As the Presidential election continues, I've had several conversations with people asking what's wrong with this country. Why are candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz leading the Republican Party? Why are people voting for candidates who seem racist or misogynistic? What happened to rational Republicans like Colin Powell?
These are important questions. Indeed, it is striking that Trump has a large contingent of white working class supporters who often seem to come from economically distressed areas. These are people whose living situations, experiences, and political and economic interests are vastly different from those of a billionaire like Trump. And, yet, they support his candidacy. Why?
I think the answer to these questions lies in two areas. First, Trump is very good at marketing and, second, we are witnessing the product of several decades of poorly distributed educational opportunity in this country. Let me begin with Trump.
While reading Franklin Foer's fascinating book How Soccer Explains the World, I was struck by a comment he makes about why professional soccer clubs in Europe not only tolerate but often seem to stoke expressions of ethnic hatred. The reason, according to Foer, is that it makes good business sense. Humans crave group identification and put a great deal of emphasis on being part of a group that they can claim is better than other groups. This is what racial, ethnic, religious, and other forms of group hatred are usually about. Those who feel downtrodden, disrespected, mistreated, or are just angry at the world can find collective solace in blaming other groups--immigrants, women, blacks, Muslims, Jews, Christians, etc.--for their woes. Some soccer teams contribute to these attitudes because it sells tickets and jerseys that people use to identify not just with their team but with their ethnic/religious/racial/class group.
Trump's success lies in the fact that he recognizes this and has concluded the best way to sell himself to those groups is to say the things they want to hear and blame those perceived as a threat for making America something less than great. Of course, part of what is going on when Trump does this is that "America" is being defined by both Trump and his followers as white, working class, Christian, and under attack. It is irrelevant that this definition is not true. What matters is that it sells. And it also helps, from the perspective of many in the GOP, that this deflects attention away from the actual cause of many of the problems in the U.S.--the upper 1% who control so much wealth and power at the expense of the middle class.
The second part of the answer can be summed up in the simple phrase, "one reaps what one sows." The U.S. has experienced decades of unequal distribution of educational opportunity and quality, in large part as a result of its use of property taxes to fund public schools and to the defunding of public higher education, which has contributed significantly to increased costs being passed on to students and their families for college.
We have also allowed for an increasing number of people to opt out of the educational system through home schooling, which effectively makes it possible to prevent children in some families from being exposed to ideas, viewpoints, and attitudes that differ from those of their parents. This has the effect of generating a significant portion of the voting public that does not think critically. Unfortunately, having a populace that is well educated and can think critically is a fundamental necessity for an electorate that can make good decisions about its leadership-- decisions that are not generated out of ignorance. Our current educational system does not appear to be broadly producing such an electorate. And this is politically debilitating because we end up with many who are not informed, thoughtful voters.
I am not arguing that the educational system is uniformly bad in the U.S. In fact, there are some truly outstanding public schools and school systems in the U.S. that do a superb job of educating some of the country's youth. But families throughout the U.S. for some time have not had equal access to good education--I don't even mean top quality, just good--and this is reflected in the actions of the electorate and the people they select to represent them.
In a country that once valued education as a way to increase opportunity and help people achieve for themselves and their families, we have managed to turn education into a system that often works against that goal, contributing to the generation of entire classes of people who feel disenfranchised and unable to work their way out of difficult economic situations, or producing groups of people who have been shielded from and thus who are ignorant of perspectives, beliefs, and lifestyles that differ from their own. And when people are not exposed to ideas unlike their own, it becomes very easy for leaders to use bigoted rhetoric or misleading and outright false statements to sell their messages.