Today, Mark Perry and Andrew Biggs, two scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, got the assignment for The Wall Street Journal. After acknowledging that, yes, women working full-time earn about one-fifth less than what men take home, they write, “but every ‘full-time’ worker… is not the same.” MORE
Red and blue state map, based on returns in last four presidential elections. (Wikimedia Commons/ Angr)
The fact that the citizens of “red” and “blue” states live in what are essentially two countries with very different governments has largely flown under the radar, but it may become the defining story of our time. The two major parties are not only highly polarized ideologically, but as Dan Balz noted in The Washington Post, “polarization has ushered in a new era in state government, where single-party control of the levers of power has produced competing Americas.” Three-quarters of US states are now controlled by one of the two major parties — the most in 60 years — and “officials in these states are moving unencumbered to enact their party’s agenda.”
When the Supreme Court ruled that states could decline Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion without facing a penalty, the justices set in motion a process that’s now pushing our two countries even further apart as about half of the states passed on the opportunity to insure their poorer residents.
According to Gallup, the share of Americans who lack health insurance has fallen to the lowest level since before the Great Recession began.
But the Urban Institute offers a fascinating finding: The rate of uninsured is now almost 50 percent higher in states that refused the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Medicaid expansion (18.1 percent) than in those that embraced the policy (12.4 percent).
This chart tells the story:
This growing coverage gap isn’t entirely a result of the Medicaid expansion — the rate of uninsured dropped by four percentage points in expanding states and 1.5 points in states that refused the expansion. Rather, it reflects the fact that “red” and “blue” states have always had very different budget priorities — the latter, as a group, have long spent more on health care, education and anti-poverty programs, and Obamacare’s ACA expansion, which offers billions of federal dollars to states that take it, is now deepening that divide.
Now that legislating is all but impossible in a deadlocked Washington, these kinds of differences between “red” and “blue” America will only grow starker. And it goes well beyond health care — last week, Maryland joined Connecticut in raising that state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and a number of other states under Democratic control are expected to follow. The same dynamic is playing out with other issues — from paid sick leave to prison reform to efforts to tackle climate change.
We’re witnessing an important real-world experiment in state governance, and as the Urban Institute study shows, the results are already coming in.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in Wednesday’s McCutcheon decision, noted that he sees no need for government to place restraints on individuals’ campaign spending because such information can be found “almost immediately” after they are filed.
“With modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information,” the Chief Justice wrote. “Reports and databases are available on the FEC’s Web site almost immediately after they are filed, supplemented by private entities such as OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org.”
The problem with Robert’s observation is that it’s not true (unless your definition of “almost immediately” is several months or possibly never). According to the Sunlight Foundation, one of the good government groups that work to make campaign finance data available to the public, there are several major problems with getting data up in a timely matter. These include: the fact that senators aren’t required to file their campaign finance reports electronically, resulting in delays; members of the House only have to disclose their donors every few months; and some campaign committees game the system to delay disclosure. For these reasons, groups such as Sunlight and Rootstrikers are calling on Congress to pass legislation mandating disclosure for donations over $1,000 within 48 hours.
To understand why knowing who’s bankrolling our politicians is so important to our democracy, consider what investigative journalists Kim Barker and Andy Kroll recently told Bill about why corporations go to great lengths to keep their political donations secret.
“Bad publicity,” Kroll said.
Barker and Kroll explain in this video clip how a political donation made by big box retailer Target shortly after the Citizens United decision resulted in a high-profile boycott and became “the shot heard around corporate America.”
Watch the two-minute clip:
In the 2010 elections, Target gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a big-business group trying to elect the GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who was against gay marriage. When Target’s contribution became public, the company was severely criticized over social media by gay rights groups and the LGBT community. As Kroll puts it:
You had the LGBT community and marriage equality advocates go ballistic, especially because Target had always portrayed itself as a sort of forward-thinking, hip, progressive organization. And yet, their money ended up supporting someone who was against gay marriage. And that scared a lot of people.
Barker called the incident “the canary in the coal mine,” adding that no corporation “wants that to happen again.” After the floodgates to campaign cash were opened following Citizens United, large companies like Target were able to buy as much influence as they could afford. But when corporate America saw how Target’s disclosed donation blew up in its face, it turned to social welfare organizations that are able to use funds to pay for election messaging without having to disclose where the money came from.
