A Miracle That A Demagogue Wasn’t Elected President Before 2016

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Given that nearly 73 percent of Americans in 2016 do not have college degrees, it is amazing that a Trump-like demagogue has not won the presidency before, and that our democracy has not degraded long before now.

Most voters in the past never took a college-level course in history, politics, persuasion, argumentation, sociology, economics, or any of the other courses that are important to an informed citizenry. Many did not even take college-bound high school classes in those subjects.

To be snobbish about it, many voters don’t know how to think. Imagine the back-of-the-row students in your high school who didn’t go to college. That could be the average voter in America. Low-information, shallow-thinking, easily manipulated.

Some of their political views blow with the wind. After eight years of Republican president Bush, in 2008 they thought Obama would be a “magic negro,” the second coming, and are disappointed he didn’t wave a wand and bring back manufacturing jobs lost to globalization and automation. So this year a number of them are angry and voting for Donald Trump.

Others vote blindly for one political party or another, loyalty to party above everything else. It’s easy to demonize those we disagree with. Mitt Romney wrote off 47 percent of voters because, he said, they are on the dole, in one form or another, and choose Democrats because they think they’ll get “free stuff.” Hillary Clinton wrote off half of Trump supporters — about 20 percent of the electorate — asserting that they are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, or “you name it.”

Both positions are pretty elitist, and do not seek to understand the opposition.

I used to think American voters had innate common sense; they might not be highly educated, but they were salt-of-the-earth people with good instincts and were good judges of character, and that’s what has always saved America.

This year has sewn some doubts in that premise. But I remain reasonably confident it will be true in 2016 as well.

Certainly, I realize my wife and I live in a bubble. We have few friends without college degrees. We don’t really know the experiences of most Americans. I find this challenging. I need to get out more, listen to the experiences of REAL Americans more.
Perhaps my perceptions this year are skewed. The percent of Americans with college degrees has increased greatly since 1940, when only five percent of the population was college educated. College grads grew to 10 percent in 1960; 20 percent in 1980; and close to 30 percent by 2009, but has flattened or dropped down slightly since then, due largely to the Great Recession and high cost of college. Too many students can’t afford to go to college. That might explain, at least partly, the frustration and anger expressed in politics in 2016.
Actually, while nearly three-quarters of adults do not have college degrees, about HALF of voters are projected to have college degrees in 2016. And that’s the largest proportion of educated voters EVER. “As a country we are more highly educated than we’ve ever been,” reports Asma Khalid on National Public Radio. In 1980, for example, about two-thirds of all voters were white working class. By 2012, only about a third of voters were white folks without a college degree.
There is a strong correlation between lack of education and not voting. That’s not necessarily healthy for society that half of eligible voters don’t actually vote, and that the uneducated feel so disengaged and disempowered in a democracy.
And college isn’t for everyone. But vocational training after high school is essential to building a strong middle class in America that shouldn’t have to settle for minimum wage jobs. America will never win economically by trying to compete with China, Mexico, India and developing countries in Asia to fill the lowest-wage jobs.
Bruce Johnson responds: “Margaret Thatcher, for once, put it well. In a parliamentary debate, the other side complained that an issue was too complex for the people to understand. She replied, ‘The people can understand it if we can explain it.’ “
He then recalled an experience speaking to a vocational class in high school about the 1968 election between Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and American Party candidate George Wallace. When Bruce entered the class, not a single student was for Humphrey, or willing to speak up for him. But clearly the class was open to persuasion. After Bruce spoke on Humphrey’s behalf, half the class raised their hand to “vote” for Humphrey.
“FDR communicated with voters in a way that enabled them to understand big issues and to rally behind him,” Bruce writes. “Harry Truman did the same.  But Adlai Stevenson talked over their heads so he failed to convince them. Bill Clinton is good at that.
“I think part of the problem is that in the old days even people without a lot of education read the papers and watched the network news. Now most people if they follow the news at all get it from cable or the Internet off sites that reinforce their prejudices and fail to challenge them.”
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