Can the Accidental Rich Speak for the Unhappy Poor?

Bad news for Bernie: The New York Times just outed him as a closet millionaire. Will it kill his presidential hopes? Nope. If history is any guide, low-income Americans don’t really mind if rich people make their case for them. But Bernie shouldn’t celebrate too soon.

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Attack the rich? Why?

Here’s what we know: Back in the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan faced similar accusations. Though Bryan had leapt to political prominence as the voice of the people, in the early 1920s he made a huge pile in the Florida land boom.

His opponents didn’t let him forget it. They lambasted him as a hypocrite, the millionaire voice of the poor, back when being a millionaire meant something.

It didn’t do much to derail Bryan’s 1920s anti-evolution campaigns. Though Americans listened when Clarence Darrow accused Bryan of being an ignoramus, they didn’t really seem to care that Bryan was a rich ignoramus.

In short, Americans have never really seethed in anger against rich people. Especially not if the rich people can explain how they got rich.

Bernie gets it. As he likes to say,

I wrote a best-selling book. . . . If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.

He’s right, but Bernie should recognize that this same political logic spells his own long-term doom. Because, as John Steinbeck put it so well in 1960, America doesn’t really have a lot of self-admitted proletarians. Everyone [in 1930] was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

So why shouldn’t Bernie celebrate? For the same reason that Americans respect his riches, they won’t listen to his socialist pitch. Not enough of them, anyway. To most American voters, rich people aren’t robbers. They’re talented, lucky, or some combination thereof. And most American voters don’t want to tax away their millions, they just want those millions for themselves.

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Pandering? Or Progress?

What do you think? Is Senator Harris’s new plan to raise teacher pay a real winner? Will it improve public schooling? Or is it just an election-season stunt, a way to gain attention without really solving any problems?

Kamala Harris

A winner?

Here’s what we know: In a speech at Texas Southern University, the Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful outlined a plan to increase pay for public-school teachers. In brief, Senator Harris is pledging $315 billion to raise teacher pay an average of ten percent. Here’s how NBC described the plan:

According to the Harris campaign, the goal is to eventually increase teacher pay by an average of $13,500 per person, putting it in line with typical salaries for other employees with college degrees. Campaign materials pointed to research by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found teachers make 11 percent less than college-educated workers on average in combined salary and benefits.

Under the California senator’s plan, the federal government would finance 10 percent of the total pay increase for the first year and then pay out 3 dollars to states for every 1 dollar they put into additional salaries.

It would commit additional funds to further increase salaries for teachers in highest-need schools along with a “multi-billion dollar investment” in career development for educators. Half of it would go toward teachers studying at historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with predominantly minority students.

In a sense, Harris’s plan is merely a continuation of a Democratic Party tradition. In the 2016 campaign, Comrade Sanders liked to call vaguely for better pay for public-school teachers. As Sanders liked to say back then,

the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.

But Sanders didn’t offer the kind of detail that Harris has laid out this year. Clearly, the echoes of teacher strikes over the past two years have changed the political landscape of progressive politics.

Conservatives are likely to see this proposal as dangerous and extreme. As ed commentator Rick Hess told Politico, it sounds like more of a fantasy for the primary season than a real plan for the Oval Office. As Hess put it,

I don’t know that it’s being proposed as actionable legislation so much as a marker. . . . Republicans, in particular, are nervous about once you open that barn door, just how involved Washington winds up getting in local education decisions and deciding who gets hired, how they get compensated.

And progressives are not falling over themselves to celebrate, either. As my favorite progressive-ed observer noted, Harris’s plan has some glaring problems. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene tweeted,

If a Dem wants to score points with teachers, pledge to kill test-driven faux accountability. Pledge to champion public ed over privatization. Pledge to put actual educators in charge of Ed Department. Get the federal government out of teachers’ way. And don’t make teachers have to negotiate with DC for their next raise.

All good points, but I can’t help but feel optimistic when I see that teacher-pay is at least being discussed in more depth and detail this campaign season. Like they say, “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Trump’s S-Word 2020 Gamble

Will it work? Personally, I hope not. As a historian of American conservatism, however, I think it could turn out to be a winning strategy. And I’ll hazard an easy prediction right now: Schools and rumors about schools will continue to play a key role.

Here’s what we know. In his SOTU speech this week, President Trump harped on the dangers of socialism. As he put it,

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence—not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be scratching their heads and asking why Trump is taking on a dead issue. Who worries about socialism anymore? The Soviet Union collapsed, China is careening forward with its some-pigs-are-more-equal-than-others capitalism, and Cuba seems poised to renounce its long socialist practice.

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Unreasoning s-word school terror, c. 1949.

Indeed, the socialist pressure these days comes from a different direction, from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both loud and proud democratic socialists.