At the core of the disaster that is the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision lies a mistake. A strategic mistake, made by the government. In this mistake, we can see all that’s wrong with modern American constitutional law.
From the first moment that this case arose, it has been obvious to everyone that the decision would turn on the meaning of the word “corruption.” Congress has the power to regulate campaign contributions only if it is doing so to regulate “corruption.” So the central question raised by McCutcheon was this: Is a law limiting aggregate contributions a law designed to limit “corruption?”
The answer to that question obviously turns on the meaning of the word. If “corruption” means just quid pro quo — the stuff regulated by bribery laws — then it was clear to everyone that it would be tough going for the government to defend aggregate limits.
The reason was pretty obvious. The court has upheld limits on individual contributions to avoid quid pro quo corruption or the “appearance of corruption.” But the court has also said that those individual limits can’t be set too low, or else the limit would have no connection to corruption or the “appearance of corruption.” So a contribution limit of $500, for example, would plainly fail the court’s quid pro quo rationale, since none would think that a contribution of $500 bespeaks quid pro quo corruption.
So what if someone wanted to give $500 to every Democratic candidate running for Congress?
Under the law at issue in McCutcheon, that would not be allowed. Five hundred dollars given to more than 400 candidates would exceed the limits for aggregate contributions. And thus the crux of the argument Mr. McCutcheon’s lawyers made to the Supreme Court: If it’s not quid pro quo corruption when $500 is given to one candidate, how is it quid pro quo corruption when $500 is given to 400+ candidates?
[We] scoured every document that we could from the framing of our constitution to try to map how the Framers used the word “corruption.” What was absolutely clear from that research was that by “corruption,” the Framers certainly did not mean quid pro quo corruption alone.
The answer, obviously, was that it isn’t unless corruption can mean something other than quid pro quo corruption. The only way for the government to win, in other words, was to convince the court that while corruption certainly includes quid pro quos, it need not be limited to quid pro quos.
The roots of that argument were handed to the government from an unlikely source: the Framers of our Constitution. Building upon the work of Zephyr Teachout, two researchers and I scoured every document that we could from the framing of our constitution to try to map how the Framers used the word “corruption.” What was absolutely clear from that research was that by “corruption,” the Framers certainly did not mean quid pro quo corruption alone. That exclusive usage is completely modern. And while there were cases where by “corruption” the Framers plainly meant quid pro quo corruption, these cases were the exception. The much more common usage was “corruption” as in improper dependence. Parliament, for example, was “corrupt,” according to the Framers, because it had developed an improper dependence on the King. That impropriety had nothing to do with any quid pro quo. It had everything to do with the wrong incentives being allowed into the system because of that improper dependence.
So how is that framing usage relevant to the decision in McCutcheon?
The justices on the court leading the charge to restrict the meaning of “corruption” to quid pro quo corruption alone are the conservatives. Those same conservatives — Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas most prominently, but Chief Justice Roberts as well — are also the justices who have told us again and again that the method they use to interpret the constitution is “originalism.” Read the Constitution, they have told us, not how we would read it, but how the Framers would have read it. That’s the only “principled,” as we’ve been lectured again and again, way to interpret the document. And on the basis of that method, the court has struck down acts of Congress repeatedly and likewise, upheld acts of Congress repeatedly. If the Framers would have done it, an originalist argues, then we should too.
But where is the originalism when it comes to the meaning of the word “corruption?” If the originalists on the court believe the Framers would have permitted laws regulating the freedom of speech if those laws targeted “corruption,” why would an originalist use an understanding of the term from a 1976 per curium opinion (Buckley v. Valeo) rather than an understanding of the Framers — corruption as in “improper dependence” — made manifest by the Framers again and again?
Because “improper dependence” is precisely the problem that limits on aggregate contributions are meant to attack. Already we have a system in which Congress is dependent upon the tiniest fraction of the 1% to fund its campaigns. I’ve estimated the number of relevant funders is no more than 150,000 (about the number of Americans named “Lester.”) If aggregate contribution limits are struck, that number will fall dramatically. More will be raised from a smaller number of contributors — maybe as few as 40,000 (about the number of Americans named “Sheldon”). So abolishing aggregate limits will move us from Lesterland to Sheldon City, increasing a dependence on the funders, while conflicting with Madison’s promise of a branch of government “dependent on the people alone.”
