Post-Fact America

Christopher Newfield examines how the nation’s electoral divisions highlight fundamental questions about the role of public universities.

November 8, 2016
 
University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire

Today’s presidential election will not fix the broken relationship between Democrats and voters who did not finish college. In the aftermath, will there be anything that universities can do to help with this?

The New York Times recently published a piece about electoral divisions, “Go Midwest, Young Hipster,” that starts with the fact that Republicans get far more representation for their votes than do Democrats. In Ohio, for example, Republicans translated a 51 percent statehouse voting majority into a 75 percent majority of legislators, which gives the party’s slight majority a near fiat power over legislation.

But Alec MacGillis, the article’s author, argues that this problem cannot be handled by reforming the creation of electoral districts. Republicans are great gerrymanderers, it's true, but the underlying problem is that Democrats clump together in blue states and in giant blue cities where most of their votes are superfluous.

The title suggests his solution: Democrats have to move back to the depopulating red states and counties from which they sprang. Unfortunately for this idea, all the people he interviews who could do that -- the native Ohioans who have professional careers in Washington or Los Angeles -- say no way in hell. Wild horses couldn’t drag them out of the land of surplus blue voters and their urban overload of interesting jobs and “creative class” culture.

MacGillis’s piece moves a step beyond the vision of Barack Obama, who reportedly will devote some of his postpresidential career to reducing Republican gerrymandering. There’s only so much that better redistricting can do after The Big Sort has segregated the population in large part by whether or not one graduated from college.

And yet the same is true about the voluntary return that MacGillis advocates. His red-state escapees tell him they won’t do it, so the whole project is doomed from the start.

What locks in the doom is the entire patronizing framework in which MacGillis sees Ohio as place in need of creative class enlightenment -- and in which the social role of public universities is to help people escape their region rather than develop it.

College folks often write about noncollege people as though they were backwoods barbarians who need the civilizing influence of collegiate urbanites. Terms like “red states” and “Midwest” stand for the country’s primitive places. Many analysts apply the same cultural deficiency theory to working-class whites that others have applied to black and brown people. In the case of Charles Murray, it’s the same analyst doing it. Instead of the white man’s burden, MacGillis creates a college man’s burden to return to the red-state jungle to help the natives who didn’t have the brains to escape. You can imagine how the natives feel about that kind of help.

This tradition was codified in Thomas Frank’s influential book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), which, for all its strengths, was wrong to say that pro-Republican whites couldn’t see their self-interest and vote for it. Even Michael Moore’s attempt to embrace working-class Trump voters teetered into treating them as abuse victims who can’t think straight (around the halfway point in his interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News). Presenting red-state dwellers as the nation’s regressives is an ethical, strategic and factual blunder of major proportions.

Neglecting the University’s Core Mission

There’s also a blunder on the politics of knowledge. For several decades, the Democrats have helped underdevelop the industrial belt by heralding the coming of a knowledge economy in which all American “routine production workers,” in Robert Reich’s Clinton-era formulation, were doomed to permanent decline. Wealth creation would henceforth flow from the brainwork of “symbolic analysts.”

The Clintons were fountainheads of this vision of nonuniversity people as the new vanishing Americans. They threw people bones like job retraining programs but didn’t tell them they had anything still to contribute. The Clinton Democrats philosophically abandoned the New Deal and Great Society programs of public works for everyday people, helped to criminalize much of the deindustrialized black working class through such policies as harsher sentencing minimums and disparities in drug sentencing, and refused the large-scale economic redevelopment (coupled with penalties for offshoring jobs) that only the federal government could perform.

Barack Obama has been a chip off the old block. Thus working-class people are still mad at the establishment Democrats and have been willing to listen to Bernie Sanders as well as to Donald Trump. Our college-graduate condescension may yet keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House or, assuming she gets in, keep her from getting anything done.

Here we arrive at the other huge problem: Which side is the public university on? MacGillis offers a standard casting of college as a circus cannon for human capital that fires its cannonball-graduates over their local region into the big cities that can make use of them. That neglects the core mission of public colleges and universities in enabling regional development. Since the Morrill Act in 1862, public colleges have had the public-good obligation of taking nonelite local people and helping them be what they and their community have wanted them to be: better farmers, or machinists, or doctors, or surveyors, or teachers, or politicians, or whatever their needs and desires actually are.

The political principle has been that colleges and universities offer the democratic capabilities on which regional progress depends. At the top of my own list are deep cross-racial experience and comfort with indirect causality. (Donald Trump’s noir power rests on the ability of many people to believe in one-step solutions to complex problems, like “I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously … That’s going to be a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.”) These are just two examples of the many public-good capabilities that develop a region rather than use it as a launching pad to upper-class life elsewhere.

Democrats have been faced with a choice between stressing the public-good or the private-good benefits of public colleges and universities. They have mostly picked door No. 2 and have been as eager as Republicans to stress the wage benefits of graduation and the pecuniary payoff of the whole college operation. In this way, Democrats have played an important role in cutting public funding and raising public college tuition. They have also cooperated in increasing nonresident enrollment at state-supported institutions.

That has played into Republican hands. If college is mainly a private good, then families who don’t attend have no reason to pay taxes for it. If university research is about making money, then private investors rather than government should pay for it. In reality, private market benefits are about one-third of the total benefits of higher education. Democrats in politics and academe have abetted the great ignoring of public-good benefits, and enabled gross public underinvestment.

Remobilizing the People’s Support

Public universities are going to recover only if they rebuild their popular base. That will involve direct contributions to regional development that go beyond the usual touting of tech start-ups (which go to the same handful of cities and employ almost no one). They will need to do two things at once.

First, the less-selective public institutions that most American students attend -- places like the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire or the University of North Carolina at Greensboro -- will need budgetary reinvestment so they can match the level of learning that occurs at wealthier campuses. Lower-income or first-generation students need conceptual intensity and complexity at least as much as affluent students at a flagship majoring in history on their way to an Ivy League law school.

Second, public universities will need to make the college a meaningful presence in the lives of noncollege people. They are doing this one by one -- Clark University’s involvement in local education is an example. In the decades in which community relations has become a low-status activity, Republican propaganda has convinced most nongraduates that universities are hotbeds of people who look down on them and are probably trying to get rid of their jobs (logging, coal, trucking, smokestack manufacturing). This reputation can be fixed with more systematic effort.

Regional colleges will need to demand state refunding for the project of bringing all the local folks to college who want to be there, at whatever age, coupled with contributing more visibly to local social and cultural (and not just economic) development. Elite public universities will need to shift their focus from wealthy donors to regular people, who have very different priorities. The fixation on fund-raising has raised money for many important programs, but it has also narrowed the university’s own vision of its public contributions and cut it off from its popular base.

A few of weeks ago, I outlined emerging international trends that American universities should use to remobilize their popular base. The same forces are at work here, and they could serve as the university’s special power.

The public university needs a broader popular base for its own survival. But this would also help the country. Rather than tacitly casting the red states, counties and precincts as cultural backwaters, universities would mobilize local red-state insights and Midwestern cultural strengths to reduce the mutual alienation between them and the self-designated creative zones. My bet is that colleges that define their missions as general development, rooted in respect for people of all educational levels, will no longer be targeted by voters as ivory towers serving blue-state elites.

Bio

Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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