The Other McCain

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‘Cognitive Partitioning’: The Real Reason Elizabeth Warren Never Had a Chance

Posted on | March 5, 2020 | 2 Comments


The news broke this morning that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will quit the presidential campaign. I’m sure everybody is sad about this, and by “everybody,” of course I mean Jessica Valenti:


I knew going into Super Tuesday that Elizabeth Warren was unlikely to win big. I had prepared myself for that. What did take me by surprise, though, was just how poorly she fared: Even in her home state of Massachusetts, she finished third. . . .
It’s enough to make me feel, well, despairing: that we had the candidate of a lifetime — someone with the energy, vision, and follow-through to lead the country out of our nightmarish era — and that the media and voters basically outright erased and ignored her. . . .
Whoever the nominee is, their campaign is going to have to come to terms with the intense misogyny so many female voters have dealt with — and understand that it’s an issue we care deeply about. And their supporters are going to have to let us be sad — depressed, even — that once again we’re going to watch a race to leadership between old white men.

Never bet against the patriarchy, sweetheart.

Notice that it’s not just men that Valenti singles out for contempt, but rather specifically old white men. One gets the impression that Valenti has been nursing hurt feelings ever since Hillary lost the 2008 nomination to Obama, but she couldn’t complain too loudly about that, because hating Obama would be racist. Conveniently, this time around, there were no black male political rising stars contending for the Democratic nomination — Corey Booker is a joke — and so Valenti invested completely in Warren as “the candidate of a lifetime,” ignoring her idol’s flaws that were so glaringly obvious to the rest of us.

Was it really “misogyny” that sank Warren’s campaign? Is it true that sexism among Democratic primary voters explains Warren’s defeat? Matthew Yglesias offers an alternative explanation:

Her supporters feel somewhat baffled: How did she evaporate from the top tier of contention, especially since so many of the people they know also like her? . . .
[I]f you, like many of my friends, find the situation puzzling, that is probably because you know a lot of people who are demographically similar to yourself. I’m a highly educated white person, and most of my friends and acquaintances are also highly educated white people. Elizabeth Warren is very popular with people like us.
The reality is that there aren’t that many people like us — and there’s a valuable lesson in that, not just about the Warren campaign specifically but about some of the larger dynamics in American politics. . . .
Even at a time when Warren had, in its estimate, fallen to fourth place in national polling, she was first with white college graduates and first with Democrats who have advanced degrees. . . .
The problem is that politics is a numbers game, and we are not in the majority. . . .
Validated data from the 2016 election, for example, suggests that only about one-third of 2016 voters had college degrees. The share among Hillary Clinton voters was higher, at 43 percent, but even among the more educated in the party, most people haven’t graduated college. And among college graduates, about 75 percent attend schools that accept more than half of applicants, rather than the kind of state university flagships or elite private universities whose graduates dominate the media. In my friend group, it’s not unusual for someone to be a lawyer or a doctor or to have a master’s degree in something or other. As a policy journalist, I speak to a lot of experts in academia or the think tank world who have advanced degrees.
But in the actual American population distribution, there are more high school dropouts than people with master’s degrees. The median American under the age of 30 has $0 in student loan debt, not because the median young person is superrich but because most people didn’t attend expensive higher education institutions in the first place. . . .
If you feel like Warren is very impressive and lots of people you know feel the same way, you’re not imagining it — lots of people just like you all across the country feel the same way.
It’s just that most Democrats aren’t all that much like you.

What Yglesias is describing here is a phenomenon that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein described in their book The Bell Curve as “cognitive partitioning.” One tragic consequence of the controversy over the alleged racism of The Bell Curve is that it obscured what was, to me, the most valuable part of Murray and Herrnstein’s book. “The Emergence of a Cognitive Elite” (pp. 25-125) describes how, since World War II, the prevalence of standardized testing and the expansion of access to higher education has operated as a vast sorting machine. Brainy young people are identified at early ages, put onto an academic fast-track (“gifted” programs in elementary school, “honors” classes in high school) that leads them toward prestigious “selective” universities.

Once you carefully consider what Murray and Herrnstein demonstrate in that 100-page section of their book, a lot of things about our society that might otherwise be mysterious suddenly make perfect sense. Once upon a time — in my father’s youth — college education was almost exclusively for the children of the rich. There were no federally guaranteed student loans and no Pell Grants, and so if your parents couldn’t afford to send you to college, you might be able to work your way through, or maybe get a scholarship, but in general, college education was a status marker of the upper classes. However, beginning with the G.I. Bill (which sent my dad to the University of Alabama), college education became more widely available, and the postwar expansion of the middle class — the widespread prosperity of the Eisenhower/JFK era — made it possible for a much larger segment of young people to aspire to a college education. Thus the SAT and ACT gained greater importance as tools to separate the academic wheat from the chaff, as it were.

Yglesias takes note of the important distinction between merely “college educated” people — your Southwest/Northeast State University diploma — and those who attended “the kind of state university flagships or elite private universities whose graduates dominate the media.”

This distinction is not entirely about test scores. The average graduate of Georgia State or Georgia Southern has a lower SAT than the average graduate of Emory (or Yale or Stanford), but the real distinction is still largely one of socio-economic class. Yglesias attended an expensive private prep school and then went to Harvard ($69,607 a year, including room and board), and if your parents can’t afford to spend that kind of money (U.S. median household income is $61,937) you shouldn’t even bother applying to Harvard. Better you should go to your nearest state university, and graduate as close to debt-free as possible, than to mortgage your future for the experience of hanging around a bunch of “elite” snobs at Harvard for four years.

I was shocked the other day to learn that one of the Chapo Trap House podcasters, who goes by the pseudonym “Virgil Texas,” went $100,000 in debt to attend Cornell University. Dude, how stupid can an allegedly “smart” person be? You don’t even need a college degree to become podcaster, much less an Ivy League degree and, having visited Ithaca, N.Y., I can’t understand why anyone would borrow money to go to school there. If a young man with good SAT scores just wanted to spend a lot of money to go to college, what about surfing your way through Pepperdine or partying your way through Tulane? Like, you could actually live for four years — palm trees and sunshine and girls wearing short-shorts — instead of enduring those grim winters in upstate New York.

What the hell gets into the minds of these kids who borrow ridiculous sums of money to attend expensive private liberal arts colleges? Why don’t parents stop their kids from making these foolish decisions? Have we, as a society, become so over-awed by educational “prestige” that we are willing to sell our souls to obtain it? Why does it seem common sense has become so rare? But I digress . . .

While I almost never agree with Matthew Yglesias about anything, I think his analysis of the Elizabeth Warren phenomenon is correct. A Harvard professor ran a campaign that appealed to the kind of people who are impressed by Harvard professors. Such people are very numerous among the media elite, but not so much among the rank-and-file Democratic primary voters. So now Elizabeth Warren is packing it in, and the presidential campaign becomes a choice between old white guys.

Cosmic equilibrium has been restored. The patriarchy wins again.



2 Responses to “‘Cognitive Partitioning’: The Real Reason Elizabeth Warren Never Had a Chance”

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    March 6th, 2020 @ 1:07 am

    […] Elizabeth Warren’s campaign finally hit the dreaded wall long after she did. It turns out that the only people who wanted to vote for here were the elite university types currently paying through the nose for a degree in cognitive partitioning. […]

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    March 6th, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    […] The Other McCain – ‘Cognitive Partitioning’: The Real Reason Elizabeth Warren Never Had a Chance […]