That argument may or may not have worked with one of the five conservatives on the court. There’s no such thing as a slam dunk in law and this argument depends upon originalism applied not to the Constitution’s text, but to the standard the court uses to interpret that text.
The government’s brief didn’t even hint at the argument that there was no good originalist reason to restrict the meaning of “corruption” to quid pro quo corruption alone.
But the striking fact about McCutcheon is that the government didn’t even try. Originalism is not the language of liberals. It’s beneath them — the weapon of the enemy. So the government’s brief didn’t even hint at the argument that there was no good originalist reason to restrict the meaning of “corruption” to quid pro quo corruption alone. And Justice Breyer in his classically geeky dissent doesn’t even hint at the possible originalist inconsistency — even though the core of his argument is precisely that “corruption” does not mean “quid pro quo corruption” alone.
This is the much bigger pathology that the partisans on the court have allowed to evolve. Originalism is a method for interpreting our Constitution. It yields conservative results. It yields liberal results. But the most vocal originalists in modern times have been conservatives. And through a carelessness in the application of their own theory, they have allowed the world to believe that originalism is a tool exclusive to the Right.
Lawrence Lessig’s March to End Corruption
The liberals have allowed that belief to emerge by acquiescing in conservative inconsistency. So exhausted have they become with the arguments of the other side that they don’t even want to engage.
This is a loss for all of us. Not necessarily because originalism is the theory we all should embrace. But because by giving originalist inconsistency a free ride, the Left has made more likely a whole series of terrible constitutional decisions. McCutcheon is just the latest.
Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, and serves as director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @Lessig.
In a 2011 report, Morgan Stanley analysts proclaimed that America was experiencing a transition from an ownership society to a “rentership society.” “The combination of falling home prices, limited mortgage credit, continued liquidations and better rental options is fundamentally changing the way Americans live,” says the report, concluding, “We believe this change is only beginning.” MORE
Typhoon Haiyan survivors walk through the ruins of their neighborhood on the outskirts of Tacloban, central Philippines on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report today. It focuses on how climate change will affect human society in coming years painting a picture of a world destabilized by a rapidly changing environment. While many of the events it details are familiar to those who follow the research on climate change, taken together in the 2,600-page report assembled by more than 300 scientists, they’re almost overwhelming to consider.
“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.
The longer we dither about taking action, it warns, the worse the impacts of climate change will be.
Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, center, speaks during a news conference to announce the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's donation of $51.2 million dollars to the New York City school system at Morris High School in the Bronx, New York, Wednesday, September 17, 2003. He is flanked by Joel Klein, former chancellor of the city's Department of Education and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
The education reform movement must be defined in terms of its ideology, its strategies and its leading members.
The “reformers” say they want excellent education for all; they want great teachers; they want to “close the achievement gap”; they want innovation and effectiveness; they want the best of everything for everyone. They pursue these universally admired goals by privatizing education, lowering the qualifications for future teachers, replacing teachers with technology, increasing class sizes, endorsing for- profit organizations to manage schools, using carrots and sticks to motivate teachers and elevating standardized test scores as the ultimate measure of education quality.
“Reform” is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy. The groups and individuals that constitute today’s reform movement have appropriated the word “reform” because it has such positive connotations in American political discourse and American history. But the roots of this so- called reform movement may be traced to a radical ideology with a fundamental distrust of public education and hostility to the public sector in general.
“Reform” is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.
The “reform” movement is really a “corporate reform” movement, funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs and the US Department of Education. The movement is determined to cut costs and maximize competition among schools and among teachers. It seeks to eliminate the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years and replace it with a competitive market- based system of school choice — one that includes traditional public schools, privately managed charter schools, religious schools, voucher schools, for- profit schools, virtual schools and for- profit vendors of instruction. Lacking any geographic boundaries, these schools would compete for customers. The customers would choose to send their children and their public funding wherever they wish, based on personal preference or on information such as the schools’ test scores and a letter grade conferred by the state (based largely on test scores).
Public Schools for Sale?
