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If Trump and Ford voters brim with resentment at “liberal elites” looking down their noses at them, it is not entirely without cause.
Justin Trudeau meets supporters in Winnipeg in 2015.
Liberals, it is true, need to find a way to reach out to less educated voters, but not as badly as Conservatives need to make their peace with the eggheads
Democracy, in G. K. Chesterton’s careful definition, means government by the uneducated, “while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.”
The enduring value of this distinction was suggested by the ruckus stirred up over the weekend by Amir Attaran, professor of law at University of Ottawa. Responding to a recent Abacus Data poll finding the Tories leading the Liberals by a wide margin among Canadians with a high school diploma or less, with the Liberals ahead among those with bachelor degrees or higher, the professor tweeted: “The party of the uneducated. Every poll says this.”
In the ensuing furor, Attaran tried to protest that he was just stating a fact, but the disdain in the tweet was clear enough to most. For their part, while some Tories quibbled with the data (just one poll, within the margin of error, misplaced correlation etc), most seemed less offended by the sentiment — every poll does show the less formal education a voter has, the more likely they are to support the Conservatives — than by the suggestion there was something shameful about it.
It was, in short, another skirmish in the continuing class war: class, now defined not by occupation or birth, as in Chesterton’s time, but by education. Conservatives, true to form, professed outrage at this arrogant display of Liberal elitism, while Liberal partisans protested that they were not snobs, it’s just that Conservatives are such ignorant boobs (I paraphrase).
The professor compounded matters by objecting, not only that he is not a Liberal, but that he is not an elite, since his parents were immigrants. And everyone did their best to be as exquisitely sensitive (“let us respect the inherent dignity of labour”) as they could while still being viciously hurtful (“not uneducated, just unintelligent”).
There is, of course, much to object to in Attaran’s remark. Not all or even most wisdom is to be found in higher education. Lots of people who go to university don’t learn a thing, while much of what they do learn is tendentious rubbish. A society that sneers at tradespeople is a society on its way to the poorhouse.
Today’s populist conservative is prone to dismiss the analysis of experts, on everything from sex education to climate change, not in spite of their expertise but because of it.
But Conservative rhetoric too often seems to go beyond attacking snobbery to attacking education itself: expertise, knowledge, the whole notion that people who know more about a subject than the rest of us ought to be listened to with respect.
There is a rich tradition, to be sure, of conservative skepticism of intellectuals — recall William F. Buckley’s crack about preferring to be governed by “the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory” than the faculty of Harvard. But the target then was the hubris of intellectuals, convinced they could plan an entire economy or overturn the accumulated wisdom of centuries of tradition, not intellectualism itself: scientism, not science.
Today’s populist conservative, by contrast, is prone to dismiss the analysis of experts, on everything from sex education to climate change, not in spite of their expertise but because of it. A society that sneers at “so-called experts” is a society on its way to the madhouse.
As in most wars, there is fault on both sides. If Trump and Ford voters brim with resentment at “liberal elites” looking down their noses at them, it is not entirely without cause.
And yet we should beware of drawing the class lines too starkly. Graduates of apprenticeships and community colleges are themselves relative elites — 46 per cent of adult Canadians have no post-secondary education — and earn more accordingly: a premium of 12 and 18 per cent, respectively, over those with only a high school diploma.
At the same time, universities are for the most part glorified trade schools. Only 12 per cent of today’s university students graduate in the humanities, the object of so much (deserved) conservative ridicule. The rest are there to learn a trade — only trades of a tonier kind, like doctoring and lawyering.
It isn’t so much about the level of education, then, as the kind of education. (Trump, as he likes to boast, is a graduate of Wharton.) There is a high degree of overlap between “liberal elites” and “symbolic analysts” (in Robert Reich’s term) — people who make their living manipulating words, numbers, images, code.
It is Conservatives who have played the class card more heavily, and with more destructive results.
What is common to all those doctors and lawyers, academics and bureaucrats, designers, artists, and, yes, media people is that they deal in ideas — with the abstract versus the physical, representation versus reality — and are typically good at communicating these to others. Not for nothing are they sometimes called the “chattering classes.”
The ability to do so earns not only income, but social and cultural “capital,” at least among their fellow class members, clustered in the centres of our major cities. That there should be some degree of estrangement between them and those outside is not surprising, but one wishes political leaders would seek to bridge these divides rather than exacerbate them.
There is fault, as I say, on either side for this; but there is not equal fault. Liberal “virtue-signalling” may flatter the moral vanity of the educated classes, but it is Conservatives who have played the class card more heavily, and with more destructive results. Class wars are always toxic, but class wars organized around “is education a good thing” are suicidal.
And not only for society. Here’s the thing: the numbers of the higher educated are growing. The 2016 census was the first to show more than half the adult population — 54 per cent — with some kind of postsecondary degree, college or university, up from 48 per cent a decade before. And it is only going to continue: younger Canadians are more likely to have a degree than their parents, and their children will be more likely still.
Liberals, it is true, need to find a way to reach out to less educated voters, but not as badly as Conservatives need to make their peace with the eggheads.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019