Tag Archives: social justice

We Don’t Need No “Moderates”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apparently decided that embracing the “Blue Dog Democrats” – a group of politicians who proudly tout their commitment “to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines” – is the prudent electoral strategy for the Democratic Party in 2018.  Daily Beast contributor Michael Tomasky agrees, writing that the “reality, which many liberals refuse to accept[, is that to win a majority in the House of Representatives], Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts.  And that means electing some moderates.”

If you’re in favor of Democrats joining with Republicans to enact tax cuts that go mostly to the rich, reductions in government spending on support for low- and middle-income people, and more legislation authorizing perpetual war, this strategy isn’t totally crazy.  But if you’re in favor of “single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal…tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more,” which Tomasky says he is, this strategy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even if it led to a Democratic House, it would stymie your agenda.  In New York, for example, while the Blue-Dog-esque Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) gives Democrats a nominal majority in the state Senate, the IDC consistently partners with Republicans to undermine economic and social justice.  A Democratic majority doesn’t help you very much if the Democrats who get you there don’t share your values.

Importantly, there’s also no reason to believe Tomasky’s assertion that “moderate” candidates will improve Democrats’ electoral prospects.  In fact, evidence suggests an alternate strategy holds more promise in contested (or even heavily Republican) districts in 2018.

Consider recent special elections to replace Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina’s 5th District), Mike Pompeo (Kansas’ 4th District), Tom Price (Georgia’s 6th District), and Ryan Zinke (Montana’s At-Large seat) in the House.  Democrats pursued the Tomasky strategy (or, as former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon seems to call it, the “Panera Breads of America” strategy) in Georgia, spending a historical record $30 million on a candidate, Jon Ossoff, who stressed deficit reduction and actively opposed both single-payer health care and taxing the rich.  The national party apparatus mostly stayed out of the other three races, but the Democratic candidates in Kansas (James Thompson) and Montana (Rob Quist) secured progressive endorsements with a platform closer to the one Tomasky theoretically supports.  Nobody paid much attention to Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate in South Carolina, who, like Ossoff, would fit in pretty well with the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats lost all four races.  But based on how Democrats had fared in each of those districts historically, they also significantly outperformed expectations.  All of them except for Ossoff, that is, who did far better than the practically nonexistent candidate Democrats ran in the prior congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District but worse than Hillary Clinton performed there against Donald Trump.  Note also that Georgia’s 6th District is more affluent than most and thus, according to Tomasky, a place in which “the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions,” which basically describes how Ossoff ran his campaign.  In other words, the Democratic Party invested the most resources and got the least return on one of the “moderate” special election candidates in a district tailor-made for the Tomasky strategy.

Advocacy for single-payer health care didn’t put Thompson and Quist over the top in their races, of course, and Parnell, a “moderate” who both the party and grassroots organizers more or less ignored, came the closest to victory.  These special elections certainly don’t prove that endorsing economic justice more will win.  But they do show it can play better than a Republican-lite economic platform in heavily Republican areas, a fact also underscored by the recent results of state special elections.  In New York’s 9th Assembly District, for instance, which Trump won with 60 percent of the vote, bold progressive Christine Pellegrino just trounced her Republican challenger en route to a seat on the state assembly.

Then there’s the recent international evidence.  Jeremy Corbyn just helped the United Kingdom’s Labour Party pull off its biggest electoral swing in seventy years, defying pundit predictions of Labour’s imminent trampling from a few months before.  Some of Labour’s surge was likely due to the Conservative Party’s mistakes, but some of it was also likely due to a bold set of economic ideas Labour outlined in a new manifesto, ideas that couldn’t be more different from those the Blue Dog Democrats embrace.  Labour’s showing underscored what evidence had indicated since at least February of 2016, when I first pointed it out: Bernie Sanders was much more likely than Hillary Clinton to win a head-to-head matchup against a Republican presidential candidate that November.  That evidence only got stronger as the primary season continued; many Democrats likely wish they had taken it more seriously.  Today, Sanders – a politician about as far from the Blue Dogs as you can get in the Senate – remains the most popular politician in America.  The claim that Sanders-style economic and social justice advocacy is unworkable in the critical purple districts Tomasky references doesn’t square with the absence of moderate Democrats more popular than Sanders in those districts.

And let’s not forget that the Democratic Party has been decimated in recent years.  Not only have they lost control of the executive branch of the federal government and both chambers of Congress, they now also hold only 18 state houses, 15* governorships, and 13 state senates.  They’ve been running moderate candidates in purple districts, and that strategy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That doesn’t mean we can be certain about what will get Democrats elected.  A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Updated from 16 to 15 on August 5, 2017, after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he would switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Thanks to Michael Sainato for the heads up!

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, 2018 Elections, US Political System

Social Justice Unionism, Education On Tap Style

I recently discussed why teachers unions are important agents of social justice on “Education On Tap,” a Teach For America (TFA) podcast created by Aaron French. I really enjoyed the conversation – French goes above and beyond his promise to make the show “a little bit of fun” – and appreciated TFA’s continued (though still very young) efforts to deconstruct myths about organized labor and education reform ideas.