Some in the reform movement, believing that American education is obsolete and failing, think they are promoting a necessary but painful redesign of the nation’s ailing schools. Some sincerely believe they are helping poor black and brown children escape from failing public schools. Some think they are on the side of modernization and innovation. But others see an opportunity to make money in a large, risk- free, government- funded sector or an opportunity for personal advancement and power. Some — a small but important number — believe they are acting rationally by treating the public education sector as an investment opportunity.
The corporate reform movement has its roots in an ideology that is antagonistic to public education. Partisans on the far right long ago turned against public schools, which they call “government schools.” As a matter of ideology, they do not believe that government can do anything right. From the time that the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman introduced the idea of vouchers in 1955, his supporters embraced vouchers as the best school reform ever, because it would enable parents to take government money to a school of their choice, including private and religious schools. Voucher advocates have long argued that the money should follow the child to whatever institution the family chooses, be it public, private or religious. For years, they made the seductive pitch that parents should be “free to choose” (as Friedman put it) and that government should supply each family its share of the money and get out of the way. But for many years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the idea of school choice was tainted because segregationists used it to evade desegregation in districts facing court- ordered desegregation.
The election results in state after state show that the public does not want to subsidize religious schools with its tax dollars. Voucher advocates do not accept that the public likes and supports its community public schools, free from any religious teachings, with doors open to all.
President Ronald Reagan, an admirer of Milton Friedman’s, supported vouchers but was never able to persuade Congress to go along. In state referenda, the public has consistently opposed vouchers. Every time vouchers were put to a public vote, they were defeated by large margins. As recently as 2012, voters in Florida decisively rejected a constitutional amendment to permit vouchers. Voucher proponents complain that the public doesn’t understand its own best interest and is misled by teachers’ unions, who are just protecting their jobs and power. The election results in state after state show that the public does not want to subsidize religious schools with its tax dollars. Voucher advocates do not accept that the public likes and supports its community public schools, free from any religious teachings, with doors open to all. So choice supporters continually parrot or manufacture a steady stream of bad news about public education to shake the public’s faith in public schools. However, even when polls show that people have a low opinion of American education, they nonetheless continue to have a high opinion of their own neighborhood schools.
Today’s reformers assert that “the money should follow the child” and they herald this as a bold new reform idea. But it is not new. It is the same idea that was behind vouchers more than half a century ago. Today, the same arguments are made by Governor Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, who wants the money to follow the child to any school (even schools that teach creationism as science), any online corporation, any for- profit vendor of educational services, regardless of experience, quality or qualifications. As public money is dispersed, so is public oversight and accountability for the spending of public money. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, eager to dismantle public education, proposed a formula for education funding based on this principle: “Any time, any place, any way, any pace.” Conservative governors in other states make the same arguments.  But there is nothing conservative about replacing a beloved and traditional community institution — the public school — with a marketplace of privately run schools and for- profit vendors. This is a radical project, not conservative at all.
The organizations that advocate for “reform” have names that are appealing and innocuous, like the American Federation for Children, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Better Education for Kids (B4K), Black Alliance for Educational Options, the education program at the Brookings Institution, the Center for Education Reform, Chiefs for Change, ConnCAN (and its spin- off, 50CAN, as well as state- specific groups like MinnCAN, NYCAN and RI- CAN), Democrats for Education Reform, the Education Equality Project, Education Reform Now, Educators 4 Excellence, EdVoice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the National Council on Teacher Quality, New Leaders for New Schools, NewSchools Venture Fund, Parent Revolution, Stand for Children, Students for Education Reform, StudentsFirst, Teach for America, Teach Plus and a host of others. Many of these groups have overlapping membership on their boards and are funded by the same foundations. They exist in a giant echo chamber, listening and talking only to one another, dismissing the concerns of parents, teachers and communities.
The reformers are Republicans and Democrats. They include not only far- right Republican governors but some Democratic governors as well.
The reformers are Republicans and Democrats. They include not only far- right Republican governors but some Democratic governors as well. They include President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as Democratic mayors in such cities as Newark, Chicago and Los Angeles. Elected officials of both parties have signed on to an agenda that threatens the future of public education.
The aims of the corporate reform movement are supported by a broad array of think tanks, some purportedly liberal, some centrist, some on the right and some on the far right. These include the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Education Sector, the Thomas B.
