Why the right is redefining class as education
Two graphs tell the story.
Came across some interesting data today from some recent polling relating various demographic categories to ideological identification. Before we dig in, though, a little throat-clearing: polling like this rarely make basic distinctions between liberals and anticapitalists, or between reactionaries and fascists. Intuitively, I think that most people probably read “liberal” in this poll as something like “egalitarian and either supporting a strong welfare state or taking a radical anticapitalist position,” whereas they probably read “conservative” as “less egalitarian or openly inegalitarian, plus capitalist.” But there is really not way to be sure, which is a longstanding problem with all such polls.
That said: first, let’s look at income.
The general trend here is easy to spot. Conservativism is overwhelmingly the ideology of the third and fourth income quintiles, corresponding roughly with the so-called middle and upper-middle class, with much weaker support among everyone else. Its weakest support notably, is among the second economic quintile — that is, the income bracket most associated with blue-collar workers. Liberalism, meanwhile, gives us the opposite trend: low support in the middle, higher support among the rich and the poor. Again, it is worth noting that the margin of support for liberalism is lowest in the income range of the so-called “PMC” / “petite bourgeoisie” white collar elites so often vilified by the right.
Now, let’s look at education:
This is a very different trend! Here, conservativism’s margin over liberalism is the largest among the the first category, and shrinks with educational attainment until liberalism, among students with a graduate degree, gains the upper hand.
When we compare these two charts, it’s not difficult to understand why the right continues to resist material analysis by introducing education as the ultimate indicator of class.
Why does J.D. Vance and American Compass argue that even the poorest Americans are “affluent” as long as they have a college degree? Why does Michael Lind argue that the “definition of membership in the overclass” is “possession of a four-year college degree” with only “a few affluent high-school-educated” Americans?
Because if you redefine class as education, then you get to argue that liberalism (which they use interchangeably with anticapitalist leftism) is the ideology of the ruling class, while conservatives are the oppressed and powerless underclass.
We should not, of course, fall into the trap of simply defining class by income bracket. But once we see notice that support for conservativism is lowest among the poor and crests among classes that are better-off, while support for liberalism reverses that trend, this plainly complicates any material theories of class and and ideological identification.