Many less educated people do not recognize themselves in politics

Spark interview on political dissatisfaction and degrees

Why is discontent about politics highest among less educated people? And why are they more likely to vote for populist parties? Does it have to do with another? Kjell Noordzij investigated the distance between politics and a part of society. He will receive his PhD on 15 June.

Kjell Noordzij (27) is Assistant Professor of Social Inequality at ESSB and coordinator of the Master Politics and Society. His PhD thesis, Revolt of the deplored, deals with the distance between politics and a part of society. ‘Our society is organized along educational lines. The result is that the life-worlds of the less and theoretically educated are increasingly far apart, and people live increasingly alongside each other.'

Diploma Democracy

'The Netherlands is a good example of a "diploma-democracy", says Kjell. 'In 2020, 95% of the members of the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) had a (applied) university degree. While in the Netherlands as a whole, about 70% of the people have lower qualifications than that.' That's a big difference. What do less educated people see when they look at politics? 'They see people who do not talk in a straightforward way, who beat about the bush.' Not only do they talk differently, but they also dress differently and generally have different lived experiences. The differences are so significant that many less educated people do not Recognize themselves in political representatives.

To investigate the consequences of this 'diploma democracy', Kjell conducted in-depth interviews with less educated citizens who are discontented with politics. 'I investigated how they view this group of predominantly theoretically educated politicians. And how that relates to what the respondents think of politics. I also examined these cultural-sociological insights in light of analyses of their political discontent in political science, such as an emphasis on political knowledge. That gave nice insights.'

Status as cultural capital

Kjell's particular focus is on the role status has in politics. 'The people I spoke to for my research feel that politicians look down on their way of living and talking or their political views.' This partly explains the political discontent among less educated people. 'They feel misrecognized by politicians.'

For a long time, the general view was that many less educated people accept that they have less influence, for example, in politics. 'My research shows that this is no longer true for everyone. ' Kjell

explains that less educated people perceive that they generally have a lower status. 'They not only feel they are misunderstood but even looked down on for how they live and think about political issues. Many of them no longer accept this. They don't want to be dictated to by a group of people they feel so far removed from.'

Not sensitive

According to Kjell's respondents, many politicians are not sensitive to the life-world of less educated people. 'They feel politicians do not understand exactly what is important to them and how they live their life.' As a result, the policies politicians make are poorly aligned with their life-world, they feel. They see the indirect way politicians talk as a lack of decisiveness and have the suspicion that politicians have something to hide. 'Politicians who are appreciated often talk more directly, like many populist politicians. It signals decisiveness and makes them more recognisable.'

Reducing distance

'One way to reduce the distance between politics and society is to increase the representation of less educated people, for instance, by getting more less educated people to stand for political office.' This applies to all representative bodies. 'And if people need help in mastering the rules of the political game, they can be helped in this, for example,' says Kjell.

Yet it is still often assumed that people would vote and participate in politics more often if they had a better understanding of the system. That is why civic education is much about how democracy works. According to Kjell, his research sheds a different light on citizenship education. 'It can be effective if less educated students are given more opportunities or encouraged more to get involved in politics. This is often more stressed in civic education for theoretically-educated students. So not just increasing knowledge, but especially self-confidence and feelings of entitlement.'

Current major political issues

'My research fits well with the Master Politics and Society that I coordinate. This Master analyses current major political issues, from globalisation and the election of a president in the United States to parliamentary elections in Sweden, polarisation, populism and political distrust. We use classical and contemporary theories and empirical research from sociology and political science to better understand these political issues. Really a great combination.'

More information

This interview is part of Spark. With these interviews, we aim to draw attention to the positive impact of the faculty's education and research on society. The stories in Spark give an insight into what makes ESSB students, alumni, staff and researchers tick.

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