Fordham Institute, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Goldwater Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution and Policy Innovators in Education Network, as well as a bevy of state- level public policy think tanks that support privatization. Many of these think tanks — both liberal and conservative — work closely together, co- sponsoring conferences and publications to advance their shared agenda. Major foundations handsomely fund the think tanks that promote the corporate reform ideology.
The corporate reform movement has co- opted progressive themes and language in the service of radical purposes. Advocating the privatization of public education is deeply reactionary. Disabling or eliminating teachers’ unions removes the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts. In every state, classroom teachers are experts in education; they know what their students need and their collective voice should be part of any public decision about school improvement. Stripping teachers of their job protections limits academic freedom. Evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students undermines professionalism and encourages teaching to the test. Claiming to be in the forefront of a civil rights movement while ignoring poverty and segregation is reactionary and duplicitous.
The leading funders of the reform movement are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports charter schools and test- based teacher evaluation; the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which supports charter schools and trains urban superintendents in its managerial philosophy; and the Walton Family Foundation, which funds vouchers and charters.
The leading funders of the reform movement are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports charter schools and test- based teacher evaluation; the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which supports charter schools and trains urban superintendents in its managerial philosophy; and the Walton Family Foundation, which funds vouchers and charters. These powerful and wealthy foundations have overlapping interests. They subsidize many organizations in common, such as Teach for America (which recruits young college graduates to teach for two years in low- income schools), the KIPP charter schools and Parent Revolution (the chief advocates of the “parent trigger” idea). They jointly funded the digital learning policy statement issued by Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia, which promotes the proliferation of low- quality virtual charter schools. Many other wealthy foundations support the corporate reform agenda, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, the Fisher Foundation and the Anschutz Foundation, as well as fabulously rich individuals, including the Bezos family (Amazon.com), Reed Hastings (Netflix) and Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation).
The Gates Foundation is by far the largest foundation in the United States and possibly the world. It awards hundreds of millions of dollars in education grants every year. In addition to underwriting the expansion of charter schools, it invests heavily in test- based evaluation of teachers and merit pay. It has made grants to the biggest teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association and also made grants to start groups of young teachers to challenge the teachers’ unions. It is difficult to find education organizations that have not been funded by the Gates Foundation. It underwrites “advocacy,” by subsidizing almost every major think tank in Washington, D.C. It supported the creation, evaluation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in almost every state. In addition, the Gates Foundation has joined in a partnership with the British publisher Pearson to develop online curriculum for teaching the Common Core standards. And the Gates Foundation underwrote the creation of a large database project to collect confidential student data with Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation; critics fear that this information will be disclosed to vendors to market new products to schools and students.
The corporate reform movement has a well- honed message: We are the reformers. We have solutions. The public schools are failing. The public schools are in decline. The public schools don’t work. The public schools are obsolete and broken.
The corporate reform movement has a well- honed message: We are the reformers. We have solutions. The public schools are failing. The public schools are in decline. The public schools don’t work. The public schools are obsolete and broken. We want to innovate. We know how to fix schools. We know how to close the achievement gap. We are leading the civil rights movement of our era. We want a great teacher in every classroom. Class size doesn’t matter. Teachers should be paid more if their students get higher scores. They should be fi red if their students don’t get higher scores. Teachers should have their seniority and tenure stripped from them because those things protect bad teachers. Bad teachers cause the achievement gap. Great teachers close the achievement gap. Teachers’ unions are greedy and don’t care about children. People who draw attention to poverty are just making excuses for bad teachers and failing public schools. Those who don’t agree with our strategies are defenders of the status quo. They have no solutions. We have solutions. We know what works. Testing works. Accountability works. Privately managed charter schools work. Closing schools with low test scores works. Paying bonuses to teachers to get higher scores works. Online instruction works. Replacing teachers with online instruction not only works but cuts costs while providing profits to edu-entrepreneurs who will spur further innovation.
It is a seductive message because it offers hope that someone knows how to fix difficult problems. They claim they not only know how to do it but are doing it. They express their message with clarity and certainty. Their message resonates with the major media and with the most powerful people in our society: billionaires, corporate executives, the leaders of major foundations, the president of the United States, the US secretary of education, Wall Street hedge fund managers, pundits and think tank opinion makers.
