Sue Minter and the “poorly educated” vote

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.

4 thoughts on “Sue Minter and the “poorly educated” vote

  1. seth802

    The four reasons you offer in answer to the question “why doesn’t the Democratic Party appeal to them [the ‘poorly educated’]” are basically spot-on. The Maslow hierarchy aspect is undeniable, and your points #1, #2, and #4 are insightful variations on that same theme.

    One suggestion, though: it’s not, as per your point #3, that they fret that the government’s time and resources are siphoned away from addressing their worries. Rather, it’s that they perceive that their own time and resources are siphoned away from them by the government.

    And that government appears to be working for the benefit of either (1) a well-connected elite governing class and its allies or (2) the social safety net that you identify as not being of much help to them. The end result is the same: a hollowing-out of the middle class. The non-college educated used to have a reasonable expectation to a life solidly within the middle class. Policies from both Left and Right over the last generation or so have basically locked them out of the middle class, and ill-serve a large part of American society.

    Hillary talking with a smile on her face about putting a lot of coal miners out of work (for the higher-up-on-Maslow goal of fighting global warming), while Trump promises paternal protection (the wall, tariffs on imports, making deals with other countries that will be good for them but great for America) is a good example of why they’re voting the way they are.

    Seth Hopkins, Brandon VT.

  2. Faith King

    “Their footsie-playing with the rich and powerful and their incremental policymaking don’t help.” You’ve just described Hillary Clinton. The only piece missing is hawkish, war-mongering foreign policy. As for “GMO labeling, marriage equality, energy siting, marijuana legalization”, you’re quite right about these issues being tangential. I’d add they are tangential to a lot of people’s lives – college educated or not. Nice issues, don’t get me wrong, but frosting on a stinky cake when you barely make enough to cover your bills. Degree or not, most if us are working class with flat-lined salaries. Symbolic, identity victories for a rich and powerful member of the ruling elite are meaningless. But this is what decades of incrementalism has brought us. The Book of Matthew got it right – who the hell gives people a “stone” when they are “asking for bread?”

  3. Walter Carpenter

    “I am saying we need a balance, and we definitely need to give working-class whites a reason to vote liberal.”

    This is true. I work with lots of working-class white folks here and about ninety percent of them seem to love the Bern for the same reasons laid out in this post.

  4. newzjunqie

    I think you’ve nailed it as personally believe I made a mistake not voting for Romney simply b/c I don’t like the guy.
    Most of left are the rebels of the 60s-70s. And are now the establishment, doctrinaire elitists & have become all about passing legislation & supporting “the platform” while the lives of the worker get worse & worse as we are the ones paying for it all. Have become as despised as their establishment counterparts they also despised.

    Health care & single-payer a mere sellout of us all to corporate-controlled overlords, hospital associations including the seizing control of medical practices, turning doctors into shift employees who represent hospital & not the patient, nonprofits & their lobbying firms under the guise of saving money & making our lives better — it hasn’t, we’re far worse off only the rich have gotten richer & those who work for the Medical Industrial Complex. Ridding us of greedy insurance companies only to be replaced by greedy bureaucrats & ACOs limiting care under a government structure that gives dizzying myriad of their workers & families career-to-grave taxpayer benefits while we have nothing to show for any of it but astronomical cost or marginalized crappy care for those of us who do not receive publicly-funded cadillac insurance or paychecks.

    Reading between the lines of the far-reaching expansive goals of the power elites for the rest of us: “Blueprint for a Low-Carbon Economy” speaks volumes about the hardship lifestyle, limited autonomy & narrow guidelines that is being & will be more so in the future, foisted upon the lives of primarily working class ppl corralled into the limited space sardine-can of an increasingly controlled collectivist environment. And I dare say most of them don’t even know about this newest wonk-authored policy-paper. Seems like the elitist club members don’t want this passed around as the download eventually self-destructs.

    I see VPIRGs very own Ben Walsh has a hand in authoring this dystopian vision for ‘We The (little) People’– not supporting VPIRG anymore.

    Reason maryjane legalization failed is that the big growers, LE & other special interests who pay the salaries of lawmakers couldn’t get what they wanted.

    I’m a #nevertrump however the right & Libertarians will become the heroes of the working class championing our goals if they can only get their shit together.


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