In an article in The Economist titled: Return of the paranoid style - Fake news is fooling more conservatives than liberals. Why?, the author states:

Conservatives’ complaints that elites are not on their side have become more plausible. In many countries the old left-right political divide, based on economics, has been replaced by a liberal-conservative split, based on culture. This largely pits liberal graduates against conservative school-leavers ... But when Brexiteers complain that the civil service is a nest of Remainers, or Republicans growl that America’s universities are stuffed with liberals, they are right.

What do they mean by this? Why are the liberals said to be "graduates", while conservatives are "school-leavers"? Is there evidence that "America’s universities are stuffed with liberals"?

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    We can't answer why the Economist says liberals are graduates. You'd have to ask them. The area itself is not off-topic. See e.g. this answer which explicitly answers the UK angle. Tories have a definite majority among those with no more than a GCSE.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 16:12
  • The most likely correlation is that graduates both tend to be from economically better-off backgrounds, and go into better-paid occupations. Remain appears considerably more "conservative" in my view, and Brexiteers more "radical" (although there is not necessarily a single ideology). The argument that it's "culture" is, itself, an old Blairite (i.e. Remainer, conservative) device for denying the economic basis of people's demands or complaints.
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 0:46
  • if you sort a list of US states by % with a degree, all the 2016 clinton states are contiguous (most), as are trump states (least), with two exceptions: New Mexico and Kansas.
    – dandavis
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 4:07
  • @Steve What economic basis are you talking about here, immigrant vs native labor or trade goods vs native industries?
    – Teleka
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 7:32
  • @Teleka, it can be both. My point is it's not primarily cultural clash, it is the fact that importing scab labour (for example), or offshoring work to scab labour (in order to reimport the product), is seen to reduce job opportunities at the bottom end and aggravate shortages of public infrastructure, whereas it is not seen to do so to the same extent for the rich (for example, profits or mansion houses are not seen to reduce, and senior managers are normally retained on the same wages). The correlation between education and politics, is really the correlation between class and politics.
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 11:48

2 Answers 2


The sentence in bold is a reasonable generalization about overall voting patterns in recent decades, in the US, UK and elsewhere. Here is data from the 2019 UK election from YouGov. Voters with a degree are almost half as likely as those with a low level of education to vote Conservative.

Vote level by education

I will also note that the title of the Economist article is a clear reference to a classic essay from the 1960s, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" by Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter basically argued that conservatives frequently pander to anti-intellectual conspiracy theories.


I'll start with something an acquaintance told me a long time ago; it's anecdotal, but indicative. He said (paraphrasing):

People go to college in order to be employees. People who want to be the boss go to work.

This reflects a prominent attitude in conservative culture, that the proper purpose of higher education is to train people with professional skills that will increase the wage they draw when they are employed by someone else. Education does not confer ownership or property rights, and people who want to own and run a business do not need it, particularly. One can hire an accountant, a lawyer, or a management specialist if one likes; one does not need to know those skills to be a success. And becoming a success — in the social, economic, material sense of the word — is key to the conservative mindset. It is arguably why conservatives are so resistant to social change. They became successes within the rules of society as it is; critiquing, attacking, or delegitimizing the social order critiques, attacks, and delegitimizes their own success.

As a result, conservatives don't see much point in extended collegiate study. They might want to go a to a good university — because a degree from someplace like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, or etc is a mark of social success regardless of whether or not one learns anything — but that's about the extent of it. Relatively few conservatives set their eye on a professional career as a teaching professor, because even the highest-ranking professor is merely an employee of some university. One does not make real success (social or economic) in the halls of academia.

On the other hand, the liberal mindset lends itself to critiques of society. It is more interested in abstract ideals like justice or equity than concrete ideals like success, less inclined to accept the status quo as intrinsically good, and — among intellectuals, at least — curious about the structures, systems, and potential solutions that can only be found through research. Where conservatives follow their natural inclinations out of the university environment into the practical world, liberals follow their own inclinations into that deeply intellectual world that can only be found in higher education.

The outcome is a pronounced imbalance. We will naturally find more liberal-minded people in academic positions — particularly within those fields that conservatives think are 'useless' — just as we will naturally find more conservative-minded people among business owners and CEOs. I'm sure the same is true of the UK civil service. It's a feature of the system, not a bug. There's no way it could really be otherwise, short of a whole lot of conservatives abandoning the things they value to fill academic positions in fields they consider useless.

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    It might be worth further clarifying that success here is self measured.
    – Caleth
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 7:59
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    The whole matter is a chicken or the egg debate. There's no clear explanation for why (or even evidence as clear as everyone likes to believe exists) academics trend heavily liberal, in large part because there's no clear data. There are massive reporting and selection biases involved. If you're conservative but think that might hurt your standing, you'll not own up to it all that readily; if you're conservative leaning and are told that universities are liberal brainwashing facilities, then that will make you less likely to go to them. And similar things from the other side. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 9:38
  • 2
    Not to mention your whole spiel glosses over the feature that higher population densities positively correlate with liberal tendencies, regardless of education levels. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 9:40
  • @zibadawa-timmy, couldn't that be because you often have to be a liberal professional to dwell in city centres and such? In other words, it is not that higher densities cause liberal tendencies, it's that the liberal tendencies caused by being middle-class professionals, results in being able to live in high-density areas where costs are often high. When the poor live in high densities without the funds to avoid squalor, the result is not usually liberalism, but radicalism and lawlessness.
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 14:34
  • @Caleth: I took that as assumed, but I'll see if I can make it more explicit Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 15:11

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