Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Faricy, Christopher G.
American Politics, Congress, Education, Electoral realignments, Political parties
Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences
In recent decades, observers of American politics noticed a growing divide in the voting behavior of individuals with and without a college education. Today, Americans with a college degree are much more likely to support the Democratic Party and those without a college degree are much more likely to support the Republican Party. This trend, concentrated among whites, is a reversal of voting behavior in the past. I call this reversal the education realignment: the movement of college educated whites from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party; and of non-college educated whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. While there has been much work conducted on the causes of this realignment, there is less work on its effects. This dissertation attempts to fill that gap in our understanding of this phenomenon by examining the effects of the education realignment on party position taking.
Because public opinion research finds a consistent effect of educational attainment on a wide variety of political attitudes, this dissertation hypothesizes the removal of less educated voters and addition of highly educated voters in the Democratic Party and the opposite in the Republican Party are likely to affect the kinds of positions both parties take. Specifically, I expect the parties to become more internally united yet further apart from one another on social issues; and to become more internally divided yet closer together on economic issues. This is based on research which finds greater education is associated with more liberal positions on social issues and more conservative positions on economic issues. The theory presented here builds on prior work on party position taking which argued changes in a party's coalition can have significant effects on the kinds of positions that party takes.
I test this theory using three different issue areas: (1) LGBTQ+ rights; (2) environmental protection; and (3) economic regulation. Party position taking is measured as the positions taken by both parties' members in the U.S. Congress; and I use data from congressional scorecards produced by interest groups who lobby on these three issue areas. I track outliers in both parties on these issues over time and examine whether these outliers were affected by the education realignment. On the two social issue cases, LGBTQ+ rights and environmental protection, I find strong support for my theory: the education realignment contributed to the removal of socially liberal Republicans and socially conservative Democrats in Congress; and they were replaced by socially liberal Democrats and socially conservative Republicans respectively. This resulted in more polarized parties on social issues, but also parties which were in greater agreement on these issues than in years past.
Less support is found for the education realignment affecting party position taking on economic regulation, especially for the Republican Party. Despite increasingly drawing their support from more economically populist, less educated voters, Republicans in Congress maintain very conservative positions on economic policy. There are more robust findings among Democrats: The chief effect of the education realignment was the transformation of who economic conservatives in the Democratic Party are and what kinds of constituents they represent. Whereas in years past, conservative Democrats hailed from less educated constituencies and were outliers on both economic and social issues, today's typical conservative Democrat represents highly educated voters and are only outliers on economic policy.
This dissertation finds support for the education realignment affecting party position taking, with the greatest effects on social issues rather than economic issues. As the realignment progresses, these effects should only become more prominent.
Kersting, Joel B., "The Effect of the Education Realignment on Party Position Taking in the United States" (2022). Dissertations - ALL. 1563.