The education divide in political leadership

This presidential election cycle, more than any other event or time period in my lifetime, has highlighted the growing divide between people with different levels of formal academic education. The battle is playing out now in my home state and, I think, deserves more discussion despite the obvious risk of backlash.  I consider myself to be squarely in the middle of this issue as a highly educated, well-read person with modest means (one of the scorned intellectual elite) often advising much more successful, powerful, affluent, high income business owners without as much formal education or time to absorb academic concepts. The differences are sometimes dramatic as I talk about logical vs. emotional thinking, opinion vs. data-driven decisions and societal vs. self interest in business leadership.

A local Pennsylvania online news source reports: “Pennsylvania has not voted for a Republican since choosing George H.W. Bush in 1988, but Trump has frequently boasted about putting the state (Pennsylvania) in play because of its concentration of white, blue-collar voters. In the poll (August 1 survey by Franklin and Marshall College), whites with a high school education or less went 53 to 31 percent for Trump, while college-educated whites chose Clinton 58 to 28 percent.” My emphasis and explanations are added to the newspaper’s passage. 

At one point in September Associated Press reported that Trump was favored by an astounding margin of 59% among white males without a college education! Even after the release of the sexual scandal of October 7 where virtually everyone with experience in politics had given up any possibility that Trump could be elected, it was still common to read comments on social media supporting Trump primarily coming from individuals with lower levels of formal education. I wondered how it was possible that level of education, or any other distinguishing demographic characteristic for that matter, could be associated with the likelihood to defend sexual assault!?

In the final national polls prior to the election, the education divide remained highly visible. Politico wrote “There is a wide divide by educational attainment among white voters, the poll shows. Trump has a 19-point lead among white voters without a college degree. But Clinton leads by 7 points among white college graduates”.

That is a huge difference of opinion apparently based solely on the distinction of level of education! It is difficult to image any more extreme division of political views and is perhaps the most notable distinction I’ve seen in any political position poll within one state and race.

Never before have we seen such a dramatic political power struggle playing out our backyard based almost solely on views traceable back to level or formal education!

A few of my own anecdotal observations on the issue lately:

People with higher education are more likely to be tolerant and even inspired by diverse and opposing opinions and are less likely to respond negatively or emotionally to opposing opinions. People with lower education are more likely to treat an opposing opinion as a personal attack or insult and are more likely to respond with an emotion-based reaction. One accountant with a lower level of education recently wrote to me online “you are the only person who comments on both sides of the issue”. Yet almost all of the highly educated people I know and those whose opinions I listen to through media targeted for people with higher levels of education (shows like NPR and Newswatch) carefully consider both sides of the issues. I presumed, based on that accountant’s comment, that most of her other input comes from people with similarly lower level of education. People with lower levels of education seem more likely to seek collaborating opinion and avoid dissenting views. Some only watch Fox News types while others only MSNBC types. The few news sources that consider all positions equally seem to be mostly attractive to those with higher levels of education. I see few people who actively seek out dissenting opinions yet I know that I have always been among this minority.

I notice that people with lower levels of formal education seem to be less affected by ethical burdens in their thinking and decisions.  (I notice that some with lower levels of education make false assumptions about the definition of the term “ethical burden” itself). I sometimes wish I could be so lucky. My heightened sensitivity and listening to this issue might be directly attributable to agonizing amount of formal education I’ve been pushed into taking in the field of business ethics. These programs force an introspective look at values and re-examination of the logical external basis for our opinions. I also attribute it to the strong Jewish/Quaker influence in my post-secondary education after a Catholic dominant primary education. For example, this current support for the “lesser of two evils” approach to the election seems to be sharply different based on level of education. This was evident when Sanders changed position to support Clinton and drew sharp criticism from his more idealistic and ethics-driven supporters. People with higher levels of education are more likely to say that support for the lesser of two evils is still a support of evil and therefore not justified by practical consideration. Likewise, I often hear from a person with lower level of education is more likely to say that it is OK for their ancestors to have entered the US without prior documentation but that is is not OK now. People with higher levels of education seem to have trouble with the ethical challenges of that position.

People with lower levels of education are quick to attack “liberal agendas”. People with higher levels of education are slightly slower to attack “conservative agendas” and more likely to actually support more conservative ideas. The majority of people with higher levels of formal education where I have had in-depth political conversations describe themselves as “socially liberal but financially conservative” even if they can’t give a clear explanation of how that works out in real life.

People with higher levels of education are more likely to be alarmed by the damaging effects of insults, bullying and claims not supported by verifiable data. People with lower levels of education seem to imply that it is OK to engage in this type of conduct to express frustration and reaction to our societal struggles.

These political distinctions pointed out by level of education do not correlate with levels of income. In my work I see many (perhaps actually most of my clients) blue collar contractors and business owners who have higher level of income than the college-educated corporate workers.  Yet the high income blue collar workers have significantly different political views that the white collar college educated crowd.

When faced with facts that are different that former basis of argument, college educated people seem more likely to stand corrected and adjust their position. In contrast, people with lower levels of education are more likely to stick with the same position but change the basis of their argument. For example, I saw a comment where someone described Trump’s Atlantic City casino as a “vibrant business” and another wrote that he the business was ethically supportable because it had a “legitimate payroll”. I pointed out that the actual evidence, as indicated and verifiable through  hundreds (USA Today now says there are 4,000+ cases filed against Trump nationally and over 600 judgments actually entered against him right here in our area) of court rulings proving Trump’s business misdeeds, fraud and cheating of employers would more likely support a conclusion that Trump’s Atlantic City casinos have been the most dishonorable businesses and employers that our South Jersey region has even battled. I notice that more educated people, especially those from outside our region, react by saying “I didn’t know that” and adjusting their position on the issue. Yet one of the people with a lower level of education is more likely to react by saying “but I don’t want Hillary”; apparently not recognizing the flaw in logic that the facts of one argument are unrelated to the opinion of the other.


This graphic from RealClearPolitics posted just days before the election caught my attention because it shows that the college educated crowd “leans” Democratic, like me, even though that might not be their solid permanent political position. In contrast, the no college crowd is more “solid Rep.”. That seems to be saying that the first group is weighing the current issues, whereas the second is embedded in beliefs.

It’s all a bit scary to me. But I think that this emerging political trend deserves more attention and discussion.

(I chose the image of Seeger’s banjo because he represented, to me, the cutting edge of impassioned advocacy and ethically supportable positions. Seeger spent two years at Harvard – that some might say is enough to ruin anybody – and then dropped out. I think his expressed attitudes throughout life reflected a disregard and perhaps even disdain for formal education).