Why you should care
Because the future of our republic depends on it.
The author is the founder and director of HELP, Haiti’s largest university scholarship program.
Much digital ink has been spilled, and many hands wrung, over the election of Donald J. Trump. Unfortunately most postelection analysis has been as complex as Trump’s immigration platform. Clinton supporters have blamed, variously, racism, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and the electoral college. Clinton, for her part, blamed the FBI, while President Obama credited “fake news” on Facebook.
All these factors share one thing: They are red-state herrings that neatly absolve the losers of any responsibility for the results. Yet understanding and fixing the root cause of the Trump phenomenon is perhaps our greatest collective challenge.
The current obsession with “working-class white” voters is only skin deep. Yes, Donald Trump’s support was confined almost exclusively to whites, who, despite the media’s infatuation with America’s coming majority minority, still make up 70 percent of the electorate. But among this supermajority, the most accurate predictor of Trump support was educational achievement. Among college-educated whites (36 percent of voters) Trump eked out a four-point margin. But whites with no college (34 percent of voters) preferred Trump by a whopping 39 percent, more than double John McCain’s 2008 margin.
You would have to go back to the 19th-century Native Americans to find a demographic group whose prospects declined so precipitously.
For those of us fortunate enough to be educated, it’s easy to write these Trump voters off as, say, a basket of unsophisticated deplorables — racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, etc. We would do well to remember that it’s equally easy for others to put five young black men accused of raping a white female jogger in their own personal basket of deplorables. Fortunately for all of us, the truth lies elsewhere, but it won’t do us any good if we don’t do something about it.
The reason undereducated whites flocked to Trump is simple and stark. From 1989 to 2012, on a net basis, every single job created in the U.S. required a postsecondary education. While employment for those with some college grew by 42 percent and for those with a bachelor’s degree by 82 percent, for those with a high school diploma or less, employment fell by 14 percent.
These low-skill, low-wage earners were the least prepared to deal with a disappearing labor market, and they paid a heavy cost. Over roughly this same period (1990–2008), the life expectancy of whites without a high school diploma fell by four years (from 74.5 years to 70.5).
Think about it. During the rapid technological innovation of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the rise of the digital everything, when life expectancy continued its steady increase among every other demographic group, life expectancy for undereducated whites declined by four years in 18 years. You would have to go back to the 19th-century Native Americans to find a demographic group whose prospects declined so precipitously.
If you were caught in this socioeconomic nightmare, ignored by both parties and denied the one thing that would both enable you to understand the structural forces against you and to overcome them, blaming the other and supporting someone who favors reverting to the way things were again is understandable.
What’s worse is that the undereducated just delivered the presidency to someone whose signature education achievement is Trump University, a rapacious business masquerading as a school.
This is a decades-long catastrophe, but it has remained a hidden one. Postelection, we direct outrage at the candidate that this outrage has produced, denigrate the victims and continue to ignore the causes: a public-education system that fails to prepare vast portions of our population, white, Black and other, for the postindustrial economy, and a state that supplies no safety net for those in freefall.
Although the electoral allegiances of the undereducated divide along color lines, America’s ever-increasing gap between rich and poor is colorblind, defined almost exclusively by access to higher education.
The only solution is more and better public education for America’s poor, from pre-K through precalculus and on to college. We need a vast increase in the quantity and quality of high school graduates, and a corresponding increase in postsecondary enrollment and completion. While a high school education might have been sufficient to compete in the industrial age, postsecondary education is essential to prosper in the postindustrial economy.
This will not be an easy task. American high school students finished 28th out of 65 countries in the 2012 PISA tests, behind such countries as Poland, Slovenia and Vietnam. What’s worse is that the undereducated just delivered the presidency to someone whose signature education achievement is Trump University, a rapacious business masquerading as a school.
All the more reason the burden to meet this great challenge falls to those of us who can pay our way out of our country’s terrible school districts. Our failure to act will further consign our fellow citizens with the least opportunity to more misery, despair and decline in the land of plenty. This will only increase opportunities for self-serving candidates to exploit them, and to govern us all. That would be truly deplorable.