By Jim Miller
Just when you thought the Obama administration’s education policy couldn’t get any worse, it did.
Last week Obama nominated founder and CEO of New Schools, Ted Mitchell, to the second highest post at the Department of Education. Mitchell and his organization have been at the forefront of the education privatization movement and this confirms the bad news that rather than rethinking some of its unsuccessful, wrong-headed education policies, the administration has doubled down and is now completely in the tank with the corporate education reformers.
As Capitol and Main reported, this signals continued “corporate influence at the Department of Education”:
“He represents the quintessence of the privatization movement,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, tells Capital & Main. “This is a signal the Obama administration is committed to moving forward aggressively with transferring public funds to private hands.”
In education “privatization” refers to the contracting out of traditional public education services to for-profit companies or to charter schools that are set up as nonprofit organizations. In many ways, the Mitchell nomination reflects the ongoing battle being fought in Washington and in school districts across the country. It’s a battle that pits the views of teachers, their unions and community groups against a movement that is backed by wealthy philanthropists and corporations.
And with this nomination Obama just handed the fox the keys to the henhouse.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, in other news, the Obama administration has also been pushing hard to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) on the fast track with little to no public discussion of its implications. As Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America’s Future puts it, “The rigged process in which only giant corporate interests are represented at the talks of course produces results that are more favorable to those giant corporations than to their smaller, innovative competitors and regular people around the world. The rigged ‘fast track’ process enables these interests to push the agreement through Congress before there is time to organize a public reaction.”
Fortunately, it appears that a bipartisan, grassroots coalition of groups have created enough concern in Congress to stop it. A recent Washington Post article indicates that progressives managed to move Nancy Pelosi to oppose fast track for the TPP. Indeed the Post notes that the division over the TPP “represents a major remaining ‘fault line’ in the Democratic Party” with progressives opposing TPP and neoliberal Democrats trying to jam it through.
This same piece cites a Huffington Post analysis that points out that, “for Democrats, giving the White House too much authority could undercut the centerpiece of the 2014 election argument — that they are the party that will deal with income inequality and help the middle class. That’s because many in their own party, especially grassroots activists and unions, blame flaws in previous grand trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement for siphoning off middle class jobs.”
Yes, that debate has already begun with some even openly calling on Hillary Clinton not to run for president in 2016 because she would not be able to carry the message about fighting income inequality with the same credibility as someone like Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Why, one might ask, are those on the left having to fight these battles not with Tea Party Republicans but with a sitting Democratic president? In a scathing but provocative new piece in Harper’s Magazine entitled “Nothing Left: The Long Slow Surrender of American Liberals,” renowned political scientist Adolf Reed Jr. answers this question with a thoroughgoing history lesson pointing to how:
[D]uring the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same time, business interests, in concert with the Republican right and supported by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left had won. As this defensiveness overtook leftist interest groups, institutions, and opinion leaders, it increasingly came to define left-wing journalistic commentary and criticism.
Consequently, according to Reed, many in labor and activist circles both inside and outside of the Democratic party were largely “subdued” as the Democrats “made their peace with neoliberalism” and moved away from the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society to succumb to a “narrowing of social vision” and an “atrophy of political imagination.”
The result of this, Reed argues, was a kind of self-defeating myopia. In the absence of bold long-term goals:
Objectives that cannot be met within one or two election cycles seem fanciful, as do any that do not comport with the Democratic agenda. Even those who consider themselves to the Democrats’ left are infected with electoralitis. Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection.
For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the “pivotal” Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was the last time.
Why does this tailing behind an increasingly right-of-center Democratic Party persist in the absence of any apparent payoff? There has nearly always been a qualifying excuse: Republicans control the White House; they control Congress; they’re strong enough to block progressive initiatives even if they don’t control either the executive or the legislative branch. Thus have the faithful been able to take comfort in the circular self-evidence of their conviction.
Each undesirable act by a Republican administration is eo ipso evidence that if the Democratic candidate had won, things would have been much better. When Democrats have been in office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican bugbear remains a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for suppressing criticism from the left.
