Donald Trump has once again ignited a firestorm of criticism. Following his victory in Nevada, the Republican front-runner announced, "I love the poorly educated." Reaction against his comment was been vigorous and immediate, precipitating a backlash against those low-information voters whose ignorance has been presumed as a prerequisite for selecting a bombastic candidate like Trump.
On the surface, Trump's pronouncement seems to confirm the worst fears of his critics: of course he loves poorly educated voters! Why else would anyone support someone whose policy platform preys upon those driven by ideology, a platform that cannot withstand even minimal scrutiny? His campaign rests, after all, on a foundation of easily debunked ideas mobilized by Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and an undeveloped understanding of basic political science.
Yet actual studies of Trump voters do not support the thesis that his supporters are poorly educated at all. As Matthew MacWilliams explains in a recent Politico article, educational achievement is less of a predictor for Trump support than an inclination towards authoritarianism.
Why, then, do Trump's comments about the poorly educated resound so strongly among his critics?
Perhaps it is because attacking the poorly educated has become a kind of American sport.
This is ironic. The same nation in which K-12 educational outcomes are shaped by economic inequality, in which the "school-to-prison pipeline" has become a familiar shorthand for the effects of racism, and in which the children of undocumented immigrants pay higher tuition in states where they have lived their entire lives, seems to take a particular pleasure in maligning those who cannot access a quality education. Rather than recognizing that the stark problem of educational inequality demands immediate solutions, many would rather shut its victims out of the conversation.
Or worse, we mock them. We delight in viral videos of uninformed millennials unable to identify the Civil War, chuckle at misspelled signs at tea party rallies, smugly say "I told you so" when the leading candidate of the GOP dares to place "poorly educated" alongside "highly educated" voters. Rather than acknowledging that poorly educated voters are victims of a system that abandons them to low-wage jobs, limited access to quality healthcare, and high rates of unemployment, we treat them as the punchline to a joke.
What, then, of those progressives who are desperately trying to rally voters to support candidates who espouse policies that might actually address educational inequality, such as affordable college tuition or federally-funded kindergarten? Shouldn't they be taking the lead in praising poorly-educated voters who stand to benefit from the programs they embrace? But no. To align oneself with the poorly educated is to get muddied by the anti-intellectualism that has become, for many liberals who learned to question right-wing talking points in college classrooms, something disgusting. The poorly educated are monstrous.
It wasn't always like this. At the University of Massachusetts Boston, my own research has reconsidered the history of anti-intellectualism in American life. For much of the twentieth century, progressive politics were defined by efforts to bring the dispossessed into a national political conversation. Stump speeches were celebrated for uniting voters who approached democracy from a variety of angles. Back then, poorly educated voters represented the progressive base.
It was only in the 1950s that conservatives adopted a strategy that attempted to disparage educated candidates. Prior to that time, Republicans had often proudly claimed their expertise at diagnosing the nation's ills and confirmed their intellectual pedigree as a sign of their class ascendance. But in the years after World War II, when New Deal liberalism seemed to represent a permanent threat to conservative ideology, Republicans inaugurated a strategy of dismissing educated candidates as eggheaded elitists.
Now it is Democrats who find themselves reviled for their brainpower. Senator Warren is mockingly dubbed "Professor," and Barack Obama's history at Harvard is invoked to remind voters that he could not possibly speak for those outside the ivory tower.
But mocking Donald Trump for his love of the poorly educated is not a winning strategy. Rather than jumping on Twitter to vilify Trump for his comments, it is time to debate policies that could address the real issue of educational inequality. Even those of us who vigorously oppose Trump's odious rhetoric should take that approach, not because we are smarter than our opponents, but because we, too, love the poorly educated.