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In the U.S., are people with more education more likely to vote liberal and progressive, or is this merely a perception? If yes, is this true in general, or only for certain disciplines? Are there any studies investigating the causes?

In Sweden and in The Netherlands, it is a bit more complicated; the traditional left is larger among lower-educated people, but the greens are larger among higher-educated people.

I do have my own personal theory as to the causes, but that one is entirely subjective and not backed up by any evidence

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    there is a correlation. Academia itself is considered to be liberal Dec 19 '12 at 22:35
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    This is not what I said. I didn't say people with more edication, but people with specialties in "soft" fields (e.g. "social science" vs "Engineering")
    – user4012
    Dec 19 '12 at 22:46
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    @DVK - Those of us in the social sciences (for myself, psychology) usually prefer it to be called just that: the social sciences. "Soft sciences" implies such professions are somehow not hard work and specialized fields. Just wanted to drop that comment. Also, hello! :) Dec 20 '12 at 9:53
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    Please note: The author tried to keep the question "constructive" — i.e. suitable for a Stack Exchange-style Q&A — by asking for studies. Answers that are simply soapboxing with partisanship speech-making and opinion will be and have been removed. This is not the place for this. Please see Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. Dec 20 '12 at 17:27
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    @RobertCartaino - by the time you deleted my answer, it was backed up by actual exit polls. How's that "opinion"?
    – user4012
    Dec 20 '12 at 17:59
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If by liberal and progressive you imply in the use that they tend to vote Democrat, the answer should be yes, but not by as large a margin as is usually implied/guessed.

As an example we can take the exit polls from the 2012 presidential race, we see that while Obama won in most of the educational categories (look at the NYTimes) he did win by significantly higher margins in the postgraduate part of the population (+13 percentage points), lost college graduates by 4%, and won people with some college by 1%.

Who % Population Obama Romney Obama's Margin
People with no higher education at all 53% 51% 47% 4%
People with some college 29% 49% 48% 1%
College educated 29% 47% 51% -4%
Postgraduate 18% 55% 42% 13%

The same holds true for the Senate races where the Democrats control "safely" the potsgraduates.

Or you can look at a typical red state (Texas) where the only group democrats carried consistently are postgraduates.

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  • If you wish to talk about the margin I imply, you will need the polls broken out by the major they studied.
    – user4012
    Dec 19 '12 at 23:43
  • do you have numbers to back that up? I could not find such exit polls Dec 19 '12 at 23:47
  • I could not either, thus it was a comment, not an answer :) But anekdotally, it's true that a vast majority of liberal arts majors are liberal, and a lot more of them than hard science ones. There exist both free market and non free market economists, but I don't think you can find a lot of republican-supporting ethnic studies, social studies, English or "journalism" majors.
    – user4012
    Dec 20 '12 at 0:13
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    You should probably mention that presidential runs are anecdotes and not scientific data. In the campaign the candidates specifically targeted sectors of the electorate based on a number of subjective criteria: this makes it very likely that the polls merely represents the candidates' marketing campaign strategy and not some deeper truth.
    – Sklivvz
    Dec 25 '12 at 20:08
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    Just came across this, and I'm wondering whether there should actually be two "college" rows as the % of population adds up to a total of 129% as it is? Jul 28 '13 at 20:23
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In general, this is the recent trend, with the tipping point somewhere between 1996 and the year 2000. Some of this transition reflects the ongoing process of Democrats and Republicans trading places as the liberal and conservative parties respectively, called realignment, that started around 1965 and has now largely run its course. See, for example, these charts:

enter image description here

enter image description here

Exit polls from 2020 reveal that the trends seen in 2016 and 2018 continued into the 2020 election.

If yes, is this true in general, or only for certain disciplines?

The class of people with higher education is heterogenous politically in a manner heavily influenced by industry and occupation as illustrated by the chart below using data from 2000 through 2012 but which probably remains true on a relative basis even though there is an overall shift to the left among more educated Americans:

enter image description here

Some fields like academics, entertainment, reporters, and tech company employees are consistently left leaning. Some fields like fossil fuels, agriculture, and construction are consistently right leaning.

No professions or industries are consistently moderate, but lawyers, pharma, real estate, finance and non-fossil fuel mining are bimodal.

In the case of lawyers, this largely represents alignments with core client bases. Personal injury and criminal defense lawyers lean left, insurance defense and corporate lawyers lean right. Professional political workers are likewise bimodal.

In pharma and non-fossil fuel mining, this is largely a reflection of left leaning scientific and technical workers v. right leaning corporate side executives.

