HOW THE DEMOCRATS BECAME THE PARTY OF THE UNIVERSITY By Benjamin Wallace-Wells , OCTOBER 26, 2016
Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton held a rally on Monday at St. Anselm College, a Benedictine school on a pretty hill a few miles from downtown Manchester, New Hampshire. It was a clear, windy day, and the two former law professors stood on a platform in the middle of the campus quad, looking very much at home. The high windows of the red-brick hall behind them were crammed with student faces, looking down on the stage. As the event began, there was a burst of loud enthusiasm, and Clinton said into the microphone, proudly, that these were some “unruly women” from her class at Wellesley. They were unruly in the sense that an honors seminar can sometimes be unruly, and they quickly settled down to listen to her speak.
The idea of the university has carried a weight in this campaign which it doesn’t ordinarily hold. The most significant demographic change appears to be a clearer sorting by education among white voters, with white Americans with college degrees, for the first time in recent history, lining up behind the Democrat. At St. Anselm, Warren and Clinton at times seemed to be practicing an identity politics of the educated. “We believe in science!” Warren said, to loud applause. Part of Warren’s talent is her sensitivity to the power of her own biography, and she tends to emphasize the role that higher education played in her steep ascent. “As I see it, I am the daughter of a maintenance man who became a United States senator,” she said. Warren’s break, in this tale, came in the form of cheap tuition at “a commuter college,” which allowed her to finish her college degree years after she had dropped out to get married. Warren tried to wrap Clinton into this story: “She is the daughter of a factory worker who will become the President of the United States!” Warren cried. Then she realized her overreach. “Granddaughter,” she said.
Warren is well known for being a more emphatic speaker than Clinton. Her signature gesture is a raised, clenched fist, and when a crowd applauds one of her lines she often shouts out “Yes!” On Monday, when Warren praised the Presidential nominee, seated next to the lectern, she took a long step toward Clinton, and shook a happy fist in her face. When the two women hugged, Warren, who is quite a bit taller, enveloped Clinton vertically. “She gets under his”—Trump’s—“skin like no one else,” Clinton said. “Some of the best TV you can see is on C-span when Elizabeth Warren is going after a bank president.” That behavior is not entirely favorable to Clinton. As Annie Karni, of Politico, has noted, when Warren said, in an August speech, that our economy should not be left to “Morgan Stanley or Black Rock or Citigroup,” she was speaking about banks that employed close Clinton allies, and signalling the fights to come over the makeup of the next Administration.
These two politicians want the same thing right now and different things in the future. It is not a coincidence that the first major policy accommodation that Clinton made to her party’s left was about higher education. During the primary campaign, Bernie Sanders often asked the crowds at his rallies who had the largest amount of student debt, and people would call out their totals, each one higher than the last, until someone named an almost unimaginable sum, usually several hundred thousand dollars. This call-and-response deepened his supporters’ conviction that the middle class had become economic victims. The policy that Sanders proposed, free college for all, was so ambitious that it partly served just to remind his voters of the narrowness of the Washington imagination, of the gap between what could be and what was.
The scurrying work of the summer, for Democrats, was to find a meaningful compact between Sanders’s perspective and Clinton’s more incrementalist campaign. The bridges built were not permanent (this week, Sanders has been telling reporters about his plans to use his “leverage” in the next Administration), but they centered on an agreement regarding a college-affordability plan, which gave progressives some tangible evidence that they had moved Clinton to the left. That plan, though less ambitious than Sanders’s, is still astonishing in its scope: if it passes, public universities will be completely free for everyone whose family makes less than a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year. (Clinton has also promised to reform the student-debt system, making it easier to refinance loans and to take advantage of income-based repayment programs.) This morning, her campaign released two “closing argument” ads. The first issue mentioned is “quality education,” and the ad features an image of Clinton standing with a young African-American woman in a graduation cap and gown, with a gold tassel.
The Democratic understanding of the symbolic power of the university has sharpened in this election. The Clinton campaign has honed in on the aspiration that it represents, and the nostalgia, but also the way that a college degree can become, for ordinary people, a rebuke to racism, sexism, or inequality. From the stage at St. Anselm on Monday, the young Democratic nominee for governor of New Hampshire, Colin Van Ostern, spent much of his five minutes talking about the nonprofit he helps lead, which works with companies and universities to get employees to college on the cheap. The story he told is of a middle-aged woman whose husband once told her that she was “not college material.” The woman went on to get a two-year associate’s degree in her forties and was now working on a bachelor’s. In her stump speeches, Clinton acknowledges the need for more expansive technical education, but this has none of the thematic force of when she talks about the traditional liberal-arts system. The lurking question for Clinton, through the long span of the election, has been how to respond to the people who feel left out of the globalized market that the Clintons helped design, and whose frustrations fired both Sanders’s movement and Trump’s. More and more, it appears that the Democratic response is to swell the ranks of the educated—to identify the university as the essential American institution, and to bet on it.
At the end of Clinton’s New Hampshire event, she lined up onstage with Warren, Van Ostern, and Maggie Hassan, the governor of New Hampshire and a Senate candidate, with their arms linked and raised. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was playing, and Hassan tried to shake Clinton’s hand to the beat, until they both seemed to realize that this was a little much. The subtext of this tableau, in which Clinton stood in the center and Warren on the edge, became the story the next day—that Clinton would face a fight with the left over her Administrative appointments, and that the two most important women in the Democratic Party would not be allies for long. It says something about the state of the Democratic Party that its idea of class war is Harvard-educated lawyers, working for their former professor, trying to bar a Yale Law graduate from appointing bankers to her cabinet. But the momentary message of unity, delivered to an audience of largely prosperous New Englanders, seemed just as important, in its aspiration and exclusion: the party of education would win, the ranks of graduates would swell, and the nostalgia that they felt, at a private college on a beautiful October afternoon, might one day be the whole country’s.