The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part VI

6. Teachers unions are in bed with the Democratic Party.

As myths about teachers unions go, in my experience this one is the most likely to be accepted by teachers themselves. My colleagues who are loyal Republicans resent the fact that a portion of their check is taken out every month just so that a portion of that can be given to Democratic candidates (or used is ads supporting them). I get that. If I’d had some of my check taken out to support politicians whose policies I don’t approve of, I would resent it. Oh, wait. I did. That portion is called taxes, and some of my money goes to support policies I don’t approve of. I would resent it even more if a second line item went to one political party, and that party wasn’t the one I (often reluctantly, while holding my nose) support.

But here’s the rub: The national umbrella of the teachers unions, the NEA, tends to support Democratic candidates precisely because those candidates court the teacher’s unions. Similarly, each election cycle our state branch asks candidates of both parties to come and speak to the membership of the union, and make their case. Sometimes we support the Republican candidates, though generally we end up supporting the Democratic ones. That’s not because the NEA, or our state branch, the OEA, or our local branch, the CEA, is in bed with the Democratic Party. It’s because the party wants our votes more and is willing to side with us in order to garner those votes. We’re not in bed together. The union is single and dating, and he Dems keep asking us out.

If Republicans (or Green Party Members, or Libertarians, or members of any other party) resent the fact that teachers unions tend to support candidates from the Democratic Party, there are two questions they should be asking themselves. One: Why are the Dems willing to offer more concessions to woo teachers? And Two: Why isn’t my party more actively courting this constituency?

There are approximately 6.8 million teachers in the United States. Beyond that, there are support staff, the spouses of educators, the parents and children of educators, etc. For comparison purposes, there are 4 million members of the NRA, and about 5 million Jews. I choose those groups because they are of similar size, and because, like teachers, NRA members and people who are either ethnically Jewish or of the Jewish faith do not vote homogeneously. However, consider the lengths political parties go to court those two groups. Democratic candidates make fools of themselves trying to convince gun owners that they are not opposed to 2nd amendment rights, and both parties try to one-up one another in their vocal support of Israel (as though that alone will bring the Jewish-American vote). Republican candidates do not make the same kind of noise about supporting public school teachers.

This partisanship does not benefit teachers. We would be better off if both parties were courting our votes, just as gun owners have a huge advantage over anti-gun advocates, and the pro-Israel lobby has a huge advantage over, for example, the pro-Palestinian lobby. One noteworthy downside of this one party voting is that, much like African Americans on the left or conservative Evangelicals on the right, teachers’ concerns are often taken for granted by politicians who consider them a reliable voting block. So why won’t the parties fight for so many votes?

I am not a senior Republican strategist, so I can’t give the answer definitively. Perhaps they think we’re a lost cause; that so many of us are registered Democrats that we can’t be swayed. I find that unpersuasive, though. Other groups which are almost uniformly affiliated with one party or the other, like African Americans, Jews, or gun owners, are still courted by both parties. If I were a Republican teacher who resented the way my union dues were being spent, I’d want to examine this question a little further.

Appealing to gun owners or people of specific ethnic or religious backgrounds who traditionally vote for the other party has very little down-side. A politician might peal off a few votes, but no one in the base will resent the effort. This hasn’t always been the case. You didn’t find a lot of Dixiecrats in the South trying to reach out and garner the Jewish vote or the African American vote during segregation, or many Republicans doing it during the active use of Nixon and Reagan’s “Southern Strategy”. Why not? Because there was a numerical down-side. For every vote a politician might have peeled off by offering concessions to Jews or African Americans in the South, that politician would lose an even greater number of racist, anti-Semitic white voters. Every time I see a white, Christian, conservative politician actively courting the black vote in Alabama or the Jewish vote in Florida, I feel a little bit more proud of my country; it’s one thing for a party to reach out to a disenfranchised group. That could be ideological, or it could be a political calculation (for different Democrats it’s been both). But when the other side does it, it’s very real measure that racism and anti-Semitism, though still with us, have been properly relegated to the lunatic fringe and are shameful to the general public. Though there have always been Republicans who opposed racism on ideological and moral grounds (the party began in Wisconsin as an anti-slavery party in 1854, after all), this shift from the infamous “Southern Strategy” means the calculation has changed on this issue.

