For a clinical rather than impressionistic assessment of this trend, you can turn to the new report from Senator Mike Lee’s Joint Economic Committee, which tracks “brain drain” trends across American states and finds a pattern, both longstanding and accelerating, in which the highly-educated cluster in “dynamic states” and “major metropolitan areas,” leaving less-educated Americans in “rural and post-industrial states” behind. The report describes this “geographic sorting” as one factor behind economic stagnation and social breakdown; it’s also clearly a factor driving the class-based polarization that’s given us Donald Trump, and in European politics the Brexiteers and gilets jaunes and more.
This background is part of what makes Pete Buttigieg, the bright young man of the Democratic field, such an interesting figure. In many ways Buttigieg is a kind of uber-meritocrat, a child of academic parents who made a swift climb up the meritocracy’s cursus honorum: a Harvard degree and then a Rhodes scholarship, a brief stint in D.C. followed by three years at McKinsey. And beyond the résumé, an obvious part of his appeal depends on his performative intelligence, his college-interview style of “humble” showing off.