Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?
IN 1979, in a short book called "The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class," the sociologist Alvin Gouldner took up a question then being vigorously debated by social analysts: Did the student movements of the 1960s signal that the highly educated were on their way to becoming a major political force in American society?
Dr. Gouldner's answer was yes. As a man of the left, he had mixed feelings about this development, since he thought the intelligentsia might be tempted to put its own interests ahead of the marginalized groups for whom it often claimed to speak.
Today, with an ideological gap widening along educational lines in the United States, Dr. Gouldner's arguments are worth revisiting. Now that so many people go to college, Americans with bachelor's degrees no longer constitute an educational elite. But the most highly educated Americans — those who have attended graduate or professional school — are starting to come together as a political bloc.
Last month, the Pew Research Center released a study showing that nearly a third of those who went to graduate or professional school have "down the line" liberal views on social, economic and environmental matters, whereas this is true for just one in 10 Americans generally. An additional quarter of postgrads have mostly liberal views. These numbers reflect drastic change: While professionals have been in the Democratic column for a while, in 1994 only 7 percent of postgrads held consistently liberal political opinions.
Dr. Gouldner's "new class" wasn't exactly the contemporary intelligentsia, with its Washington policy analysts, New York editors and Bay Area biotech researchers. But it was close. Dr. Gouldner observed changes in the American occupational structure that he thought were altering the balance of power among social classes. As he saw it, beginning in the early 20th century, increasing complexity in science, technology, economic affairs and government meant that the "old" moneyed class no longer had the expertise to directly manage the work process or steer the ship of state.
Members of the old class turned to scientists, engineers, managers, human relations specialists, economists and other professionals for help. As these experts multiplied, they realized the extent of their collective power. They demanded fitting levels of pay and status and insisted on professional autonomy. A "new class" was born, neither owner nor worker.
A distinguishing feature of this new class, according to Dr. Gouldner, was the way it spoke and argued. Steeped in science and expert knowledge, it embraced a "culture of critical discourse." Evidence and logic were valued; appeals to traditional sources of authority were not. Members of the new class raised their children in such a culture. And it was these children, allergic to authoritarian values, who as young adults were at the center of the student revolts, finding common ground with disaffected "humanistic" intellectuals bent on changing the world.
Dr. Gouldner assumed that as the student radicals aged and entered the work force, they would retain their leftist sympathies. But he conceded that they might also work to shore up their privileges. He characterized the new class as the great hope of the left in a period when the American labor movement was in decline, yet also as flawed.
The Pew study doesn't necessarily vindicate Dr. Gouldner's entire theory. But it does indicate that the most highly educated professionals are coming to form, if not a new class, at least a reliably liberal political grouping.
While there's ample evidence of the professional class using its economic and educational capital to preserve its advantages — think of the clustering of professionals into exclusive neighborhoods, or the early immersion of professional-class children into a world of literacy, art and science — its move left is evident even on questions of economic redistribution. My own analysis of data from the General Social Survey shows that in recent decades, as class inequality has increased, Americans who hold advanced degrees have grown more supportive of government efforts to reduce income differences, whether through changes to taxes or strengthening the welfare system.
On this issue, the views of the highly educated are now similar to those of groups with much lower levels of education, who have a real material stake in reducing inequalities. Even higher-income advanced degree holders have become more redistributionist, if less so than others.
What explains the consolidation of the highly educated into a liberal bloc? The growing number of women with advanced degrees is part of it, as well-educated women tend to be especially left-leaning. Equally important is the Republican Party's move to the right since the 1980s — at odds with the social liberalism that has long characterized the well educated — alongside the perception that conservatives are anti-intellectual, hostile to science and at war with the university.
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This phenomenon is mostly a boon for the Democratic Party. While only 10 percent of American adults hold advanced degrees, that number is expected to rise. The group is active politically and influential.
But Dr. Gouldner's new-class theory should alert Democrats to a lurking danger. It is probably right that something like a culture of critical discourse can be found in the workplaces and households and in the publications read by Americans who have attended graduate or professional school. The challenge for the Democrats moving forward will be to develop appeals to voters that resonate not just with this important constituency, but also with other crucial groups in the Democratic coalition. Some of the draw of Donald Trump for white working-class male voters, for example, is that he does not speak in a culture of critical discourse. Indeed, he mocks that culture, tapping into class resentments.
The Democrats may find they need to give up a little of their wonkiness if they want resounding victories. It's not in their long-term interest to be too much what Pat Buchanan once referred to as "the party of the Ph.D.s."
Neil Gross, a professor of sociology at Colby College, is the author of "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?"