Remote work will enable people to work remotely from the major creativity hubs in the big urban centers. My thought is that many will end up relocating in regional cities. They would still be urban, but more diversified in location. I am thinking of such cities as Sioux Falls, SD. The real creativity hubs would still be in the coastal big cities. But the creativity benefits would be more spread out. That would help to revitalize many of the smaller states and would help them to move more into the 21st Century.

      In the tech sector the creativity is enhanced by having teams working intensely on a project in close proximity. One person will have an idea and can bounce that off others in a team. When the teams work together and know each other, that informal vetting of ideas works better. But then when it comes to fleshing out the idea, the actual work can be spread around, for the most part the members are working individually, during the implementation and design period. Perhaps small teams working together in regional offices in a hybrid work environment would be effective.

      I believe that would help break up the gridlock in our national political systems as well.

      Those are my thoughts.

  6. Great to see a new post. I hope you and your family are doing well.

    One thing I see as an issue with the political disconnect , loss of influence, and sense of being neglected with the non-college blue collar types is the decline of labor unions. Collective bargaining is some of the best leverage the little guy can have, especially against the assholes like Musk. It’s good to see some revival there, and I think UAW President Shawn Fain is fighting the good fight, but I worry that it might be too little too late.

    1. Labor unions have their own problems. That’s another discussion for another day. I will say that a labor union might’ve helped Chicago Ray. Truck drivers are some of the biggest loners out there. The vast majority are 1099 workers who own or rent their own trucks. At least the guys on the assembly lines can organize a strike.

      1. Certainly unions of the past got fat, lazy, and corrupt. We need a reformed version that’s learned from the mistakes of the past very badly. The increase in the wealth gap is alarming. We’ve discussed that on this blog before- how the rich getting too rich undermines societies. The education gap also contributes to that problem. What is Trump the self-proclaimed business genius proposing to help the economy? More tax cuts for the wealthy and more tariffs. These are two very bad ideas that screw over people like Ray the truck driver most of all, but they don’t have the education needed to spot it.

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