In the case of real estate and finance this is largely a reflection of geography. Real estate and finance officials in large left leaning cities lean left, those in smaller towns and rural areas lean right.

Among people in business, middle to upper management and professional employees in big business (who aren't actually top management) tend to be to the left of owners and top level managers of small businesses.

Scientists, in general, lean left:

enter image description here

Among clergy, political leanings track denominations which very widely in their overall political tendencies. For example, mainline religious denomination clergy tend to be well to the left of clergy in predominantly white Evangelical Christian denominations.

Trends associated with gender, age, nativity (i.e. foreign born or not), race, ethnicity, religion, and geography, however, are comparable in magnitude to education and occupation.

Are there any studies investigating the causes?

Yes. But the answer to this subquestion is too long for me to provide with proper citations right now, and it can't be reduced to a pithy sentence or two without capturing some complex reasons related to history and intersectionality in addition to a few general trend rules and shifts in political party coalitions.

Generally speaking affluence and great economic security are associated with liberalism and secularism, while economic scarcity and economic insecurity are associated with conservatism and placing a high importance on religion in one's life, on a broad, cross-cultural basis. This is shown, for example, by the World Values Survey.

One starts from that foundation and then explores why exceptions have emerged in the U.S. historically from this general trend (e.g. why African-Americans in the U.S. have tended to be both politically liberal and religious relative to the general public, despite comparatively high levels of economic scarcity relative to the U.S. population as a whole, and why the white working class in the U.S. was once much more liberal than it is now when it has reverted to the cross-cultural long term norm).

In a nutshell, African-Americans (and non-Christians who would otherwise be inclined to be conservative) have leaned left because existential survival issues at the fate of conservatives who have demonized them has been more important for them.

American working class whites veered left from the end of World War II through the early 1970s, due to unprecedented prosperity and economic security, and a strong union movement, in this time period that steadily deteriorated with offshoring and automation, and with the post-World War II recovery of markets that the U.S. which was spared most of the devastation of World War II supplied upon they could meet their own needs again creating a thriving demand for exports in this time period. This situation has kept getting worse and come to a breaking point that has particularly pushed white working class men in the direction of extreme conservatism and has also mostly stripped them of their links to the union movement.

The rise of public sector unionization has also impacted the shift of educated people to the left. Unionization has thrived in the public sector, which has also grown steadily in share of employment, because it hasn't been subject to the same intense offshoring and automation pressures, and the shrinking of export markets, that the private sector has seen, and tends to require well educated employees.

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  • From the Pew research figure, it remains to be seen if 2016 (and 2020) form a trend, or if the shift is a response to Trump and may reverse if (and that's a big if) the Republican Party shifts away from Trump-style politics again.
    – gerrit
    yesterday
  • @gerrit In theory, yes. Looking at the campaign season shaping up in 2022 and recent polling, it doesn't look temporary.
    – ohwilleke
    yesterday
  • I suspect Trump has had a lasting impact on the style of the Republican Party and its voter base (and maybe Trump isn't entirely gone yet either).
    – gerrit
    yesterday
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Yes, but it is a recent change in the making.

In the past, highly educated people in the US and elsewhere tended to vote for conservative parties at a higher rate than the general population. The answer above is talking about 2012. I'm honestly surprised at how old this answer was.

However, a long running trend was the reversal of this pattern. Joe Biden's strength (or rather Donald Trump's weakness) in suburbs gave him roughly 60% of the vote among Americans who had a 4 year college education. The main cause of this trend is ideological polarization, which means that political party becomes essentially equivalent to ideology.

Another manifestation of this trend is that the support of left wing parties (not just in the US but around the world) is crumbling among the blue collar less strongly educated working class in part because these communities are often socially conservative. We could see examples of voters who supported Democrats despite strong conservative and religious fundamentalist attitudes.

The question said are they more likely to vote liberal. But the article says "The Democratic advantage among college graduates may be a new phenomenon, but the relative liberalism of college graduates is not. College graduates have been far likelier than voters without a college degree to self-identify as liberal for decades, even when they were likelier to vote Republican."

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  • The Democratic party and Republican party came close to trading positions on the left-right political scale in the time frame shown on the chart, initially, driven by the Democratic party's move to embrace civil rights and the GOP's response starting around the Goldwater candidacy to embrace former Democrats unhappy about this development.
    – ohwilleke
    yesterday
  • However, the less strongly educated working class was already conservative in the past. Rank-and-file labour union members did not necessarily support feminism 100 years ago either, so I'm not sure if this can explain the trend as such.
    – gerrit
    yesterday

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