There’s a reason why the poor tend to vote for scaremongers. Let’s fix it
Poor black South Africans consistently vote against their own best interests – and the solution is rooted in education
Does your level of education determine how you vote? One of the refrains in the last American election was that “whites without college degrees” (66%) were more likely to vote for Donald Trump than “whites with college degrees”. The pro-Trump vote was even more emphatic for “white men without college degrees” (71%). There seemed to be a relationship, therefore, between race, education levels and voting for a (supposedly) conservative white, male politician.
In SA the pattern is not much different. Black citizens with less education outside of the major metropoles seemed to be voting for then president Jacob Zuma’s political party, the ANC. In the big cities, from Port Elizabeth and Pretoria to Cape Town and Johannesburg, the ruling party took a pounding, presumably because of the larger numbers of better educated black (and white) voters.
There is enormous political currency to be gained from this class of citizens. Zuma, for example, made no bones about his contempt for “clever blacks” and would revel among his base, often in his native tongue, presenting himself as the common man persecuted unfairly by the elites. Trump, of course, is a billionaire and his strategy was to appeal to the crude sentiments and fears of his own base by spewing vitriol against Muslims, immigrants, blacks and the Washington elites.
Which raises all kinds of interesting questions. Why would poor black South Africans vote for a party whose public image of corruption surely means that vital resources are diverted from the poor to the powerful? Why would struggling Americans in the rural heartlands vote for Trump even when his proposed policies could leave them worse off, such as the threat of overturning the progressive healthcare reforms of former president Barack Obama?
There are countless articles but also books and documentaries on the subject of why the poor vote against their own best interests. The views on the subject are all over the place but one thing is certain: education plays a critical role in the political choices of voters.
What is it about education that enables a more critical voter exercising a broader range of options? For one, the more educated citizens are less dependent on the largesse of the state than the poor. Qualified professionals earning good salaries in stable jobs make their own way through life and are not dependent on social grants. But it is more than that – a good education offers discernment, an ability for crap detection. When a reckless politician in the ruling party threatens poor black voters that the opposition party will “bring back apartheid”, an educated person knows that is nonsense. But the fearmongering works in the absence of vital knowledge. Education, however, not only offers economic independence and political discernment, it provides a ladder for continued improvement such as further studies; we know empirically there is a clear correlation between more education and higher earnings. Education also opens up new opportunities for economic advancement such as international networks that can be tapped into; few would have noticed that the authoritative (if repetitive) report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the state of education in SA was written by two black experts from this region.
This power of a good education has led some to believe that the ruling party deliberately keeps the masses under-educated so that they remain voting fodder into the future. I think this credits the party with far too much intelligence; the parlous state of black education is quite simply a combination of incompetence and disregard; in a word, nobody in government gives a damn. So what can be done?
In the long term we all have a solemn responsibility to reconstruct the school system in our areas of expertise; as I told staff of a major education publisher this week, use books to build a community of readers tied to teacher capacities and parent empowerment measured against clear literacy benchmarks. In the short term we need political education, especially in poor communities. The notion that poor and working-class people vote only with their stomachs is to insult those already battered by disadvantage. What is needed is not only reading literacy but political literacy. This is where the opposition parties are inept. They go in with high emotion, empty rhetoric, ridiculous promises and, on occasion, outright racial and ethnic winking to win over people struggling to survive from one day to the next.
Political literacy means empowering people with knowledge that demonstrates that they have choices, and that there are good choices and bad ones, and that those choices are consequential for their daily lives. This is the education the ruling elites fear most.