You can listen to the podcast below:

A couple additional details on two of the topics we discussed:

1) How we refer to education stakeholders: We often use the phrase “reformer” to describe people on one “side” of the education debate. As Nick Kilstein explains, we typically think “reformers” do the following:

1. Support market forces including choice and competition as a mechanism to improve all schools. This is usually done through vouchers and charter schools.

2. Support business practices including evaluation, promotion and merit pay to motivate and attract teachers

3. Hold that teachers and schools should be accountable for student achievement, usually measured by standardized testing

4. Support alternate paths to the classroom through programs like Teach For America

5. Affiliate themselves with no-excuses charter schools

However, neither French nor I (nor Kilstein) are crazy about this term, for a few reasons. First, the group of people we call “reformers” sometimes have drastically different views on these topics. For example, opinions about the appropriateness of suspending students vary widely among people who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. Because “reformers” don’t hold monolithic views, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to lump them all into the same category.

Second, using the term “reformers” erroneously suggests that only a certain group of people support school improvements. However, teachers in unions and other critics of typical education reform efforts fight for school reforms themselves; they just have a different (and, on balance, more evidence-based and theoretically sound) perspective about which reforms we should pursue on behalf of students in low-income communities. Despite misleading claims to the contrary, very few people actually support the “status quo” in education. Though the word has become associated with negative imagery for a lot of education stakeholders, nearly everyone is a “reformer” to some extent.

Third, the use of a term like “reformers” reinforces the notion that there are two polarized “sides” in education debates, the “reformers” and their opponents. As I discussed with French, I believe the “sides” are much less in opposition than they sometimes appear to be, and that most people in education are in general agreement on the vast majority of issues. The more we can deconstruct the notion of “sides,” the better.

That said, I don’t have a great solution to either the first or third problems (for the second, I’d recommend that we use clunkier phrases more like “proponents of market-driven reforms to education” and “advocates for a comprehensive social justice approach to education policy” when we can). Categories can be useful for brevity’s sake, and as is evident below, it’s hard to construct an argument while avoiding categorization altogether. Still, I think it’s worth reflecting on our naming conventions as we endeavor to be more nuanced.

2) Why unions are power-balancing advocates for low-income kids: French explained during our discussion that many people believe the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA, the local union for which I served as an Executive Board member from 2012 to 2014) to be an atypically progressive union. In reality (and I believe French agrees), the vast majority of unions, including national teachers unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), are some of the most power-balancing institutions out there.

Recent research by Martin Gilens confirms this fact: unions consistently advocate on behalf of less advantaged populations on a wide range of social justice issues. They serve as an important counterbalance to wealthy interests and exploitative policies, and have made extremely important gains for working Americans throughout their history. It’s probably not a coincidence that the steep decline in unionization over the past thirty years has coincided with a steep increase in earnings, income, and wealth inequality.

That doesn’t mean unions can’t be wrong on certain issues. We should absolutely condemn the behavior of police unions that defend racist positions, for example, and demand that they be held accountable and change. Teachers unions shouldn’t be immune from criticism, either, and it’s imperative that we confront them when we believe their positions are misguided. Not all teachers unions have realized their potential as social justice unions just yet, and while I firmly believe that a different approach from the education community would help more of them do so, organized labor must also proactively analyze and revise practices that don’t fit its mission.

Yet we must also remember that teachers unions have very strong track records on behalf of low- and moderate-income families, and more credibility as advocates for low-income kids than many of the people and organizations who malign unions. Even if you think certain teachers unions are wrong about aspects of education policy, it’s completely inaccurate to argue that their existence harms low-income kids. The empirical evidence is clear (much clearer, in general, than the evidence about education policy ideas) that teachers unions are a major net positive for low-income populations.

There’s joint responsibility to change the tone of education conversations, and union members must avoid becoming reflexively defensive when confronted with criticism. We do ourselves and our students a disservice when we react by ignoring people outright or slinging insults right back; instead, we should try to understand the legitimate elements of critiques, address them, and educate people on where they’re wrong and how to have more productive dialogue.

At the same time, union members and leaders are understandably offended when proponents of market-driven reforms (making an attempt!) imply that union opposition to these reforms is borne of laziness, selfishness, and/or incompetence. Everyone needs to remember that teachers in unions, who are directly student-facing and who will actually implement education reform ideas, typically have good ideas about what students need, and that both private and public sector unions are important advocates for low-income people in general. While there is some shared responsibility, the tone of the debate cannot change until proponents of market-driven reforms acknowledge these facts. The sooner anti-union messaging becomes a thing of education reform conversations past, the sooner we can collaboratively develop great policies for students.

A big thank you to French for having me on the show, and hope you enjoy the podcast!

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Filed under Education, Labor