Thomas Wesner, a law professor Boston College, and Peter Skerry, a professor in the political science department, headlined a CAB-sponsored reflection on the recent midterm elections. The two men addressed the divisions present in the United States and their growing importance in politics.
Skerry—who spoke first—approached the topic by analyzing the effects of education on voting patterns, especially among white voters. He cited statistics demonstrating that the majority of non-college educated whites voted for Republicans, while the majority of college-educated whites voted for Democrats.
He credited “enormous changes in the economy over the last several decades and declining opportunities and standard of living” as partially responsible for this divergence, although he also emphasized the importance of cultural issues.
To exemplify this, Skerry pointed to the American Values Survey. Each year, the survey asks if American culture and the country’s way of life has improved or declined since the 1950s. Fifty percent of Americans answered for the better, while 47 percent said for the worse.
Even more interestingly, Skerry noted, 58 percent of college-educated whites see things as having improved, whereas 57 percent of non-college-educated whites see things as having regressed.
“The well-off see things as having gotten better culturally, and the way of life in America—the not-so-well-off whites see things as having gotten worse,” he said. “That’s a pretty stark difference, and it’s reflected in the voting numbers.”
Skerry went on to cite increased death rates among working-class white males, in part due to opioid use, as contributing to the disaffection of working-class whites with American culture.
Skerry also cast doubt on the argument that white voters’ political behavior is a reaction to the gains made by black people since the end of segregation, saying that he finds this unconvincing. Rather, he sees the emergence of multiculturalism and the broader debate about immigration as key contributing factors to the observed voting trends.
He warned the audience that struggling white families, who already can feel marginalized by political elites and the media, see forecasts that the U.S. will become a majority-minority society as unwelcome.
“It just feels like a message that’s guaranteed to antagonize and frustrate them, and I think that’s what we’ve done,” he said.
Skerry concluded by asking students to pay more attention to white working class communities in the future.
“We need to understand where they’re coming from and not resort to cheap explanations that they’re racist,” he said.
Wesner’s take on the midterms offered a more personal, politically-charged perspective. After posing broad questions about the state of democracy in America, Wesner returned to the question of whether America is on the decline or on the upswing. Once the audience hesitated to commit to either side, he offered a third option: neutrality, which quickly received a majority of votes. Wesner contrasted their reply with his own view of America as a young man.
“I think we’re a fractured republic—I think we’re a nation divided, more and more,” Wesner said.
“I thought the future was bright. I was told that you could become anything you want to in America if you worked really hard and prayed really hard. I went to Boston College, so maybe no surprise that the Jesuits added ‘and prayed really hard.’ But I just believed we were on the upswing, and I grew up in a home where every other family party I went to had the same black-and-white photo of Neil Armstrong standing on the lunar surface with the American flag spiked into the moon.”
He compared the hope and national pride of decades past with his opinion of the current president, lamenting President Donald Trump’s comments about the media and women. He thanked the students in attendance for “caring enough about [their] democracy and [their] country to come and talk about the election.”
From there, he examined various demographic voting divisions, especially the overall shift of women towards the left despite the steadfast commitment of white women without a college degree to the Republican party. He also echoed Skerry’s conclusion that the greatest political split today is that of education level.
On the topic of geographical sorting, Wesner noted that Democrats did well in urban areas and pulled even with Republicans in the suburbs, although the 2018 midterm was “a blue wave, but not a tsunami.” As a consequence of this success, he thinks Republicans would need to do better in both cities and the suburbs to win in 2020.
Wesner also explored problems—including social security, the national debt, Medicaid, and Medicare—that will be relevant in future elections, before leaving on a call of action for a new generation.
“What kind of leader are you going to be?” he said. “How are you going to bring this country together? That’s the burden for your generation—that’s the moonshot for your generation, and we are rooting for you.”
Featured Image by Taylor Perison / Heights Staff