Some lefties think Trump is making a big mistake by focusing on the s-word. As John Nichols wrote in the Nation,

while Trump may think “socialism” is a scare word, and while many prominent Democrats may get scared when it is referenced, Sanders is comfortable discussing the ideology.

Nichols and other hopeful progressives look at recent Gallup poll results for encouragement. It seems more and more young people are expressing confidence in socialism.

gallup socialism

Changing attitudes…?

Let me be as clear as I can about this: I hope it’s true. I hope new majorities of American voters see the wisdom of policies such as health care for all, affordable college tuition, and aggressive economic policies to help lower-income Americans. I hope that the s-word has lost its enormous power to stop useful policies dead in their tracks.

But I don’t think it has. Any candidate—including Trump—can win instant and powerful support by screaming about the dangers of socialism. Maybe I’m scarred by my time in the archives, but I can’t help but remain impressed by the powerful emotions generated by the s-word.

For example, in the middle of the twentieth century anti-socialist conservative activists in the Daughters of the American Revolution went to great lengths to sniff out any traces of socialist subversion in America’s public schools. Their intense investigations would be hilarious if they weren’t so destructive.

In the early 1960s, for example, Mississippi DAR leader Edna Whitfield Alexander warned of the dangers of Bobby Squirrel. The BS incident took place in a popular kids’ book used in schools, Ask For It.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs Alexander asked in the pages of the Monitor Herald (Calhoun City, MS), January 3, 1963, “Have you ever heard or read about a more subtle way of undermining the American system of work and profit and replacing it with a collective welfare system?”

In that period, as well, conservative activists used their newsletters and mailing lists to spread terrifying rumors of socialist intrigue in the nation’s public schools. As this flyer warned, students nationwide were planning socialist revolts in school.

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Conservative activists reprinted flyers like this and included them in newsletters, c. 1959.

It was a ridiculous thing to panic about. Its ridiculousness, however, does not take away anything from its incredible political power. To a depth that progressives can’t hope to fathom, Americans have always been terrified of the prospect of socialism in our country.

It hasn’t gone away. As one conservative pundit wrote recently,

By making resistance to socialism a lynch pin of his 2020 campaign, Trump will be helping to right this extremely dangerous situation, giving cover to students being indoctrinated in our classrooms and to their increasingly alarmed parents.

Maybe it doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway. There IS NO “extremely dangerous situation” in American classrooms due to creeping socialism. It just doesn’t exist. The real dangers in American public school classrooms come from inadequate funding, cruel and imbalanced disciplinary practices, and rampant economic segregation.

Nevertheless, though I hate to say it, I think the sort of knee-jerk terror many Americans feel at any whisper of the s-word will prove Trump right. If he continues to portray himself as the bold defender of American freedoms against creeping socialism, he stands a chance of victory.

Are Evangelicals Unfit for Office?

Remember Larycia Hawkins? Senator Bernie Sanders does. In a recent hearing, Bernie suggested that a Wheaton College grad was unfit for office since he publicly supported his alma mater in its fight against Professor Hawkins.

During the recent presidential campaign, Candidate Sanders sounded friendlier to evangelical Protestants. He even ventured into the fundamentalist lion’s den, making a speech at Liberty University.

Down in Virginia, Bernie didn’t make a secret of his disagreement with conservative evangelical politics. But he did say some friendly things about Liberty, such as the following:

You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings, and I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.

This week, Bernie wasn’t applauding. He suggested that any earnest evangelical was unfit for public office.

Before we get to his ferocious criticism of evangelicalism, let me say a few words of clarification: I like Bernie. I’m no evangelical myself. I’m just a mild-mannered historian who has written a book about the history of schools such as Wheaton and Liberty.

And maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of evangelical institutions, but Bernie’s recent accusation seemed pretty surprising to my ears. I’m at a loss to know how we should understand this situation.

Here’s what we know: according to Christianity Today, Senator Sanders was questioning Russell Vought in his hearing for his appointment in the Office of Management and Budget.

Vought is a Wheaton alum and had defended the school’s decision to initiate termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins had sparked controversy by wearing hijab and asserting that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the “same God.”

Vought disagreed. He applauded Wheaton’s firm stance. Only evangelical Christians, Vought wrote, can truly be saved. Only through the redemptive power of Jesus’s sacrifice can people come to God. As Vought put it bluntly,

Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.

Bernie didn’t like it. He challenged Vought:

Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too? I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

It’s a pickle. For secular folks like me (and Bernie), Vought’s language seems pretty harsh. Is sounds as if he is damning to hell everyone who doesn’t agree with him. And, in a way, he is. But Vought’s belief is nothing radical. In fact, however, it is one of the central tenets of evangelical belief. The National Association of Evangelicals recently offered a four-point statement of basic evangelical belief:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Some evangelical pundits were quick to lambaste Bernie. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called Bernie “breathtakingly audacious and shockingly ignorant.” Senator Sanders, Moore charged, was trying to impose an utterly unconstitutional religious test for office.

