TCS Daily

Too Smart for Their Own Good?

By Ilya Shapiro - December 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Exit polls are useful. Not for predicting the results of a close race in a battleground state, but for gauging larger cross-electoral trends. Big picture stuff, not how many precincts vote on moral values in Franklin County, Ohio.

To put it another way, getting accurate real-time results of presidential balloting is impossible in states where the expected difference between candidates is less than the margin of error inherent to any statistical sampling method. Too many things can go wrong: too many/few women are asked; voters of one party tended to vote before/after the poll was taken; more/less people voted in counties without exit pollsters; etc. This is what happened on November 2, to the chagrin of those Kerry supporters who had booked their inaugural tickets before polls had even closed on the east coast. (Full disclosure: I worked on the Bush-Cheney 04 policy staff the last few months of the campaign.)


On the other hand, exit polls are invaluable for understanding public opinion across the country and historically, as divided by the usual broad demographic groups: sex, age, ethnicity, religion, income, and so forth. The wealth of data gleaned from these seemingly simple categories makes for good op-ed fodder, as well as posing profound questions for social science research. From punditry about Purple America to annotated multi-volume studies about the significance of exurbia in the early 21st century, what we learn from exit polls informs how we think about this countrys socio-political future.


One lesson that exit polls definitively reinforced this past election is that too many Americans disregard Mark Twains wisdom by letting formal schooling get in the way of their life education. That is, people with at least some post-graduate education, 16% of voters this time around, are the only educational cohort -- aside from high school dropouts, who represent 4% of voters -- that voted for John Kerry. And they voted for him by eleven points, whereas President Bush won college graduates by six points, those with some college education by eight points, and high school graduates by five. And people wonder why those making a living in the real world have such disdain for pointy-headed intellectuals.


Of course, the story is more complex than that; the 16% post-graduate elite also includes presumably Republican-leaning fat-cat MBAs and doctors -- as well as trial lawyers who, while overwhelmingly Democrat, appear to share little else in common with college professors. Nevertheless, this is the only slice of the nations academic pie -- along with the aforementioned sliver of dropouts -- that has historically, going back about 40 years, voted Democratic. Thus, the party that considers itself as standing up for the interests of the common man actually represents the least common people in America, those several standard deviations from the norm.


It may be easy to explain why those on the bottom of the educational totem pole vote Democrat: forcible redistribution helps them in the short term much more than gradually increasing economic dynamism. But what about the lords of the sheepskin? Are they so divorced from reality as to fall for a variety of utopian schemes in the guise of social engineering? In a word, yes.


Moreover, as the late political philosopher Robert Nozick described in his bluntly titled, Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?, there is an element of cognitive dissonance here. Many of those who attain educational distinction look askance at a world where college dropouts like Bill Gates are billionaires, where the most successful are not necessarily those who graduate summa cum laude. Used to constantly receiving recognition for being the smartest kids in the class, these academic over-achievers cannot countenance that the market rewards people according to the raw economic value they add to society, and not by exam results and scores from aptitude tests.


William F. Buckley was on the same track when he remarked that hed rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Cambridge phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard. Simply put, once a person gets so detached from regular society and finds that incentives and rewards dont work the same way on Main Street as they do in the ivory tower, he becomes resentful. This resentment, when combined with an unhealthy faith in the centralized control of philosopher kings, leads to voting behavior hostile to the spontaneous order of the free market.


The obvious solution, then, and one that should ensure pro-market policies in all branches of government -- if you accept my implicit premise that Republicans are generally better at this than Democrats, which at times may be a Pyrrhic distinction -- is to disenfranchise anybody who enrolls in graduate school. It may be a funny idea, but there is a strong institutional argument in its favor; those with advanced degrees already have more than enough power, so their interests are already over-represented.


At the same time, only those with a true stake in society will have a direct say in its politics. Picture it: along with your application to law school or a doctoral program, you get a voter de-registration card, which you have to submit upon matriculation.


And all because of those flawed exit polls.


Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He last wrote for TCS about Friday Night Lights.


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