For centuries, humankind’s best and brightest have spent entire lifetimes toiling over profound, seemingly unsolvable questions — What is the meaning of life? Why are there working professionals who still insist on using Comic Sans? What happens to student performance in public school systems run by administrators that perpetuate an ideology antithetical to the very tenets of academia? Though the jury is still out on the first two, we may be nearing an answer to the third.
A close reading of ACT, Inc.’s recent data dump turns up some curious trends. The average exam scores by state exhibit particularly strong regional clustering. The Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Washington — all of which have among the most consistently Democratic state legislatures — sit atop the list of highest-scoring states. Bringing up the rear of the rankings are some of the most consistently GOP-controlled state houses in the country: Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi and much of the Midwest.
Undoubtedly, evaluating educational attainment is a colossal and complex undertaking. Demographics and socioeconomics matter just as much, if not more than, the policy decisions of top leadership, and standardized test scores do not provide a full picture of success. Yet, in the same way that I struggle to dismiss the correlation between abstinence-only sexual education and increased teen pregnancy, I cannot immediately demur the potential storyline here.
The relationship between state government, partisan composition and educational outcomes should surprise no one. The first reason is straightforward enough: fiscal conservatives have rarely identified public education as a top spending priority. However, the second force at play is as inconspicuous as it is dangerous: a systematic rejection of expertise and evidence that has proliferated rapidly amongst an increasingly vocal conservative base. Over time, this ideology has infiltrated every level of the party’s geographic hierarchy, percolating with a top-to-bottom comprehensiveness that trickle-down economists could only hope to achieve by way of divine intervention or ritual virgin sacrifice.
At the state and local levels, this anti-intellectualism has manifested in a number of ways. Despite the near-unanimous consensus in the scientific community regarding the validity of the theory of evolution, in addition to scores of Supreme Court decisions condemning the teaching of intelligent design, there remain two states (Tennessee and Louisiana) in which all public schools are permitted to teach creationism. In 11 other states — all of which possess GOP-controlled legislatures — taxpayer-funded private and charter schools teach creationism in science classrooms alongside or in place of evolution.
Negative sentiment on the right toward federal education standards has reached a high-water mark as tensions over Common Core continue to flare. Despite their careful crafting by many of the foremost curricular experts in the world, these baseline requirements are viewed by many not as a way to ensure that every American student is learning important skills and gaining crucial knowledge, but instead as a vehicle for liberal indoctrination. The antipathetic response to federal mandates and nationalized curriculum has come from constituents and lawmakers alike, with many conservatives in Kansas beginning to label public schools as “government schools.” Simultaneously, Oklahoma legislators have proposed a bill that would ban AP U.S. History from public schools for failing to adequately promote American exceptionalism.
This localized behavior does not occur in a vacuum — recognizing the national context is the crux of understanding from where lower-level politicians, and by extension grassroots constituents, receive their partisan cues. These state-level trends reflect a much larger, more important shift in Republicanism. Facing evolving demographics, conservatives on the national stage have been forced to steer the party toward right-wing populism. This has been achieved, in part, by a methodical demonization of the American intelligentsia, making those in the electorate without formal policy expertise feel as though they know best.
Current GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s team of economic advisors has one lone member possessing a formal economics education beyond the undergraduate level. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is an ardent denier of climate change (in conflict with roughly 97 percent of scientific experts) and an avid bully of federally employed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists. American universities, among the finest in the world, have been painted repeatedly as bastions of proselytizing Marxists by conservative commentators. The nomination of a man who possesses zero advanced know-how in any fields outside of fraud and bombast was only the next logical step in the GOP’s current trajectory. Trump is not an accident, and barring a dramatic course adjustment from national Republican leadership, he will certainly not be an aberration.
The populist furor emanating from the conservative base also shows no signs of abating, with many questioning the integrity of the political scientists who specialize in polling and election forecasting. These pollsters are scientists above all else: professionals who meticulously apply time-tested quantitative methods to gauge public opinion. They have every incentive to be accurate, and no impetus to manipulate numbers in order to keep Republicans at home on Election Day. This was the same conspiracy theory touted in 2012, and most of us should remember how that went for the Romney campaign. These assertions are based in neither reason nor evidence, and they are wholly the product of top-down, inflammatory rhetoric.
If current general election polling is any indicator (and it is, I promise), it seems as though the GOP’s electoral prospects are undergoing the same nosedive that red-state schools have been experiencing for years. Hammurabi would be content.
Matthew Ribel is a College sophomore from Chantilly, Virginia