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It’s been a couple of weeks now since the nation was introduced to the execrable Michele Bachmann (R-MN) when she called for witchhunts to ferret out “anti-Americanism” in Congress.

Some of us, especially those who watched her rise in Minnesota, were not shocked. While in the Minnesota House, Bachmann noticed that most college professors are politically liberal. Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion (that education generally leads to the left), she declared that colleges have a hiring bias toward liberals, who then indoctrinate students into liberal thinking, perpetuating the cycle. She called for legislation requiring that Minnesota colleges hire 50 percent Republicans and 50 percent Democrats.

(The bill was DOA.)

I do think education leads to the left by exposing the mind to the wider world, to a variety of ideas and people, thereby reducing fear of the Other — a fear Bachmann still has in spades. This acceptance of difference is at the heart of the divide between liberal and conservative thinking. Conservatism embodies our evolved tendency to value what is familiar, shared, and traditional while distrusting the unfamiliar or foreign. Liberalism tends instead to distrust sameness and to see greater value in diversity and change.

This election captures that distinction spot-on. One candidate, the familiar and safe archetype of the politician/war hero, has benefited from (and at times encouraged) fear of the unfamiliar, and therefore unsafe, Other.

If it’s true that education leads to the left and diminishes fear, fear-based campaigning should increase in effectiveness as education levels decrease, and you’d expect states with the lowest per-capita educational attainment to favor the fearmongering candidate.

The list below ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia in order by proportion of college degrees in the population (highest to lowest). Those in blue are favoring Obama (as of Nov. 1). Those in red favor McCain. Black indicates a current toss-up:

TOP THIRD BY EDUCATION LEVEL (15 blue, 2 red)
District of Columbia
Massachusetts
Maryland
Colorado
Virginia
New Hampshire
Connecticut
New Jersey
Minnesota
Vermont
Kansas
California
New York
Washington
Utah
Delaware
Illinois

MIDDLE THIRD BY EDUCATION LEVEL (7 blue, 8 red, 2 toss-up)
Rhode Island
Hawaii
Nebraska
Missouri
Oregon
Arizona
Florida
North Dakota
Georgia
Ohio
Montana
Pennsylvania
Texas
Iowa
Oklahoma
Wisconsin
Alaska

BOTTOM THIRD BY EDUCATION LEVEL (12 red, 4 blue, 1 toss-up)
South Dakota
North Carolina
Maine
New Mexico
Tennessee
Michigan
Alabama
Idaho
Louisiana
South Carolina
Indiana
Kentucky
Nevada
Wyoming
Mississippi
Arkansas
West Virginia

[Source: Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the 2003 Current Population Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, 2003-04, quoted here. State electoral polling via FiveThirtyEight.com.]

When it comes to strength of support in each state — the percent of the population by which the candidate is favored — the correlation is even clearer. Eight of the 10 bluest states, i.e. where Obama support is highest by % of pop (DC NY CT VT CA IL MA DE) are in the top third educationally, while 7 of the 10 reddest states, i.e. where McCain support is highest by % of pop (ID AL WY AR LA KY TN) are in the bottom third educationally.

Bill O’Reilly calls me a “secular progressive,” and as labels go, it’s damn close to perfect. But religion and conservatism aren’t my real enemies. They are symptoms of something much more fundamental — ignorance and fear — and education is the remedy for both. If wanting a better-informed, less fearful world makes me an elitist, then honey, we ALL ought to embrace that label.

(N.B. To save y’all some emailing, rest assured that I know there are many people of great intelligence and worth who lack a college degree. I have only used the college degree stat as a general indicator of educational attainment. But I do think it’s fair to say that susceptibility to political fearmongering tends to decrease as education increases. Kirk out.)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.