And that brings us back to education. Though some Republican candidates show up to court the teachers unions on the local level, the fact that it’s not part of the strategy of the national candidates signals to me that the political calculus doesn’t support it, in the same way that addressing the concerns of African American voters wouldn’t have helped a Republican or a Dixiecrat in the South once upon a time, and supporting anti-gun legislation wouldn’t help a Democrat now. Someone at the Republican National Committee headquarters has run the numbers, and they don’t work. For every teacher vote garnered by appealing to the teachers unions, more votes would be lost in the base. And it behooves a Republican teacher, and any American concerned about our education system specifically and the state of education generally, to ask, “Why?”

Why has one of the major political parties in the country decided that supporting public school teachers is a losing bet for them? Part of this is ideological. Died-in-the-wool libertarians who want to limit the scope of government, as much as possible, to national defense are philosophically consistent if they believe that the government has no place providing public education. No politician would speak this aloud (except maybe Ron Paul. Can anybody tell me if he came out specifically on this issue?) but in order to keep libertarians in the big tent, Republicans have to stand against the “public” part of public education in some way. For religious conservatives, the hitch with public education relates the its inherently secular nature; public schools don’t advocate for any specific religious belief system. Worse, since they are not obligated to promote a religious belief system, if they teach content deemed to be religiously neutral, like science or history, but which actually posits truth-claims that contradict certain religious teachings, they can actually run counter to the interests of various religious sects. Want to keep religious conservatives in your big tent? Run against public schools. Republicans, going back all the way to their anti-slavery days, have been the party of private businesses. Want to support for-profit schools? Run against public schools. Worst of all, want to appeal to the “working class” through offensive and condescending displays of your folksiness? Use language that implies you are uneducated, and then when someone in the media calls you on it, run against the media as part of the intellectual elite. This is a mechanism to tie intellectualism to education in an effort to run against both.

This brings us to a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Why has higher academia generally leaned left? Is it because the ideology that would support academic freedom and the benefits of knowledge for all coincides with other leftist beliefs about utopianism, communalism, and social equality? Or is it because those who have benefited most from public education (i.e. those raised out of poverty through education) are loyal to the institution that made their social mobility possible, and thus choose the ideology that reinforces those values? It’s probably a bit of both. Regardless, the highest echelons of academia are predominated by liberals. That’s not to say that Republicans don’t attend Harvard or earn Ph.Ds. In fact, the conservative revolution of William F. Buckley Jr. centered around an intellectual flourishing through the establishment of conservative think tanks and the support of conservative intellectuals. But that intellectual underpinning has been intentionally hidden. Those very think tanks full of Ivy League grads with Ph.Ds put out talking points on Fox News decrying Democratic candidates as “Ivy League Elites”. Just as the chicken-or-egg problem emerges when trying to explain why intellectuals tend to be on the Left, a similar problem develops on the Right. Is anti-intellectualism a position Republicans have taken for political reasons, which then breeds a resentment of education, or do enough Republicans resent education and thus gin up anti-intellectual rhetoric? Again, it’s probably a bit of both, and the longer it remains politically expedient, the harder it will be to trace the origin of that anti-intellectualism.

So the party has decided to keep these disparate elements in one tent: The anti-intellectuals, the intellectual anti-government libertarians, the religious anti-secularists, and the pro-business anti-public sector crowd. So, where does this leave the Republican public school teacher? Resentful of their own union. Beyond that, I can’t say with any authority, because it’s something I genuinely don’t understand. Are Republican teachers working against their own political self-interest by working in the public schools and financially supporting a union that generally favors the other party, or are they working against their own professional self-interest by supporting an institution, through their labor, the very existence of which is in conflict with the platform of the party they support? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I hope that any Republican teacher has given it some serious thought and has an answer handy. For many, I expect that they are issue voters, who might not like the anti-education path their party has chosen but vote on some other issue. I think that’s defensible. I hold my nose on certain Democratic positions, too. But I would hope that any Republican teacher really wrestles with the question, and I would encourage them to push back within their own party. Get your candidate to vie for the support of teachers. Make them publicly state their support for public education. And if your candidate won’t, ask yourself, if this person doesn’t believe in what you do, either because it’s a government funded school, a secular school, or a stepping stone toward elite academia, do you really believe in public schools, and, if so, why associate with a party that doesn’t?

Any other myths about teachers unions that I should rant about? Leave them in the comments below.

