No single factor correlated more strongly with the swing to Donald Trump in the US election than education levels — the higher the percentage of people in a US county with at most a high school education, the higher the swing towards Mr Trump relative to Republican support in 2012.
Even when income levels, income growth, unemployment, race, age and immigration were taken into account, none was as good a match for the shift to Trump as education. This is according to a comprehensive study by the Resolution Foundation which explores the relationships between economic and demographic data and the flood of support for the Republican candidate.
This pattern echoes the findings of a Financial Times analysis of the predictors of the Leave vote in June’s Brexit referendum. Our work found that in UK local authorities, the lower the share of people with a degree, the higher its share of the vote to Leave the EU.
It would be easy to interpret this as meaning that being well educated allows people to make more pro-cosmopolitan voting choices. But it would also be wrong.
The “Turkeys voting for Christmas” trope was popular with some Remain voters after the UK referendum, and resurfaced after Trump’s victory, allowing people to dismiss backers of populist causes as not smart enough to know better. In reality, however, education’s influence on the outcome of both votes has probably little to do with what people learn in classrooms and lecture theatres, and much more to do with, well, almost everything else.
University as a ‘melting pot’
One source for understanding the misconception is the contact hypothesis, which suggests that greater exposure to people with different backgrounds and perspectives leads to more empathy towards them, and possibly a greater tendency to take their needs into account at the ballot box. This theory suggests that, when we hear a negative generalisation about, for example, people of a certain race or sexuality, the ability to recall an acquaintance as a counter to that stereotype makes it easier to dismiss the characterisation.
Going to university generally involves leaving one’s hometown, and mixing — either actively or passively — with people from different upbringings. If the contact hypothesis worked as described, the act of going to university would increase social and cultural empathy.
The problem is, little to no evidence indicates that this happens. If things were to work out as above, we would expect attitudes towards immigrants to be more positive among university graduates than those who left education earlier. But a 2015 study of young Swiss adults by Bram Lancee and Oriane Sarrasin found that this was not the case.
While the researchers did find that graduates tended to have more positive views of immigrants than their less-educated counterparts, those attitudes barely changed with progress through the education system. Instead, they appear to have been established earlier in life.
The implication is that we have cause and effect the wrong way round. Instead of the university experience shaping our values and attitudes, it is our pre-existing value systems that — either conscious or otherwise — influence the choices we make about our journey through education, including the decision of whether or not to leave the familiar surroundings of home and go to university. It is the pre-existing value systems that cause graduates’ attitudes towards immigrants to skew positive, not the later act of mingling with different people at university, or the content of the classes they attend.
A 2016 study of British adults by political sociologist Paula Surridge did find evidence suggesting that university education may influence social liberalism, with students of the social sciences or creative arts exhibiting strong socially liberal values later in life after adjusting for attitudes at age 16. But like the Swiss researchers, Surridge too found tell-tale signs of self-selection. Scores on a liberalism scale at age 16 also correlated strongly with the same in later life, suggesting that people opt for areas and levels of study that support or enhance their existing worldview.
Ideology shapes education, not the other way around
So, if the correlation between nationalist inclinations and education is to be read more as a proxy for underlying social and value-system factors than anything to do with education itself, then what are these mysterious forces? Are they unknowable?
The Swiss study offers one clue, finding that parental background — as measured by parents’ level of education — has a measurable impact on attitudes towards immigrants, but the size of the effect is small, as acknowledged by the authors.
Another indication that identity and personality underpin the political forces that have shaped 2016 comes from an academic analysis of personality traits. This found that high scores for the quality of openness — as modelled from responses to a large-scale survey of Britons in 2011 — correlated at a reasonable level with the share of the vote to Remain in the EU.
The openness score also correlates strongly with the percentage of people in a given area of the UK who attended university. We are unable at this stage to unpick the cause and effect relationships at work here but, if nothing else, this is confirmation that personal values, education and nationalist leanings are inextricably linked.
So yes, education exhibits the strongest statistical relationship with the recent nationalist political victories in the US and UK. But in pondering what this means for the rise of populism in various countries it is important that we think of education not as bricks and mortar, textbooks and mortar-boards, but as a convenient proxy for the much messier topic of personal values.