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Opinion

Why a Tweet About 'Uneducated' Voters Angered So Many People

An Ottawa law professor described Conservatives as the “party of the uneducated" reinforcing the longstanding narrative as the Liberals being the party for elites.

by Jen Gerson
Jul 11 2019, 3:33pm

Andrew Scheer. Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Are you some barely literate tradesperson? A mere certificate holder? Well then, dear deplorable, you are probably more likely to support the Conservative Party of Canada—the "party of the uneducated" according to University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran.

Attaran made the claim in a tweet that quickly devolved into a multi-day pile on by Conservatives, and even some Liberals, who noted who how divisive and patronizing it was; Attaran tripled down on his position, which cited a poll from Abacus Data showing, for example, that people with postgraduate degrees were about twice as likely to say they supported the Liberals.

Attaran claims he is not a Liberal, and he certainly doesn't claim to speak on behalf of the party, though his positions are generally aligned with that party, and he is a long-standing vocal critic of the Conservatives. It's also fair to assume that he is simply trolling, provoking Conservatives in order aggrandize himself, or make his political enemies look bad. (Disclosure, I've crossed tweets with him, myself.) But is he right? Are Conservatives the party of dummies? Well, not exactly. Nonetheless, Attaran is making the mainstream media rounds, inadvertently raising awareness of class consciousness. He claims he is merely presenting the poll data as it was received, but if the triple-ratio of his tweet is any indication, he's hit a nerve.

The Liberals have been, traditionally, the party of the central Canadian elite; lawyers, media, academia—the Laurentian Consensus writ large. The old cliche is that the Liberals are the country's "natural governing party," and people like Attaran act the part.

By comparison, Conservatives, whose base tends to draw from rural areas, commuting suburbs, and the west, by comparison, have long played to an anti "elite" sentiment. A party born on principles of reform movements and western alienation, the Conservatives have no qualms about striking out against media bias, for example. Although he doesn't represent the Liberal Party, Attaran is a perfect foil for this fundamental Conservative impulse. A law professor who works at the University of Ottawa, he's an avatar for the Liberal party's worst instincts—real and perceived—for smugness and self-assured superiority. To a Conservative voter, dragging this professor is candy.

Attaran’s comments are comparable in tone to the remark Hillary Clinton made on the hustings in 2016, when she said half of Donald Trump's supporters were a "basket of deplorables." Instead of encouraging his supporters to not be so deplorable, that comment likely had the opposite effect, pushing working class people deeper into Trump's camp. Conservatives themselves are well aware of the dynamic.

According to Darrel Bricker, the CEO of IPSOS Public Affairs, the poll Attaran cites doesn't show what he claims it does.

"First of all, this is a poll of the general population, not a poll of voters," he notes. The poll divides respondents into several categories; high school or less, college, bachelor's degree, and postgraduate degree. While there is a slight trend for people with higher levels of education to support the Liberals, for all categories except postgraduate degree holders, the difference is within the margin of error.

"When you take a look at the differences among different categories they're not that big," Bricker said.

The Abacus Data generally tracks other polls, including, importantly, exit polls—tallies of people who have actually voted. But even here, Bricker notes, it’s not as simple as saying smart people vote Liberal and dumb people vote Conservative.

"Someone who spent four years and picked a trade as a millwright in a community college isn't the same as someone who got a general Bachelor of Arts in University, but they went to school for the same amount of time. Which one is better and which one is worse?"

Demographic breakdowns by education can show us about the make of the Liberal or the Conservative tribe; but simply having more people with postgraduate degrees say they support the party doesn't confer intellectual legitimacy on the policies or positions the party puts forward.

For example, the Green Party may have the most, intelligent, rational, evidence-based platform of the lot; that would still be true if only nine per cent of those with post-secondary degrees polled said they would support Elizabeth May.

Voters, regardless of how educated they are, rarely vote on strictly rational criteria. Tribal affiliation, values, even gut-level responses to a quip or claim made during the writ period can sway people to this party or that.

Attaran's tweets are exactly the kind of comments that can do the swaying. They mirror the way the Liberal party sometimes comes off to potential voters who aren't in the right Bay Street, academic, or cloistered media circles.

The message is: "We're the smart guys, the better ones; we have the right values, we believe the right things. Those who disagree with us are stupid, deplorable, even dangerous."

Castigating Conservative supporters as "uneducated" doesn't make them want to align with the progressive parties in order to seem smarter; it simply communicates to working class people who didn't have the resources or the interest in pursuing higher education that they should find a home elsewhere.

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