Democracy, Education & the Trump Voter

This article is part of a series helping to envision what a metro regional democracy learning community could look like.  For the full list of articles, please visit Learning Life’s DMV Democracy Learning Community page.  The following article was published on September 1, 2023 in Democracy Chronicles.

At this historic moment in American politics, a lot of attention is focused on whether or not Donald Trump will go to jail, or win the U.S. presidency again.  But beyond that headline news lies a deep challenge that will outlast Donald Trump, even if he wins the presidency: the Trump voter.  For those concerned and willing to move beyond expressions of frustration and contempt for his voters, part of the long-term solution may be something you have not considered: how schooling may be fueling the Trump phenomenon, and how wider learning communities may help reduce polarization in America.

Donald Trump may be facing multiple indictments, but he still dominates Republican polls, and is in a dead heat with Biden in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of registered voters nationwide.  That is a source of consternation to some Americans, and satisfaction to others, aggravating a widespread sense of polarization.

Polarization has a number of roots, and it is worth briefly mentioning three of the most commonly cited ones.  First, in many states, Democrats or Republicans dominate the state legislature, and when it comes time to draw U.S. House districts, they draw in their party’s favor. This makes it easier for their candidates to win, which makes the party primaries, not the general election, where the competition happens. That in turn pushes candidates to be more partisan to win party primary voters.  Second, there’s the now commonly cited fact that conflict and outrage draw ears and eyeballs, so it is profitable for media companies to promote conflict and extremes.  Third, Americans are moving to communities where they feel more comfortable, and since lifestyle preferences increasingly align with political inclinationsAmericans are polarizing themselves, sometimes unintentionally, when they move.

There is no single solution to these polarization problems, but for all the talk about the need for civil discourse and perennial calls for “a national conversation” about this or that, it is striking how little talk, let alone action, there is to institutionalize democratic conversation nationwide in ways that could foster greater Comprehension, Civility and Collaboration.  As two Americans, born thirty years apart, one a black woman, the other a white male, we nonetheless find common ground in sociology, and common interest in the potential of wider learning communities to cultivate those three Cs.

Learning communities (LCs), most simply defined, are associations focused on learning together.  LCs can be in-person or online, and their learning focus varies, from math to gardening to diplomacy, but at their best, LCs (a) are open to interested persons of all income levels, (b) connect diverse people, (c) deepen participants’ understanding not only of their chosen topic, but how to think about the topic, and (d) foster civility in part through collaboration.

Learning communities are not new.  The earliest learning communities can be traced to the earliest civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia India and China, where the inception of writing helped spur the development of schools to train scribes, teachers, priests, monks, government officials and other elites, and advanced science, medicine, mathematics, history, philosophy, and other bodies of knowledge.  But the earliest schools tended toward the strict transmission of intellectual traditions through memorization and repetition, rather than open learning through dialogue, testing and observation. The collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe led to a fragmentation of power among many competing principalities, which fostered not only military but intellectual and technological competition.  This competition, along with the rise of modern states, over time encouraged the development of primary and secondary schools as well as universities that together are now, in our knowledge-dependent modern societies, an important part of the social and economic lives of individuals, families, towns and countries.

Schools, including universities, are a kind of learning community – understood most simply as places where relationships are focused on learning.  But for all the learning they nurture, schools also increase our world’s inequalities as much if not more than they decrease them.  Schools, of course, offer their students the opportunity to develop themselves, and compulsory schooling extends that development to more people, thus increasing equality.  However, vast differences exist in school quality and status in the same localities and across the world.  Some elites may prefer it that way since their children tend to be better prepared and favored to get into better schools. Plus, the better teachers, technologies, programs and alumni connections those better schools provide help sustain and strengthen elite power.  In short, widespread educational segregation benefits elites.

None of the above is new, at least to those who study education, but this has implications for politics and polarization.  Intentionally or not, schools have long been instruments of exclusion.  They sort people into social hierarchies based on whether and where students go to school and their performance therein.  Schools also position and equip elites to rule, and others to fulfill needed roles, from farmers and cooks, to teachers, accountants, and engineers.  Clearly, the process is not rigid; not everyone who graduates from an elite school ends up in a leadership position in government, business or nonprofits, and some farmers, teachers, and engineers become those leaders.  Yet the facts that (a) a disproportionate share of business, government and nonprofit elites come from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other top schools, and (b) elites’ wealth and income have been rising since the 1970s in the United States and abroad, as, generally, have those of their alma maters, underscore the pattern of exclusion.

At the same time, exclusion is one of the roots of the rise of Trump, and the Trump voter.  Many accounts of their rise point to economic stagnation and decline among Americans with a high school degree. The association between educational and economic outcomes has only strengthened in the last several decades, and reinforces the links between Education, Economics and Exclusion.  In some sense, Trump voters have every right to be angry if they have been at the losing end of this three-E’s process of exclusion, made worse by the contempt of educated elites.

But what if education were more an instrument of inclusion than exclusion, of the three C’s rather than the three E’s?  What if learning was not bound to a period of one’s youth inside school walls, but rather a wider part of one’s life and region?  What if education was also fun and social, forging engaging relationships across America’s deep political, economic, racial and generational divides?

We turn to these questions and more in the second part of this article on democracy, education and the Trump Voter.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D., is a sociologist and founder of Learning Life, a Washington DC-based nonprofit developing innovative learning communities in order to widen and deepen participation in democracy and diplomacy.  Ma’Shayla Hearns is a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in sociology and criminology, and an intern at Learning Life.