Will Education Fix Our Political Polarization?

Many folks on both sides of the political spectrum will tell you that the reason their political opposition doesn't agree with them is a lack of education. This can go as far as groaning about uneducated (typically either poor rural or poor urban) hordes voting en masse after being fooled. Education, therefore, is the fix for the crippling political divide we have. If people are educated, they'll agree on the facts, and we'll be able to move forward.

But does this claim hold up to evidence? 

Climate Change and Education

Let's take climate change as an example. First, ask yourself: if someone has more education, are they more or less likely to believe global warming is real and dangerous?

Got your answer?

Turns out, it depends on your party affiliation!

In this 2010-2015 poll by Gallup, we see 3 different tends among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents:

  • Republicans are less likely to believe global warming is serious with more education
  • Democrats are more likely to believe global warming is serious with more education
  • Independents are approximately steady in their beliefs about global warming across education

So in reality, if you bring together less-educated Republicans and Democrats, they're more likely to agree on the seriousness of global warming than if you brought together those who are more educated.

Other Issues vs Education

We can observe the same trend in a number of other issues. Let's look at Pew's 2016 study of education level versus position on a number of issues for Republicans or Democrats:

For many issues, the least-educated Republicans and Democrats are far more prone to agree. A few examples:

Government Regulation

  • Least educated Republicans and Democrats have a 19-point gap in opinion
  • Most educated Republicans and Democrats have a 59-point gap in opinion

Government Wastefulness

  • Least educated: 25-point R/D gap
  • Most educated: 53-point R/D gap

Priority of Military Strength

  • Least educated: 31-point R/D gap
  • Most educated: 57-point R/D gap

But this isn't the case with all issues. There are 3 issues in this group of 10 where Republicans and Democrats both change their views with education, but in the same direction rather than the opposite one:

  1. Republicans and Democrats are both less likely to see immigrants as a burden with more education
  2. They are both less likely to think homosexuality should be discouraged with more education
  3. They are both somewhat more likely to think corporate profits are fair and reasonable with more education

In these, everyone goes the same direction, although it's worth noting that they don't really come closer together--they're not more likely to agree with more education.

The Weighting Factor

It would seem that for many issues, Republicans and Democrats are more prone to disagree if they are more educated. They actually buy more into the right- and left-wing ideological consistently, hook and sinker.

But it's also worth noting that the sample sizes on these groups changes as education changes. As this 2015 study from Pew shows us, you have a higher chance of being liberal the more educated you are:

Your likelihood of being mostly or consistently conservative is pretty constant regardless of education: about 27%. Your chances of being a liberal jump from 26% to 54% if you move from being in the least-educated to the most-educated of Americans.

That's a really interesting find and it's not quite clear what to make of it. Conservatives seem to not shrink with greater education, but the mixed group in the middle tends to go more towards the left. Surely if you are a very left- or right-wing person you'll have your own narrative about why this is the case.

In all, education doesn't seem to be a path towards reconciliation. There don't appear to be many major issues for which education brings Republicans and Democrats closer together, although being more educated seems at the moment to create more liberals. 

2 Comments

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.