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New study: highly educated Democrats are now way more liberal than the rest of the party

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden talk about job training at the Community College of Allegheny County.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden talk about job training at the Community College of Allegheny County.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Well-educated Americans hold views that put them far to the left of those without college degrees, a divide that has widened over the last 20 years, according to a new study published on Monday by the Pew Research Center.

To be sure, it's true that those with less education have also moved to the left — but not nearly as much as those with postgraduate education.

In other words, the liberal elite appears to be real.

Twenty years ago, there weren't that many elites who held uniformly liberal positions, and, similarly, there weren't that many people with low levels of education who held consistently liberal positions.

Then something changed. College-educated Americans became increasingly persuaded to agree with the typically left-leaning position on a whole range of questions, and the percentage of "consistently liberal" college grads skyrocketed from 5 percent to 24 percent in two decades, according to Pew's study.

Over that same period of time, those with lower education levels also moved to the left — but by only by a little bit. Of Americans who only finished high school, the percentage who hold "consistently liberal" beliefs only rose from 1 percent to 5 percent.

"Highly educated adults — particularly those who have attended graduate school — are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values," Pew's report says. "And these differences have increased over the past two decades."

These findings aren't exactly shocking: We've known for a long time that voters with college and advanced degrees tend to be more reliably Democratic than those without.

But these new numbers give us fresh evidence that this phenomenon is both real and growing, highlighting the political divisions between the Americans with access to the highest levels of education and the rest of the country.

A divide among Democrats that Republicans don't share

The growing educational divide is creating a sharp split in the Democratic Party: Nearly half of college-educated Democrats now hold "consistently liberal" beliefs — compared to just 11 percent of those with high school educations or less.

Meanwhile, Republicans don't appear to have the same educational divides. In general, well-educated Republicans are about as consistently conservative on the issues as Republicans with only high school educations, the study found.

"The gap in ideological consistency among Republicans with different levels of educational attainment is much smaller than among Democrats," Pew notes.

Though the educational divides appear greater in the Democratic than Republican Party, it probably doesn't make sense for liberals to read this report too glumly, either.

That's in part because, on the 10 major issues included, the study finds the public moving slightly to the left. (See here for the full methodology of the Pew study by ideology.)

Moreover, it's not as if Democrats with lower levels of education are moving to the right — they're just moving to the left less quickly. (The number of high school educated Democrats who identify as conservatives actually fell from 19 percent to 9 percent over the last 20 years.)

In other words: Highly-educated Democrats may be growing apart from the other members of their coalition, but that doesn't appear to be because Democrats with lower levels of education are becoming more conservative.

A more ominous sign for Republicans may be their party's divisions by age. As I've written before, several political scientists have found that young Republicans are much more moderate than their elders — a trend backed up again by Pew's study:

Pew found far fewer Millennial Republicans think of themselves as "consistently conservative" — confirming the work of other political scientists.

The gap in the Democratic Party by education level is real, but it's driven by a sharp leftward movement rather than a move to the political center by a key constituency.

The Republicans' fissure over age represents something else altogether: a sharp shift among young conservatives to the political center. And that may be a much more serious long-term problem to the GOP coalition.