To those who would point to the glory days of the Clinton administration, Reed throws down the gauntlet:
The nostalgic mist that obscures this record is perfumed by evocations of the Clinton prosperity. Much of that era’s apparent prosperity, however, was hollow — the effects of first the tech bubble and then the housing bubble. His administration was implicated in both, not least by his signing the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, which had established a firewall between commercial and investment banking in response to the speculative excesses that sparked the Great Depression. And, as is the wont of bubbles, first one and then the other burst, ushering in the worst economic crisis since the depression that had led to the passage of Glass–Steagall in the first place. To be sure, the Clinton Administration was not solely or even principally responsible for those speculative bubbles and their collapse. The Republican administrations that preceded and succeeded him were equally inclined to do the bidding of the looters and sneak thieves of the financial sector. Nevertheless, Clinton and the Wall Street cronies who ran his fiscal and economic policy — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Alan Greenspan — are no less implicated than the Republicans in having brought about the economic crisis that has lingered since 2008 . . . It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda.
When it comes to Obama, Reed is equally tough, first dismissing what he sees as the empty cult of personality that led to his ascension and then pointing out that “Obama’s reflexive disposition to cater first to his right generally has been taken in stride as political necessity or even applauded as sagacious pragmatism.” This is because “since Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, ‘serious’ Democratic candidates have insisted that, because appealing to the right’s agenda is necessary to win, the responsible left must forgo demands for specific policies or programs as quid pro quo for their support.”
Hence today, “the Obama Administration defines as ‘responsible’ those who support it without criticism; those who do not are by definition the ‘far left’ and therefore dismissible.” And, in Democratic circles where winning by sacrificing principle and progressive policy has triumphed, “this limitation has been sold as evidence of the importance of subordinating all other concrete political objectives to the project of electing more Democrats, on the premise that the more of them we elect, the greater the likelihood that a majority will be amenable to embracing a leftist program.” This argument is particularly appealing to those in circles where, “Anticipation of jobs and ‘access’ — the crack cocaine (or, more realistically, powder cocaine) of the interest-group world — helps to make this scam more alluring.”
The result of this, according to Reed, has been a “dilettantish politics” of diminishing returns and a degradation of the political discourse to the point where, “The terms ‘left’ and ‘progressive’ — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order.”
What’s left? Out of the ruins of three decades of “defeat and marginalization” Reed argues that:
The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes.
While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Reed says in this essay, his clear-sighted focus on the historical roots of the Democrats’ move to the right with the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton, and the New Democrats who followed in his footsteps is crucial to understanding the current political landscape.
Indeed, any analysis of the current state of the Democratic Party and/or what qualifies for the left that ignores this key history is not worthy of serious consideration. With this context in mind, arguments that the Democrats at the local, state, or national level have moved too far to the left are ahistorical at best and ham-handed attempts to bludgeon dissent at worst. It would be far more accurate to say that the left has not been much of a factor in our politics at all despite the fact that the base of the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly progressive.
As Reed concedes in his piece and many other astute political observers have pointed out elsewhere, there is widespread consensus inside the Democratic Party and the Democratic base around social issues and identity politics. Where the rubber hits the road is on the question of our time—what to do about economic inequality. Do we stay on the same path that has essentially brought us two neoliberal parties (one socially reactionary and economically neoliberal and the other that is socially liberal but still economically neoliberal) or do we try, against the odds, to challenge the current hegemony?
In a thoughtful Huffington Post response to Reed’s essay, Richard Eskow agrees with the essence of his critique but chides Reed for being “unremittingly grim,” noting successes like the stalling of the TPP and reminding us that many populist ideas like raising the minimum wage poll quite well with the public and offer “signs of life” for the left. Eskow goes on to argue that the left needs to “remove those self-imposed limitations William Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ so that it can unleash its own imagination and courage. It must broaden its vision of what is possible so that it can break the bonds of impossibility.”
In other words, we need to dream bigger.