On the same day that Matt Dunne scored a political trifecta — netting the endorsements of two major unions plus seven members of Burlington City Council — fellow gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter launched a bold initiative that strikes me as great policy and sound politics.
Sue Minter, a Democratic candidate for governor, says her initiative, “Vermont Promise,” would give Vermont high school students the opportunity to attend the Community College of Vermont or Vermont Technical College for free for the first two years. After that, students would be able to continue their schooling for half the current cost of tuition.
Minter unveiled the program on Tuesday, California primary day, and suffered the same undercoverage that befell Dunne’s endorsement news.
Vermont Promise strikes at the heart of a fundamental inequity of living in Vermont: the high cost of college. It’s a strong, clear idea, as opposed to the higher-education incrementalism of the Shumlin years. It would provide a huge boost to working-class Vermont students who’ve had trouble reaching the next rung on the ladder — and to employers who’ve been desperate for trained, or trainable, workers.
Minter pointed out that Vermont has one of the nation’s highest rates of high school graduation, but one of the lowest rates in continuing on to post-secondary education. This is a break point in our education system, a roadblock to success for young people, and a damper on our economy.
She even identified a revenue source for the projected cost ($6 million the first year, $12 million a year after that, which seems amazingly low-cost for such a win-win program):
Vermont Promise would be funded by an increase in the bank franchise fee and would impose a new corporate income tax on the state’s largest banks. Minter says the biggest banks in New Hampshire and New York pay a corporate income tax, while those in Vermont do not.
“In my plan, banks pay their fair share, and students get their fair shake,” she said.
Policy-wise, I think it’s great. And it’s smart politics in two ways.
First, the Minter campaign has struggled to establish an identity, even as Matt Dunne has been maneuvering to her left. This is the kind of policy initiative that would give her credibility.
And second, the Democratic Party has a serious problem with non-college-educated whites, a sizable constituency in Vermont — and one seemingly tailored for the folksy race-driver persona of likely Republican nominee Phil Scott.
To give you an idea of the extent of the Dems’ difficulties with those fondly dubbed “the poorly educated” by Donald Trump, here are a couple of numbers that, frankly, shocked me:
In recent polls, nearly two-thirds of non-college-educated whites favor Trump for president.
In 2012, 61 percent of non-college-educated whites voted for Mitt Romney. Mitt Freakin’ Romney, the preppiest presidential candidate in our nation’s history.
That seems otherworldly weird to me. The vast majority of white people with a high school degree or less — almost all of them presumably working-class — voted for a soulless plutocrat in 2012 and are prepared to vote for an even more soulless plutocrat this year.
Sure, some of it is identity politics, but still.
And let’s not lean on the “uninformed voters” trope. It’s condescending to write off working-class whites as too dumb to know what’s good for them. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these people are honestly voting in ways that express their interests and aspirations. (In the words of Louis C.K., “a 55-year-old garbageman is smarter than a 28-year-old with three Ph.D’s. He’s seen more. He has more experience.”)
Why doesn’t the Democratic Party appeal to them?
Many reasons, I’m sure. Their footsie-playing with the rich and powerful and their incremental policymaking don’t help. But here are a couple more things to ponder.
— When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you’re not high enough on Maslow’s Hierarchy to worry about social justice or climate change or any other expansive view of the world. You need to buy food and pay the rent and avoid financial disaster. You can’t afford to worry about the beneficial effects of a carbon tax, say; you have to fill that gas tank as cheaply as possible.
— You are effectively attached to the short-term success of the economy, no matter what the longer-term implications. If you work a production line or a call center, if you’re a convenience store cashier, if you’re in sales or drive a delivery truck, you need business to thrive. That makes the concerns of business more immediate and crucial than the more abstract ideas of liberal politics. From that perspective, it’s understandable why successful men who seemingly know how to generate wealth are attractive candidates for leadership.
— You see government as a faceless entity that seems to serve everyone besides you. The social safety net doesn’t help you much, and it seemingly siphons the government’s time and resources away from addressing your worries.
— You see liberal politicians talking in academic ways about abstract issues, or spending their time on things that are irrelevant to your struggles. GMO labeling, marriage equality, energy siting, marijuana legalization? Above your pay grade, either irrelevant or (at best) tangential in your lives.
Meanwhile, you see government seemingly powerless to address, or uncaring about, the great forces grinding away at your soul. So you ally yourself with the great forces and hope for the best.
Offering a cost-free doorway to college is a wonderful way to show “the poorly educated” that liberals care about them and can actually deliver meaningful progress. It’s the kind of thing that people can rally around.
I’m not saying we should pay no attention to abstract, longer-term issues. I am saying we need a balance, and we definitely need to give working-class whites a reason to vote liberal. My response to Vermont Promise?
Good, really good. Now more, please.