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Donald Trump, Education Policy and the Future of American Politics

12/22/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2016
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Dan Balz, arguably the dean of the nation's political reporters, contrasts Speaker Ryan's wonky approach to Republican politics--offering a comprehensive policy alternative to the Democrat's policies--with Donald Trump's approach. Trump, he says, is Ryan's opposite: "His ideas lack [the] ideological consistency [of Ryan's]. He does not offer a conservative alternative to the left. Instead...Trump has tapped into the frustrations of people at a gut level."

More accurately, Trump has tapped into the frustrations of some people. "Trump," he says, "sits on one side of a major cleavage in his party, one that is based not on ideology but rather on levels of education...Trump laps the field of [Republican and Republican-leaning independents without college degrees], with 46 percent support to 12 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and 8 percent for Rubio. Among those with college degrees, Trump is fourth, though tightly bunched with Cruz, Rubio and Carson."

Many Democrats will read this data as confirmation that Trump's support comes from people so dumb they do not understand that they are voting against their own best interests. Many Republicans will be hoping against hope that David Brooks is right in saying that, when the election turns serious, many of Trump's supporters will think twice when they take into consideration what it really takes to lead the nation in a dangerous world.

Regardless of what one thinks of Donald Trump's fitness to be president, his caustic derision of immigrants and his cynical exploitation of racial tensions within the U.S. electorate, it is essential that we understand who those supporters are and why his message is so appealing to them.

What is motivating Trump's supporters is an overpowering sense of resentment against a world that has passed them by, a world dominated by highly educated elites who dismiss them and their values, and who, far from offering them a hand up, keep them pinned to a demeaning position, elites who flaunt their success at the very same time they are denying this group access to success. I am describing a world in which, for many people, what has been lost is not just the means of making a decent living, but something far more important to them: their self-respect. Poverty can be lived with. The perception that one is despised by the group one is entitled to belong to is something else altogether.

The Washington Post recently told the story of a young man in Alabama who had left a good job and used his savings to get a mechanics certificate at a community college, in the expectation that he would be able to do even better, only to find that he could not get a job in his new trade within a decent commute from his home.

Finding himself at loose ends, he often took off into the woods to hunt deer, something his family had done for uncounted generations. Desperate, he split a job with a relative at the family convenience store, taking home $3.75 an hour. When he got a job as a machinist at the new Chinese-owned brass tube factory, his wages were far below what he had expected. When he was promoted to run a whole machine shop, his pay barely went up at all. He was caught in an economy in which almost all the businesses are competing not on the quality of their workforce but on wages. That, it turns out, is the only kind of economy that is now possible in the United States when education levels are low. Large parts of the United States are finding that this is the only kind of economy open to them.

It is precisely this kind of economy--the kind that economists call a low-skill equilibrium--that is producing Donald Trump's supporters. It is this kind of economy that is producing what Dan Balz noticed: the close correlation between support for Trump and low levels of education.

The people who support Trump are not dumb and they are not oblivious to their own interests. They are very, very angry. Some may be racists, just as there are racists among the well-educated, but many who are not see President Obama as a professor from an elite university lecturing them, just like all the other professors and high-paid experts and opinion makers in expensive suits telling them they are going to take away the coal miners' last hope of a job, the independent ranchers' right to graze their cattle on public lands, the wildcatters' one chance in a lifetime to make his fortune in the oil fields. They see the elites' facts being used as weapons to take away their jobs, their independence, their right to hunt.

If facts are weapons in the hands of the elites, then they will get their own facts. And their own weapons. Millions of these people have not just gone from making $22 an hour to making $3.75 an hour, like the man The Washington Post wrote about. Millions of working-age Americans are making nothing. The unemployment rate would be 10 percent, not five percent, if we included the people who want work but cannot find it and have given up, because they do not have the skills employers are looking for.

Those people have been put out of work by outsourcing and automation. They simply do not have the skills needed to compete in today's labor market. Their numbers are quickly rising. And they are angry. Angry in part because they cannot get work and support their families, but enraged because having a job and supporting their family is the single most important key to self-respect in our society. How infuriating it must be to find that not only have 'they' made it impossible for me to support myself and my family but 'they' have the nerve after taking away my means of self-support to provide help to others who are not willing to work as hard as me, who didn't go through the steps my family did to get into this country, didn't do their best to get educated. Worse still that the bloody elitists have the gall to lecture me on the need to serve my kids healthier foods and preserve the environment when they are taking away the job I need to feed my family anything at all.

Donald Trump's supporters were produced in the first instance by the failure of the larger society to give them the skills they need to compete in the greatly changed global economy. They find themselves now trapped in local economies that can compete only by keeping their wages as low as possible. They see themselves as being abandoned by the very business, government and intellectual elites who, to make it worse, never tire of lecturing them about what they should be doing.

It is time to stop lecturing people trapped in these circumstances. It is time to stop regarding them as too stupid to recognize their own best interests. It is time to ask ourselves what society can do to provide them with the kind of educational opportunities that can help them lift themselves out of the low-skill, low-income whirlpool they find themselves in. This is not a racial issue. The low-skill whirlpool is sucking in people with white skin, brown skin, black skin and every color in between. This is a challenge that can be met. The best examples of entire states and countries doing this are not in the United States. They are abroad, in other countries.

We don't have much time. The angry politics of resentment are the politics of the whirlpool. If that whirlpool gets large enough, resentment will drag us all down. If the elites want to survive, they will have to perform an unaccustomed act of empathy and ask how they would be likely to feel and behave if they were caught in the whirlpool in which the uneducated now find themselves. Only that act of empathy will make it possible to make good policy.