By Tom Baxter
Last week National Journal editorial director Ron Brownstein led an interesting teleconference devoted to the various ways in which the American electorate is being reshaped by changing demographics. One of the trends he noted was the increasing economic edge which those with college degrees have over those who don’t, with the graduates of the nation’s most elite schools at the top of the heap.
Consider the U.S. Supreme Court, for example. From 1900 to 1950 there were always between one and three graduates of the Harvard or Yale law schools on the court. Today the only justice who didn’t graduate from one of these schools is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and that’s only because Ginsberg transferred from Harvard Law to Columbia Law after her marriage.
Despite these trends, there is one avenue to success where those who didn’t graduate from college are holding their own: state and local politics. The lack of a college degree hasn’t stopped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, or U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who made a very educated decision to stay out of the U.S. Senate race into which three of his college-educated colleagues jumped. And the lack of a degree actually appears to have been as a lifeline for the Senate campaign of former Secretary of State Karen Handel over the past week.
The psychologist Howard Gardner has proposed the idea that humans have several different kinds of intelligence, but political intelligence was not among those he listed. Surely this was an oversight. It was a failure of political intelligence that led businessman David Perdue to take a shot at Handel, over whom he enjoyed a big advantage in money, and by whom he could be hurt most in a direct confrontation.
Perdue apologized to Handel the week after the story about his remarks broke, but by then the damage had been done. Perdue still has a great deal going for him in this race, but only if this incident raises his political IQ.
It isn’t just Georgia where those who didn’t graduate college have been relatively successful. A survey published in 2011 by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that one out of four state legislators hadn’t graduated college. there’s little to indicate any dramatic change in those figures since then. If anything, the number of those with law degrees seems to be slipping.
California had the highest percentage of college-educated legislators, at nearly 90 percent. New Hampshire, a small state with a 424-member legislature, had the lowest percent who held degrees, with less than 54 percent, while Arkansas had the highest percentage of lawmakers with no college experience at all. Georgia ranked pretty close to its neighbors with about 82 percent.
College grads obviously still hold an advantage in this arena, but not the overwhelming one that has emerged in other fields. Generally speaking, the more rural the state and the larger the legislatures, the more likely it is to have a fairly high number of legislators without degrees.
Where you went to college matters about as much in getting elected to a state legislature as whether you went to college at all. In this sector, the great advantage that graduates of elite colleges and universities have in other fields vanishes. The most important thing is whether you went to one of the public colleges or universities in your state, and often whether you went to the one school, such as LSU or the University of Georgia, that conveys the greatest advantage in terms of long-term associations and contacts.
Instead of swiping at Handel for only being a high school graduate, Perdue might have used his time more wisely by making the case for electing a Georgia Tech graduate. In some Georgia circles, that’s going to be a tougher sell than running without a college degree.