by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
[E]specially after the 2016 election, and as I began my work helping to start Braver Angels, a nonprofit devoted to political depolarization among citizens, I was struck by the ideologically motivated levels of deep distrust I saw among college-educated, relatively affluent Americans. On a given day, a college-educated conservative might tell me it’s too dangerous to participate in a dialogue with a Black Lives Matter activist. On the other end, a college-educated progressive might tell me that it’s too dangerous to participate in a dialogue with a Trump-supporting Tea Party activist. In both cases, “I don’t trust those kinds of people” becomes the default response.
As it turns out, research is showing that college-educated Americans are quietly experiencing a surge in distrust in ways that may be dramatically affecting the body politic. How is this rise in distrust manifesting itself among the college-educated? And what might it suggest about the dimensions of America’s crisis of trust?
First, an important May 2021 report from More in Common found that: “the most ideological segments—Progressive Activists, Traditional Conservatives, and Devoted Conservatives—have higher levels of interpersonal trust even as they have the most polarized views towards institutions.” Those groups are also among the most educated and have higher incomes. For instance, when asked if they feel that federal government is “dishonest,” 59% of people with incomes of $120,000 or more said “yes,” compared to 48% of those with incomes under $20,000.
Second, a June 2019 More in Common report found that, at least among Democrats, the more educated you are, the more you inaccurately ascribe (in an unflattering direction) the views of people who disagree with you. Specifically, “Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.”