Radical Privilege

Here are two stories.

Thomas Wood, in an otherwise rather ho-hum Monkey Cage article about how super-ultra-racist Trump voters are (including cutting edge measures of racism like believing “racial inequalities today are a result of…personal lack of effort and irresponsibility”) , presents this interesting graph about relative partisanship in presidential elections by percentiles of income among white voters:

imrs As you can see from my added highlights, rich whites stably voted more Republican than the overall country, continuously since World War II. Although identification with Democrats among the economically privileged has been on the upswing for a while if you believe the General Social Survey,  the shift since 2012 has been remarkable, with the income gradient more-or-less reversing.

Trump was distinctively unappealing to well-to-do Americans, so in some ways 2016’s results may exaggerate the underlying pattern, but as can be seen from 2012 (when the wealthiest whites were more Democratic than the country for the first time ever), the shift predated his candidacy and is not solely the result of the distaste he engendered among the well-off. Instead, the leftward shift among elites is one of the distinctive political phenomena of our time.

This can be observed in another political story from last week, the near-riot at the Claremont Colleges in response to a visit from Heather Mac Donald. To me, the protest itself is even more absurd than Middlebury’s response to Charles Murray (see here for some praise for Mac Donald’s criminal justice reporting, couched as criticism, from the liberal writer Debra Dickerson at Mother Jones), but the follow-up to the visit has been more ridiculous still, with a group of Pomona students demanding that the staff of the Claremont Independent be expelled for expressing support for Mac Donald, along with some enthusiastic denunciations of the Enlightenment and Truth:

The idea that there is a single truth–‘the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.

Also interesting to me is how the whole incident fits into the broader pattern I noticed last month and Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias followed up on in their Brookings article. As Reeves and Halikias showed, the colleges that were most likely to disinvite a speaker for political beliefs were also among the richest:


True to this pattern, Pomona (perhaps the college most similar to Middlebury on the West Coast) and Claremont are among the wealthiest colleges in California and in the country, with a median income among students’ parents of $166,000 and $201,000 respectively.

Pomona’s student body is somewhat less outrageously concentrated among the wealthiest than at Middlebury or Claremont, to be sure. But thinking in terms of the demographics of California public schools, where 62% of students are low-income enough to be eligible for free lunch, the challenge facing the administrators of wealthy and academically elite colleges in a changing America is perhaps even clearer:


These institutions’ democratic legitimacy depends to a significant degree on reflecting, at least in visible racial terms, the characteristics of the broader student population. Yet economically they depend on donations from the tiniest sliver of the ultra-wealthy as well as on wealthy American and international students paying full tuition.  Still more challenging, their ranking on the lists that drive prestige (and, to be frank, their ability to continue to offer a challenging curriculum and produce alumni who will be economically successful) depends on admitting students with high test scores and good grades, yet the limited supply of black and Hispanic students with superb test scores and grades are hotly contested by all the elite schools.

The result, it would seem, is a protective radicalization- the offering of an alternative curriculum (both explicit and implicit) that downplays the importance of intellectual endeavor for students who are at a disadvantage in academic preparation (“the Enlightenment and Truth are just a projection of white supremacy!”) , while keeping the student body as a whole as homogeneously overprepared as possible (the 75th percentile in SAT scores at Pomona is almost a perfect 1600!)

But, as can be seen from the graph of Republican versus Democratic vote shares at top, the overall contradiction is much broader than just elite college campuses, even if they embody it most totally. The elite has shifted left, especially on racial issues, for many reasons, but surely the largest is simply that they would like to remain the elite, and this is contingent on their appearing to represent the broader population. As the broader population, in the country and in the world, shifts demographically to resemble the elite less and less in ancestry, religion, and temperament, the contortions required of the elite to establish itself as worthy of trust are ever more extreme.

9 thoughts on “Radical Privilege

  1. Very minor pet peeve: the 75th percentile of combined SAT scores is not the sum of the 75th percentiles of the subscores, unless subscores are perfectly correlated (which they’re not, especially in a narrow window at the high end, where there is a lot of noise). I’m sure that the 75th percentile at Pomona is well below 780+780=1560.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess I would ask you, as colleges and university are nominally subject to market forces, how much of the radicalization is from the market or self generated?


      1. I think that men are increasingly not going to college is the market responding, but how much of that is men saying “no thanks” due to PC culture, and how much is other forces? I don’t know. And as much as the scholarship coming out of some areas in the humanities is dreck, there still seems to be a enough people who want to major in things like gender studies to keep these departments going. Even the most progressive dean will merge departments if there are not enough students.

        Side note, Republicans are increasingly realizing that their tax dollars are subsidizing the opposition. Expect that Arrow’s impossibility theorem will mean that their subsidies decrease. Or at least that’s the noise I see on it in the blogosphere.


  3. Much of what you say may very well be true, but isn’t the simple explanation for the disinvitations=affluence graph simply that more affluent colleges are more able to afford notable speakers, and part of being notable is that someone will note a disagreement with something the speaker said or did?

    Affluent Middlebury College invites Murray, whose views are available everywhere and triggering to professional wingnuts. Less affluent Cow College invites the local agricultural extension agent to share his…um…advanced views on heifer breeding, but no one’s gonna look ridiculous by protesting.


  4. Today’s American campus culture is crying out for a wag to produce a contemporary version of Godard’s “La Chinoise”.


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