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Democrats have an Ivy League blind spot

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A couple of years ago a study showed that Democratic campaigns were dominated by elite university graduates. A fifth of all staff were from Harvard, Stanford, New York University, University of California-Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia and Yale, which meant those schools took up a far higher share of the more senior campaign roles. No shock there, you might think. What struck me most, however, was that the top three alma maters for Republican campaigns were all state universities — the University of Texas-Austin, Ohio State University and the University of Madison-Wisconsin. I remembered this as I watched the Democratic party’s disastrous showing in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere on Tuesday night.

If you get sucked into political Twitter’s vortex, as I occasionally do, the level of outrage about Terry McAuliffe’s defeat to Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race was memorable. Political Twitter, and particularly liberal political Twitter, is as Ivy League as the virtual world gets without hanging out in Harvard Yard. The consensus was that racism had won the election for Youngkin. Republicans had brought out suburban parents’ innate prejudice with a pincer attack of campaign dog-whistles and Fox anchor bullhorns about critical race theory. Moreover, voters were so brainwashed, dumb or racist they did not even realise that critical race theory is not taught in Virginia’s schools. In short, it was a victory of dark propaganda over the wisdom of crowds.

There is a very different way of looking at what happened on Tuesday. Suburban Virginians, who a year ago voted for Joe Biden and statistically are likely to have voted twice for Barack Obama, have lost their patience with educational bureaucracy — and being culturally shamed. Schooling from home during the pandemic was rigidly followed in Virginia, as it was in New Jersey, where the Democratic incumbent, Phil Murphy, was very nearly ejected (which would have been an even larger shock). On top of this, schools have for a while been incorporating what Yascha Mounk, in this coruscating Atlantic essay, describes as “popularised, less sophisticated cousins of critical race theory”.

If you doubt Mounk, check out what the Virginia education department is reading. On a pedantic level, liberal Twitter was right: CRT is a college-level discipline that originated with legal scholars (in a nutshell, enforcing equality of rights is not enough in a society suffering from the structural legacy of slavery — a point with which I strongly agree). CRT is not taught in most schools. Politically-speaking, liberal Twitter was epically wrong. Most parents do not know, or care about, the technical definition of CRT. They do know that what their children are being taught sounds a lot like it.

Here is the thing, CRT in the classroom is a leftwing critique of liberal education. As I have written in a recent Swamp Notes, there is nothing liberal about telling children their race is their most important characteristic. This gives Republican critics of CRT the space to “bash the left and earn cred by merely sounding like . . . Obama ’08”, as Nate Cohn from The New York Times put it. As a fan of teaching children the skills of critical thinking, I found it hard to disagree with Youngkin’s comments on the campaign trail: “We will teach all history, the good and the bad . . . We have an amazing history, but we also have some dark and abhorrent chapters. We must teach them all. We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we come from.”

Which leads me to two conclusions. First, highly educated Democrats, especially the opinion-makers, need to get out more and talk to people. It’s not that hard. In the so-called “revenge of the pissed off suburban Mom”, there was a 13-point shift towards Republicans compared to last year among white women in Virginia’s northern suburbs — which is just a 20-minute drive from Washington. Everyone is aware that there are plenty of racists in the Republican party — and Youngkin was clearly winking at them. But to describe anyone who voted for him as a dupe, or a closet racist, is political lunacy. You could end up driving them away for good.

My second, and related point, is that America is neither Twitter nor a university campus, where you can hunt down heretics and shame them. Both Biden and Obama understand this. They need to make their point much more forcefully. Faculty-lounge politics is the Democratic party’s road to oblivion. This week’s election results ought to be a teachable moment for the Democrats. It is worth stressing that Virginia this week also elected its first-ever black female lieutenant-governor, and its first Hispanic attorney-general. Both are Republican. The party is savvier than liberals think.

Donald Trump is an excrescence and America could cease to be a liberal democracy if he becomes president again. How might that happen? Trump’s ideal comeback movie could would be scripted by highly educated liberals who keep telling everyone else how uneducated they are. They are Trump’s best friends.

Rana, do you agree? I suspect you do. If so, what will it take to re-educate the Democratic consultants?

Recommended reading

  • Talking of which, here was my election night take: “Virginia’s ominous warning to Biden and the Democrats”. My column this week, somewhat unusually, was based on an interview that I, and my colleague John Thornhill, did with Henry Kissinger about the impact of artificial intelligence on the US-China arms race. “We need to learn about AI capabilities while understanding they produce an uncertainty in the world within which permanent peace is very difficult to sustain — probably impossible.” Whatever you think of Kissinger, take his warning seriously.

  • My colleague Martin Wolf makes a related plea to Kissinger’s call for dialogue on the larger question of whether the world is any longer capable of delivering global public goods. “We must not abandon attempts at global co-operation,” Martin argues. “That would be a catastrophe imperilling peace, prosperity and planet. We must focus, instead, on defining and then making workable the minimum co-operation we must now have if humanity is to achieve what we will all need.”

  • On a more modest scale, but in a similar vein, my colleague Gideon Rachman warns that the rumbling spat between the UK and France — over fishing, sausages or whatever — could threaten the unity of the west. Franco-British mutual irritation might seem like a tabloid sideshow. But London and Paris are behaving recklessly.

  • Finally an apology to Princeton University’s Anne Case, co-author with Sir Angus Deaton, and coiner of the term “deaths of despair”. I wrongly attributed that to Deaton in last week’s Swamp Notes. It was Case who came up with it.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, you are basically saying what I’ve long believed, having been quite happily raised as a daughter of a Muslim immigrant in a red state — half the American population is neither crazy nor racist. But as you say, social media, filter bubbles and the sort of extreme wealth inequality that allows political and economic elites to live completely separately from those they make decisions for have all conspired to divide us and make us think the worst of each other. Thank God I have a brother in South Dakota (a gun carrier and motorcycle rider to boot!) and a bunch of childhood friends who voted for Donald Trump from whom I regularly get the story not reported in The New York Times (which, along with most of the rest of New York media, seems to have gone well around the bend on this topic).

But to your question: how to reform the meritocracy? Perhaps the Democratic National Committee should start by adding a new quota to the discussion about diversity — make sure that X per cent of party decision makers go to big land-grant universities or come out of the military or trade schools or other non-elite places, rather than precious liberal arts schools or Ivies. As I wrote a while back, I think the sort of education you get in such institutions is wildly overrated.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was willing to pay for my daughter to go to University of Chicago in large part because of chancellor Robert Zimmer’s brave stance on free speech. Sadly, even there she’s surrounded by the tyranny of small differences, including endless parsing of pronouns and outrage over perceived injustice, all of it fuelled by the constant oversharing of every thought and feeling on Twitter.

While the Democrats still have Congress and the White House, they should also push forward limits on targeted advertising and the online discrimination (what the Big Tech companies would call personalisation) that leads to different versions of reality. Failure to do so would really be a failure of this administration in my view.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘Don’t write Biden off yet’:

“I so want to cling to Rana’s optimism but I think Ed puts his finger on the Biden strength that is a weakness. Decades of deal making on the Hill are his comfort zone for political progress. But with an ideological Republican party set to secure control of the nation, whatever it takes, whether through the legislature, the executive or judiciary, pork-barrel politics is dead. Compromise is not what Mitch McConnell is about.

“Getting the people to understand his offer and back it is the only chance he has of sustaining real progress. The president needs to see the democratic value of those outside the Beltway and the power they can wield if led not ignored.” — David Jepson, Liverpool, England

Your feedback

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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