I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, I agree with Bernie. Vought seemed to make his point in a particularly offensive way, using language calculated to seem harsh and intolerant. I don’t want public officials who see non-evangelicals as somehow inferior. And there are plenty of evangelicals who agree with me. Even at Wheaton, after all, plenty of earnest evangelicals decried the school’s decision to oust Professor Hawkins.

On the other hand, Vought’s statement was nothing but basic evangelical belief. Perhaps Vought said it more loudly than people like me find polite. But Vought and anyone else is perfectly free to think the rest of us are condemned. As a religious belief, that doesn’t do me any harm. In fact, however, I am no more offended by Vought’s belief that I am condemned than I am by scientologists’ notions that I am not “clear.”

What do you think? Is Bernie right to raise the red flag? Or should Vought and his comrades be free to voice their religious beliefs loudly and proudly?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What did you miss last week?  Here are a few stories that might be of interest…

The tradition continues: The entire faculty senate at Gordon College resigned suddenly this week. HT: JF

All you college teachers out there: Dan Willingham reviews two new studies about students who use laptops during lectures.  Dell won’t be happy.

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Words, words, words…

Senator Bernie Sanders introduces his free college-tuition plan. He doesn’t think it will pass, but that’s not the point.

Will privatization school reformers repeat the mistakes of the GOP health-care flop? Andrew Rotherham makes the case.

Why are some free-marketeers nervous about Betsy DeVos? They want more charters and more choices, too, but they think her plans to get them might backfire.

Hersh? Ze? They! Grammar nerds decide we can use “they” and “them” instead of “he or she” and “him and her.” As in “everybody has their opinion,” instead of “everybody has his or her opinion.”

Evangelical Christians have always had a complicated relationship to nationalism and patriotism.  Is America a “Christian nation?” Has God been “kicked out?”  Is Trump’s appeal to Christian nationalism anything new?  For a great set of academic articles considering these tough questions, check out the new volume of Religions, edited by the inestimable Mark Edwards.

 

Why Didn’t They Talk about Schools?

There was plenty of talk. Senator Sanders admitted he was “sick and tired of hearing” about Secretary Clinton’s emails. Senator Webb jabbed Wall Street. Governor O’Malley championed the middle class. And Governor Chafee was also there. But nobody said anything about K-12 education. Why not?

There was some talk about higher education. Both Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton insisted we need some way to relieve student debt loads, maybe with free college tuition. Governor O’Malley bragged about low tuition rates in his state.

But only Secretary Clinton mentioned early childhood education, saying offhand that every child needed it to live up to his or her “God-given potential.”

Seems odd. The Democratic Party, after all, is the party of both Head Start and Race To The Top. The Democrats’ Big Tent includes both “Test-Em-n-See” Arne Duncan and Curmudgucrat Peter Greene.

It seems in the high-stakes world of primary debates, these stark differences between leading Democratic voices would offer a chance for some lively back-and-forth on key issues. What should we do with the Common Core? How should teachers be evaluated? How do we know if a school is doing a good job?

We didn’t hear it.

Loudmouth education parvenu Campbell Brown calls it a conspiracy. The Democratic Party, she claims, is in the back pocket of the teachers’ unions. They don’t even dare RSVP to her debate invitation.

Peter Greene thinks the answer is even simpler: “when it comes to public education in this country, none of the candidates actually gives a shit.”

In The Atlantic, David Graham thought there was just nothing much to disagree about. “Overall,” Graham opined, “the Democratic candidates simply don’t have the same divisions that the Republicans one [sic] do.”

But none of those explanations makes sense. This sort of forum offers candidates a chance to grab attention. Clinton’s identification with the Obama administration makes her an easy target. Yet none of them took it.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates can and do win votes by blasting other Democrats. I’m stumped why none of these candidates—not even the fire-breathing Senator Sanders—took this opportunity to do so.

Here’s my hunch: In the fervent calculations of any serious presidential campaign, candidates must make careful bets about issues and positions. In the face of Mr. Greene’s assertion that the candidates don’t care, I think candidates will care about what they think voters will care about.

Why didn’t candidates make political hay about K-12 education? Because they thought it would not win them any votes. With their finely tuned political antennae, these leading candidates concluded that Democrats in general did not want to hear about it.

Compare that to the GOP, where every candidate is forced to pay lip service to creationism. Compare that to the GOP, where every candidate falls all over him- or herself to show off his or her penchant for “education reform.”

