Literacy rates are falling, and Democrats could lose big

Republicans have figured out how to appeal to the less educated

July 28, 2021 4:30 am

(Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago Republicans were more educated than Democrats.

Today, the inverse is true.

The education gap is readily apparent. Facts have become partisan, and Republicans have tossed whole science books out the window. It’s a strategy that appears ill-considered at first glance — after all, what good is letting a virus ransack your base?

But what if it’s not unintended, and Republicans are merely catering to a long-term dwindling literacy rate?


According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of Americans ages 16 to 74 now rank below a sixth grade reading level. The youngest generations are showing further declines, and numeracy scores are similarly dismal. If America continues at this pace, and power is your only goal, solidifying your base among the poorly educated might actually make a lot of sense — consequences be damned.

Certainly, the practiced con man and former President Donald Trump knew exactly who he was targeting. He didn’t even try to hide it, at one point outright exclaiming, “I love the poorly educated.” Scholars also noted he consistently spoke below a sixth grade level — a sharp contrast to his predecessor and the lowest of all presidents to date.

Whether intentional or not, studies show that lower-educated people are more susceptible to conspiracy theories, and they also score consistently lower on critical thinking tests. This makes presenting basic facts and concepts such as COVID-19 or climate change inherently more difficult (ahem, Democrats) and opens the door for a simpler, more appealing message. For example, if people don’t want to wear a mask to begin with — and most don’t — rather than explain viral transmission, you can simply convince people it’s a hoax, giving them a reason not to do the thing they didn’t want to do in the first place. 

Is it any wonder, then, that conspiracy theories and the unqualified elected officials who push them — such as Colorado’s high school dropout Rep. Lauren Boebert — are on the rise? Coupled with the years-long Republican attacks on the Department of Education and the free press, one has to question if an uneducated population is exactly what the GOP is striving for.

This strategy also puts educated people on their toes, making them seem pompous and holier than thou by default. It falsely casts the illusion that the educated are out of touch and untrustworthy, a political kiss of death — just ask Hillary Clinton. She couldn’t point out, for example, that some behavior is deplorable, or that the average American adult has the literacy equivalent of a 10-year-old without sounding like she was standing on a 10-foot-tall horse.

The irony is that for all their supposed intellectual prowess, Democrats can’t seem to figure out how to bring the less educated with them. A comparison of party websites illustrates the challenge perfectly.

The cumulative text on the Colorado Democratic Party home page ranks at grade 12. This is well above most American’s abilities. The photos also include one of former President Barack Obama reading the newspaper while wearing a suit — a recipe for perceived elitism. There are no photos of Colorado lands or everyday workers, and only two small logos in corners.

Contrast this with the Colorado Republican Party home page.

Here there are so few words you can’t even run a literacy text analysis. Instead, most prominently featured is a two-word hashtag followed by a six-word slogan that has been reduced to five and a half words with the use of an ampersand. Other than that, it’s mostly two-word buttons, partial-sentence previews, a Colorado landscape and GOP logos galore. It’s nauseating, but effective.

And that’s the thing: Democrats may be smarter on paper, but Republicans have mastered the art of The Sell. In today’s fast-paced media landscape, that’s all that counts — and they know it. Yes, Democrats are winning as of late. But the party of brains is winning primarily in spite of itself, and this can’t continue forever.

Whether strategy or happenstance, it all boils down to this: Democrats need to dumb it down — and quick. They needn’t lie, but the messages must be simpler. Besides, how smart are you really if you can’t figure out how to dupe a 10-year-old?


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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.