Steven S. Volk
In a radio interview on March 11, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (R) said of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, killing five people, assaulting 125 Capitol police and injuring 70 of them in the process: “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.” Not content to stop there, he pressed on, “had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa [sic], I might have been a little concerned.” Other than the unmistakable racism animating his statement, what Johnson has done is not just replace facts with fantasy, but remake reality to conform to his imagination. In his world, since the insurrectionists were respectful and law abiding, the violence is shifted to the “Black Lives Matter and antifa” protestors — who, of course, were only present in Johnson’s own counterfactual reality, which he is more than happy to share. Fintan O’Toole, a brilliant writer who reports regularly in the New York Review of Books, saw this coming. Former president Trump lied “prodigiously” and was able to successfully “obliterate for his supporters the distinction between the fake and the genuine,” O’Toole argues. But this alone couldn’t have created the strong bond which continues to glue his base to him. “What he managed to do,” he writes, “was simultaneously to erase the distinction between the valid and the bogus and to remake it…What is real is not what is going on. It is who ‘we’ are.” If “we” are peaceful, law abiding white people, than the insurrection couldn’t have been led by “us”!
I continue to ponder the role of higher education in responding to the epistemological and democratic crises on full display in Johnson’s interview which I considered in my last post. If the democratic crisis was most terrifyingly visible in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, an invasion bent on overturning a democratic election (and a Democratic victory), no less so is the epistemological crisis which paved it way by fashioning a “reality” in which two-thirds of Republicans think Biden’s victory was illegitimate and one-third say the claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that includes prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites” is either mostly or completely accurate. This is more than troubling even if, as a colleague who works on these issues pointed out, Republicans still represent less than 30% of registered voters.
If I seem obsessed by this topic, it is largely because, as I observed in earlier posts and as emerging data continues to indicate, education is increasingly becoming an important predictor of party preference, more so than income, and increasingly since 2016. “At the subgroup level,” David Shor, the head of data science at OpenLabs, a progressive nonprofit, argued recently, “Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates.” That, he added, “is kind of crazy.” A voter’s level of educational attainment — whether they had a college degree — became even more predictive of which party they voted for in 2020 than it had been in 2016, while a voter’s racial identity became less predictive.
As the Republican Party sails deeper into anti-democratic waters, as it persists in lashing its future to an individual (and a remarkably flawed one, at that) rather than to any ideas or legislative program – see, among many others, here, here, here, and here – one begins to wonder whether a bachelor’s degree can offer some kind of immunity to the authoritarian virus. Yet even were this the case, the “vaccination” rate remains too low (less than 35% of persons 25-29 hold a bachelor’s degree) and the “efficacy rate” of today’s college education in preventing “smart” people from anti-democratic cravings is not robust (the margin between Trump and Biden voters with a college degree is actually quite narrow). By now we all are aware that Ted Cruz’s office is papered with his Princeton and Harvard diplomas, that Josh Hawley boasts degrees from Stanford and Yale, and that Louisiana Senator John Kennedy attended Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Magdalen College (Oxford). Yet none of what they learned at those august institutions stopped them from attempting to halt a democratic election in a Senate vote taken a few short hours after insurrectionists roamed the Senate floor and rifled through their desks. Ninety-six percent of the members of the 116th Congress had a college education, two and a half times more than the population as a whole. Yet, according to Gallup polling from December 2020, when asked about honesty or ethical standards, only 8% of respondents rated members of Congress as “very high” or “high.” (And yes, If you’re wondering, that puts them at the bottom of the heap, even below the proverbial used car salesman.) The chasm between morality and intellect is not new, but it is troubling. We have agonized for decades trying to understand why learning and knowledge didn’t safeguard the Germans, well-educated students of Goethe and Kant and other humanistic giants, against murderous hatred. How is it that schooling (and higher education in particular) has become so alienated from ethics? Should we try to reverse that alienation? Can anything be done to reverse that movement?Continue reading