When Barack Obama was first elected president, a number of my readers were in deep despair about American politics and the state of our culture. So I set out to compile an inventory of what is still going right with our culture, the reserves of strength we were going to have to draw on to survive the Obama era.
One of my examples was Mike Rowe’s show “Dirty Jobs.” That led to some further ruminations about why people on the right tend to gravitate to shows like his, which celebrate the value of work.
Rowe himself has been understandably cautious about wading into politics—why risk alienating a big portion of his audience? (One wishes other celebrities were so circumspect.) But very recently, he has begun to indicate where his sympathies lie. There is the Facebook post I mentioned above about the minimum wage, which shows a strong, concrete understanding of the basic operation of the free market. And then there is a subsequent post in which he responds to a question about whether Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker should be disqualified from running for president because he didn’t graduate from college. (Walker left in his senior year to take a job offer.)
Rowe begins with a long and very funny description of how he got his first television job for the online shopping network QVC. It’s subtle, but you might also notice that he makes an implicit comparison between the job of president and that of a QVC pitchman. He concludes with an argument against “confus[ing] qualifications with competency.”
I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning. And I think that making elected office contingent on a college degree is maybe the worst idea I’ve ever heard.
Given that every president since Reagan has been a graduate of either Harvard or Yale—and they haven’t even gotten close to matching the results of the bumpkin who graduated from Eureka College—it’s certainly reasonable to suspect that those Ivy League credentials aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
But the whole controversy isn’t really about Scott Walker’s qualifications. It’s about something deeper.
On the surface, of course, it’s certainly about Scott Walker. The left-leaning mainstream media senses that he’s a potential danger. After all, he has won three straight elections in a swing state, while challenging the public employees’ unions head-on and significantly reducing their government privileges. (This is precisely what makes him interesting to those of us on the right.) The mainstream media feel that they need to disqualify him now, so they’re looking for anything they can use against him.
But behind that, there is a more visceral reaction. The real purpose of higher education is to learn the knowledge and skills required for success later in life. So if someone has already become a success, whether or not he went to college is irrelevant. If he has achieved the end, what does it matter that he didn’t do it by way of that specific means? But for the mainstream elites, particularly those at the top level in the media, a college education is not simply a means to an end. It is itself a key attainment that confers a special social status.
There are no real class divisions in America except one: the college-educated versus the non-college educated. It helps to think of this in terms borrowed from the world of a Jane Austen novel: graduating from college is what makes you a “gentleman.” (A degree from an Ivy League school makes you part of the aristocracy.) It qualifies you to marry the right people and hold the right kind of positions. It makes you respectable. And even if you don’t achieve much in the world of work and business, even if you’re still working as a barista ten years later, you still retain that special status. It’s a modern form of “genteel poverty,” which is considered superior to the regular kind of poverty.
If you don’t have a college degree, by contrast, you are looked down upon as a vulgar commoner who is presumptuously attempting to rise above his station. Which is pretty much what they’re saying about Scott Walker. This prejudice is particularly strong when applied to anyone from the right, whose retrograde views are easily attributed to his lack of attendance at the gentleman’s finishing school that is the university.
That brings us to the heart of the matter. I have observed before that left-leaning politics has become “part of the cultural class identity of college-educated people,” a prejudice that lingers long after they have graduated. You can see how this goes the other way, too. If to be college-educated is to have left-leaning views—then to have the “correct” political values, one must be college-educated.
You can see now what is fueling the reaction on the left. If Scott Walker can run for president, he is challenging the basic cultural class identity of the mainstream left. He is more than a threat to the Democrats’ hold on political power. He is a threat to the existing social order.