No Ideas vs. No Guts

The Washington Post has two thought provoking pieces on the state of the conservative movement. Steven F. Hayward's "Is Conservatism Brain Dead?" asks if the movement has lost the equilibrium between populist rabble-rousers and intellectuals. Stephen Stromberg, in his PostPartisan Blog post "Palin 'Catastrophic' for GOP?", (besides making a compelling case that Palin is exactly that) references a Micheal Gerson piece which conceded that many Republicans are hostile "to the very idea of ideas". These are conservatives saying these things, mind you (well, I don't know about Stromberg, but he doesn't seem excited about a Republican self-immolation). One the other hand, I'm watching the Democrats cow-tow to this notion that this is a center-right nation. Um, didn't we elect a liberal to the White House? Isn't that a pretty reliable poll of political opinion? Obama certainly isn't as liberal as the far right would like to make him out to be (or as liberals like me would like him to be), but he's center-left. Why can't the Dems, when confronted by an opposition party that acknowledges its own intellectual bankruptcy, behave like they have a mandate to enact the changes the majority of Americans want? I have to think it's due to a lack of courage. So that's where we're at: No Ideas vs. No Guts.

Hayward recounts G.K. Chesterton's line about how "it is the business of progressives to go on making mistakes, while it is the business of conservatives to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." As a liberal, I'm perfectly willing to admit that the risk of progressivism is that a willingness to embrace change includes a willingness to make mistakes. The more dramatic the change, the more frightening the possibility that the change is a dangerous error. But we believe that the alternative, an aversion to change and a kind of conscious mythologizing of the past, leads to an even more dangerous regressivism. This is a genuine debate, with people of intelligence and goodwill on both sides, and liberals and conservatives have to continually weigh not only specific policies, but how much change they are willing to fight for, and how much they are willing to fight against.

But it seems both this country's political parties are actively avoiding this debate. It makes me wonder, how does fomenting outrage help the cause of conservatism, in the long run? In the short run, it gets ratings for your show on Fox News or AM radio, and it may even get you on the cover of Time Magazine, but people who've been whipped into a frothing rage about the state of the country generally won't appreciate the central drive of conservatism: To conserve the status quo. I think one of the reasons President Carter's latest remarks about the recism directed at President Obama struck such a cord was not because the prominent voices in conservatism are racists, but because those very leaders have good cause to be worried about their strategy: If you tell people the lie that we need to go backwards to the halcyon days of "family values", beyond the sound bite there's not a lot of substance. Go back to the days when a man could get away with beating his wife and children? Go back to the days when a woman couldn't vote? Go back to the days when taxes were higher (like they were under Reagan)? Go back to the days when politicians observed more civility than Joe Wilson? What past are they directing us to? I think those leaders, regardless of their own mixed feelings about the mechanisms we've put in place to achieve full civil rights for ethnic minorities, have reason to be concerned that too many conservatives might fill in the blanks by saying we should go back to the days when white men had first crack at jobs, more authority in their own households, more faces on TV, etc. Conservatives don't want to hold on to this present, when they are out of power and people are disenchanted. But how can they be conservatives without clearly articulating what to conserve?

On the flip side, liberals in the Democratic party are loathe to encourage real change because, let's face it, they're doing pretty well sitting right where they are. Why risk the presidency and two houses of Congress by enacting real change? What if you get it wrong? What if you create a situation where conservatives can say "let's go back to the moment before that blunder". The status quo, that of the majority desiring to change the status quo, serves the party identified with changing the status quo. As long as they don't actually do it. Of course, it's even easier to be a status-quo-maintaining faux-progressive when the conservatives are intellectually bankrupt.

Political pundits like to talk about the benefits of "gridlock". I think the term is misleading. There are benefits to "gridiron", as in the situation when conservatives and liberals put on their helmets, line up, and play some smash-mouth political football. Progressives move the ball while their ideas are good, but they are slowed down, made more calculating and deliberate. And if they err too greatly they turn the ball over and we move back down the field a bit. The political arc of this supposedly "center-right" nation has been liberal in the long-term. The progressives keep scoring (abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights). But "gridiron" politics has made the game exciting, and almost always kept the teams on the field. What we have now really is "gridlock", in the sense of traffic: Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have clogged the freeway and slowed each other to a near standstill, but they are headed in the same direction. I fear this freeway does not head to the best of our past or the promise of our future, but to something worse. I don't want to be an alarmist or some prophet of doom, but whether the American experiment ends tomorrow or in a hundred years, and whether it ends in fire or ice, the current concoction of gridlock is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, as a liberal, first and foremost I want the Democrats to gird their loins, grit their teeth, and make some change. But I also want the Republicans to identify the values they want to preserve and pick coherent and productive strategies to defend the best of our past. I've never been so concerned with the health of the opposition before, but I'm realizing just how essential real conservatism is for the health of the country. And to progress.