For the political left, talking about the problems of class is easier than talking about the problems of education. It is acceptable, and quite natural, to think about the wealthy as a political category that selfishly votes in their self-interest to protect their wallets from the prying hands of the state; it is harder, and certainly more discomfiting, to think of political divides in terms of education without respect to class. Education is less tangible than money, and there is nothing inherent about the idea of education that requires it to be associated with policy preferences outside of the field of education itself. And, most importantly, it is because many of us on the left are highly educated but not necessarily rich. (Hello, academia!)
The polarization of politics in our highly unequal society, however, appears increasingly along the lines of education, rather than income. The shift of more highly educated voters to liberal and left-wing parties is not a solely American phenomenon: as Thomas Piketty found, the parties on the left side of politics in France, Britain, and the United States all shifted “from the worker party to the high education party.” The left-wing parties may advocate for policies that would be more helpful for workers and the less-educated, but their actual base of support is increasingly from more educated citizens.
A decade and a half later, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? continues to rear its ugly head.
Much of the debate on the left has focused on ways to magically enlighten the masses to “realize” their self-interest without analyzing the basis of the values system that undergirds ideas of success and failure: the equation of educational attainment with success.
Nobody wants to be against education! Education, like happy hours, is something for which people who live in cosmopolitan cities seem to universally agree that more is better. But without thinking of the ways in which we have moralized educational attainment—and how we have designed policies to reward a particular vision of academic success—the left will continue to limp along, election after election, failing to make much in the way of forward progress in the United States.
In a recent op-ed and new book, Michael Sandel (whose class I taught for last year) targets squarely the mirage of education as equal opportunity, which he lumps into the idea of “meritocracy.” The idea that educational success implies that people “deserve” their success is corrupting politics, he argues. It allows the highly educated to look down on the uneducated and divides society into the winners (with a four-year college degree) and the losers (those who, ostensibly due to not working hard enough, do not). Although I have not read Freddie deBoer’s new book, The Cult of Smart, I believe he makes a similar argument.
Instead, Sandel argues, the Democratic party (or, in deBoer’s framing, the political left) should move away from the false promise of “equality of opportunity” based on academic credentialism and instead focus on what he calls the “dignity of work.” Work should be valued based on its contribution to society rather than on the educational credentials required to get hired to do so. This idea, Sandel points out, “runs from Aristotle to MLK to Catholic social teaching” and is a good reminder that we should value essential workers on the frontlines more than the highly paid financiers raking in billions on speculation from the comfort of their second homes. In my own conversations, I have argued for a cruder conception: wages should be set by a worker’s proximity to dealing with human shit; or, in other words, that janitors and bathroom cleaners should be making the highest wages, followed by nursing home staff, and, at the very bottom, anybody in a white collar job. (Hello, academia!)
I agree wholeheartedly with this basic argument: the way that modern society values work needs to be turned on its head, and we are long overdue for some kind of radical overhaul that reduces the economic premium we place on fancy academic credentials and, at the very least, ensures that all people can earn enough money to live with dignity. It is a familiar but important argument; see, for example, Sandel’s student Elizabeth Anderson on the point of equality.
I want this argument to be true. I desperately, truly, sincerely want this to be true, because it offers a clear path forward for how to save American politics and achieve some semblance of justice in a country plagued by unnecessary cruelty toward workers and the poor. If the Democratic party could just authentically focus on the “dignity of work,” the theory goes, they might be able to recapture the disgruntled (white) workers who, bristling at elite condescension, have embraced the crass anti-establishment populism of Donald Trump. Thomas Frank would nod his head, and so would I.
My concern, however, is that it might not be so easy. Take Massachusetts—where both Professor Sandel and I voted in the Democratic party primary last week. Or, at least, I hope he voted. I supported Ed Markey’s campaign; I volunteered as an organizer, reaching out to every single person I could think of possibly knowing in Massachusetts to vote for Markey. I took my duties seriously, which is why my ex-girlfriend’s mother received an email for me about why she should vote for Markey. (She did not reply, but I think she voted Markey).
Markey ran as a progressive champion of the working class—the son of a milkman who drive an ice cream truck to pay for college. “Ice Cream Eddie” was just a guy from the working-class town of Malden; in sharp contrast to his opponent, Joe Kennedy, the elite-educated scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty. Yet Markey’s base of support came from the highly educated bastions of the state: Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT, voted nearly 4-1 for Markey, and he did even better in Amherst. Kennedy’s strongest showings, by contrast, were in working-class towns. Ed Markey dominated among educated voters precisely by running as a working class guy who understood the dignity of work; Kennedy did better with less-educated voters by running as a dynastic elite.
Such an outcome echoes that of the presidential primary a few months prior: for as much as I wanted Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to win—the candidates who offered a genuine alternative to the farce of “equal opportunity”—they performed better among educated voters than among uneducated voters. Exit polls showed that 44 percent of Democratic primary voters in Massachusetts that never attended college preferred Biden, compared to 31 percent and 16 percent for Bernie and Warren, respectively.
Markey ran on the exact type of platform that emphasized the dignity of work, and his most famous endorsement was from Congresswoman, ex-bartender, and working-class champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The more Markey emphasized the dignity of work, the more he appealed to people like me—highly educated progressives. Paradoxically, it seems, the more the Democrats run as the party of the working class (unions, antitrust, wage boards), the more they attract cosmopolitan liberals, not the workers themselves.
Appealing to the working class is the right thing to do morally, because, as Sandel cogently explains, we have erroneously moralized academic success and stigmatized those who do not thrive in the classroom. The moral policy platform would be one that universally provides social supports so as to ensure that all working people (and even those that don’t!) can enjoy a dignified life and not suffer from the unnecessary pain of economic insecurity. It would also be one that actively curbs wealth, rejects hereditary aristocracy, and redistributes vast quantities of resources. These policies are the right thing to do, and I hope someone who understands the dignity of both mental and manual labor promotes them.
I’m sure that my progressive friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts will be on board. But that might be as far as it gets.