Leading Democrats, in contrast, don’t air their differences in public. Why not? I’m no cynic, but it seems obvious to me that all candidates have agreed implicitly that their differences will not give them a competitive advantage. In short, none of them is willing to bank on a groundswell of support for iconoclastic progressive educational notions.

A Socialist in the Liberty Lion’s Den

Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. ….Bernie Sanders?

For decades, Liberty University has played host to leading conservative politicians. From Reagan to Romney, (Jeb) Bush to Cruz, presidential hopefuls have visited the campus to make speeches about Jesus and American greatness. So it’s no surprise that a leading presidential candidate will make a speech at next month’s convocation. But hold on to your fair-trade coffee: This year the presidential hopeful on the Liberty docket will be none other than Bernie Sanders. Why would this self-proclaimed non-religious socialist rabble-rouser from the hippie hills of Vermont want to journey to the unofficial headquarters of fundamentalist politics? Why would Liberty want to include him?

Could he grab some votes?

Could he grab some votes?

First of all, let me admit that this is old news. I’ve been on vacation recently and I’m just now catching up on all the latest culture-war headlines. A few weeks ago, Liberty published its schedule for its fall convocation. Along with predictable right-wing notables such as Texas’s Louis Gohmert and presidential hopeful Ben Carson, Liberty will welcome Senator Sanders.

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my new book about the history of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education. Liberty was a latecomer to that story, but it soon became a 500-pound gorilla in the world of Christian higher education. Thanks to its huge and lucrative online program, Liberty can claim enormous cash reserves. It has used that money to build big sports programs, big libraries, and big convocation rosters.

Yet in spite of all its parvenu riches, Liberty has struggled to overcome its image as a fundamentalist madrassah. When Ted Cruz made a speech on campus a few months back, outsiders like me gasped that Liberty’s students were forced to attend. The school, journalists exclaimed, still imposed rigid lifestyle requirements on its students. The school, some writers implied, was trapped in the past.

Perhaps the invite to Bernie Sanders resulted from an ambition to overcome this provincial reputation. As current president Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Washington Post, his school is only doing what great universities do. Liberty, Falwell said, is taking up the mantle of true higher education. As he put it,

A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed. . . . That’s what we’re doing.

But what’s in it for Senator Sanders? In a statement, he explained that he hoped to pull a Pope Francis at the conservative campus.

It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.

Before we pooh-pooh Sanders’s dreams, let’s remember that today’s Liberty University is much different from the rigidly political campus of the 1980s. Back in Jerry Falwell (Sr.)’s heyday, the school was a proud incubator of right-wing politics. These days, as faculty member Karen Swallow Prior has argued, there is much more cultural wiggle room for students.

The dress code has been lifted. There has even (briefly) been a College Democrats club.

This leaves us with a few tough questions to consider:

  • Is it possible? Can Liberty University transform itself from a southern fundamentalist college to a Great American University?
  • And, could Senator Sanders convince any Liberty students that they are part of a progressive alliance, part of a left-leaning movement that has excited the base of the Democratic Party?

What’s Left? Bernie Sanders on Education

It doesn’t really matter. But it has become a central part of the process nonetheless.

Even though the vast majority of thinking and funding of public schools is still done at the state and local levels, presidential candidates these days spend a good deal of time sharing their plans for fixing America’s schools. On the right, we’ve heard from all the GOP contenders. This week, Forbes Magazine summed up a few of Bernie Sanders’s positions on education. Some of the ideas are predictable, but some are surprising.

...and to my left...

…and to my left…

On the conservative side, candidates have a few hoops to jump through. Whatever their personal beliefs, contenders have to sound at least friendly to creationism. And these days—though as I argued recently this has not always been the case—GOP hopefuls have to denounce furiously any federal role in local schools.

Senator Sanders has a little more wiggle room. As a self-declared socialist representing the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont, Sanders has no real chance of snatching the nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton. So his campaign can be more about ideas than votes.

What does the Socialist Senator say about schools?

First—no surprise—he has denounced the “privatizing” tendencies of vouchers and charter schools. Also, in February Senator Sanders suggested a federal program to cut college tuition in half. The federal government, Sanders thinks, must stop making profits off of student loans. More radically, Senator Sanders wants to make public universities tuition-free. Beyond higher education, Sanders has pushed for better pre-school options for all. And he has decried the fact that “the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.”

It all fits. But there are some ideas that are conspicuous by their absence. Unlike other progressive pundits, we don’t hear from Senator Sanders an attack on the dehumanizing standardized tests that have taken over so many public schools. Nor do we see a strident defense of teachers’ unions.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates in the Democratic Party can win votes by adopting those popular positions. It’s still early days, of course, but we can’t help but wonder why Senator Sanders has not made more noise about these issues.