Tuesday, January 12, 2016


The Supreme Court seems ready to undermine public sector unions in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. On the op-ed page of The New York Times, Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Fund argues for saving the unions, because unions are good for democracy -- a fact he says conservatives should acknowledge, and used to acknowledge:
During the Cold War, Republicans as well as Democrats fought for union endorsements and recognized that unions were critical civic organizations because they serve as a check on arbitrary government power; help sustain a middle-class society necessary for a stable democracy; serve to acculturate workers to democratic norms; and, in the case of teachers unions, support a public school system that helps children become thoughtful and reflective citizens.

Conservatives are fond of citing Alexis de Tocqueville, who was famously struck by the thriving civic associations that keep American democracy vitalized; for the past century, unions have been a critical part of that framework....

Democracies are also more likely to thrive when a vibrant middle class can support them, an insight that goes all the way back to Aristotle. Large inequalities of wealth can create political inequality, and vice versa....

Unions serve as what Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, calls “schools for democracy.” Being involved in workplace decisions and the give and take of collective bargaining, voting on union contracts and voting for union leadership are all important drivers of “democratic acculturation.” Union members also staff phone banks and canvass voters door to door, which actually increases civic participation among union members and nonmembers alike.

Teachers unions are strong champions of American public schooling, which undergirds our democracy. The 19th-century educator Horace Mann, who advocated fiercely for the common school system that became America’s experiment with public education, made this point metaphorically: “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.”
Kahlenberg appears to be under the mistaken impression that modern conservatives actually want to strengthen democracy. They want no such thing.

Conservatism thrives when economic inequality is increasing. The formula is simple: Take good jobs at good wages from blue-collar whites. When they express anger and anxiety, blame non-white recipients of social services provided by "big government." Lather. Rinse. Repeat, ad infinitum.

Conservatism has been thriving in a period when ordinary Americans haven't been participating in civic associations and experiencing "democratic acculturation." In the low-civic-engagement era described in Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone, we've moved almost seamlessly from one Republican demagogue to another -- from Reagan to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Bush and Cheney to the Tea Party rabble-rousers in Congress and the strongmen in statehouses all over America, Scott Walker and Chris Christie and Paul Le Page and Rick Snyder and Rick Scott -- and now we're moving on to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. This all may be getting out of hand for the right at this moment, but it's worked pretty well so far. Much of the public is primed to be skeptical of democracy, and of government, and is thus happy to accept a dictatorship of the powerful. At Salon, Bob Cesca explains how that's working out for the right:
In the last 30 years, the Republicans have systematically infiltrated government from the school board level and up. 23 states are completely controlled by Republicans — the governorship and both houses of the state legislatures. Sixty eight of the 98 state legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans. That’s a party record. And the benefits of this strategy are obvious. Eight eight pro-gun laws since Sandy Hook, when gun control should’ve easily passed with supermajority support from voters, including Republicans. Forty seven state laws were passed in 2015 restricting abortion access. Thirty states have enacted Voter ID laws, even though the rate of voter fraud is so hilarious minuscule it barely exists at all. Every single one of these laws benefit the Republicans, especially the voter ID laws, which ultimately restrict voting access to registered Democrats.
And now all they need is a president and they can add full-bore nationwide economic Randianism to this list.

Why would conservatives want to mess with this trend? Why would they want Americans more attuned to democracy, better educated, more economically equal? That's terrible for them. The worse for ordinary people, the better for the right.


Victor said...

Modern Conservatism's motto:
What's good for America and ordinary Americans, is bad for Conservatism.
Conversly, what's bad for America and ordinary Americans, is GREAT for Conservatism!

And soon, the SCOTUS will probably put it's 2,000 lb thumb on the scales in favor of rural, older white voters.

Tom Hilton said...

Kahlenberg appears to be under the mistaken impression that modern conservatives actually want to strengthen democracy. They want no such thing.

How can you say that? Republicans are so devoted to democracy that they're willing to disenfranchise millions of voters just to prevent imaginary voter fraud.

C. Payson Usher said...

So where has the Democratic Party been during all these 30 years of Republic aggrandizement? Are all the State parties equally feckless? Did no one notice what was going on?

Unknown said...

Victor, I'm not nearly so sure as you about what'll come out of the AZ redistricting case. The only expert testimony worth a damn proffered to the SCOTUS in that case was that of Princeton Professor Sam Wang, probably best known at sites like this one as the head wrangler at the Princeton Election Consortium. Wang's got no history as being a wide-eyed Pollyanna when it comes to SCOTUS cases and he thinks there are reasons to expect at least one of the hard-core wingers on the SCOTUS to either adopt the essence of his the epresentation or use it to uphold AZ's new, less-obviously-politicized process.

I'm a lot more confident about something positive emerging from the AZ case than I am for the outcome from yesterday's hearing on California public union 'agency fees'.

Unknown said...

CPU, are you actually confident that you have a handle on the fundamental differences between the two major parties? Because I'm not sure you do.

The GOP is a commercial model based on constantly exploiting and maintaining the most grotesque qualities of human animals. The Dem party is a skeletal framework for hosting a periodic coming together of a loose coalition of interest groups and movements many of which have no commercial goal or viability whatsoever & that are constantly in a state of flux to a substantial extent fueled by recurrent visions of optimism for human evolution that involve hopefulness, trust & something loosely described as 'progress' which itself is modified by a fluid sense of liberal socialism.

As such, the national Democratic party just isn't equipped to coordinate the advancement of any particular goal: it's a vehicle for the possibly expression of goals by a huge number of groups many of which have agendas that conflict with others within the coalition.