The corporate reformers don’t like local school boards, because they sometimes defer to the views of teachers and they squabble too much; school boards, they say, slow down decision making with public hearings and sometimes they make the wrong decisions. That is always a risk in a democracy; deliberative bodies are slow and sometimes make mistakes.
Corporate reformers want education decisions in the hands of a powerful executive who is immune to public opinion. They like the idea of a governor who appoints a commission to override the decisions of local school boards that resist charter schools.
Corporate reformers want education decisions in the hands of a powerful executive who is immune to public opinion. They like the idea of a governor who appoints a commission to override the decisions of local school boards that resist charter schools. They like the idea of a superintendent at the state level who has unlimited power to impose his (their) policies, especially closing public schools and opening charter schools. In urban districts, their preferred mode of governance is a mayor or superintendent who controls the schools and answers to no one. At the school level, they want principals who can hire and fire at will, without due process. Corporate reformers don’t like checks and balances. They want executives who can ignore the protests of parents, students, teachers and community leaders, no matter how loudly they complain and no matter how many show up at public hearings or protest at rallies.
It pays to be on the reform team, certainly much more than it does to be a public school teacher. When Chicago’s teachers went on strike in September 2012, the national media thought it shocking that the average Chicago teacher was paid $75,000 a year; they ignored the fact that Chicago teachers are compelled by law to live in Chicago and that this is not an outrageous salary for an educated, experienced professional who lives in a major city. Yet the media are indifferent when charter executives receive salaries of $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, to oversee a single school or a chain of small schools. The reformers are flush with cash from foundations and corporations. The Walton Family Foundation alone made school- reform grants of $159 million in 2011. Reformers often complain about the power and influence of the teachers’ unions, but the unions cannot match the resources of the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, as well as the many other foundations that march in lockstep with them, plus individual billionaires and millionaires who support candidates for state and local school board races. (The Gates and Walton foundations alone spend more than $500 million annually on education projects, which is more than ten times what unions spend to support civil rights groups and other allies.) When you combine the wealth of the big foundations with the financial and political clout of the US Department of Education, they are a mighty force. The “reformers” are the status quo.
For an ambitious person, being part of the corporate reform movement offers not only access to money but an accelerated route to professional success.
For an ambitious person, being part of the corporate reform movement offers not only access to money but an accelerated route to professional success. Graduates of the Broad Superintendents Academy, an unaccredited program created by the Broad Foundation to teach Eli Broad’s management style of corporate reform, are on a fast track to become superintendents of urban districts — and the Broad Foundation may enhance their salaries. Some of the graduates of this short- term program are now state superintendents. Many are in charge of urban districts.
The young person who joins up with Teach for America or one of the big charter chains becomes part of a powerful network. These organizations provide an escalator to the top that no ordinary teaching career can match. Teachers without these connections may work for years in their classrooms before they are even considered for department chair or assistant principal. Those who rise in the corporate reform movement are soon managing their own charter schools or assuming leadership roles in large urban districts or state education departments, some before they reach the age of 30.
Wall Street hedge fund managers have their own organization, called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER raises money for candidates and elected officials whom it likes and it doesn’t like them unless they agree to the corporate reform agenda, especially the expansion of charter schools and the imposition of teacher evaluation systems based on test scores (though not for teachers in the charter schools it supports). At the inaugural meeting of DFER in 2005, the speaker for the event was a promising young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. When Obama ran for president in 2008, his chief education spokesperson was Linda Darling- Hammond of Stanford University. But when Obama was elected, he chose Arne Duncan as secretary of education. Duncan not only was his friend but was recommended by DFER. 
In states with a Republican governor and a Republican supermajority in the legislature, the measures to privatize education advanced rapidly.
Arne Duncan is one of the recognized leaders of the corporate reform movement who implemented many of its ideas when he was superintendent of schools in Chicago. Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, is another national leader. He created an organization called the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which actively promotes vouchers, charter schools, for- profit charter schools, virtual learning and for- profit online corporations, as well as testing and accountability tied to test scores. In states with a Republican governor and a Republican supermajority in the legislature, the measures to privatize education advanced rapidly. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder promoted legislation to allow emergency managers to take over fiscally troubled districts; in two small school districts, the emergency managers closed the public schools and gave the students to a for- profit charter school chain (the law was repealed in 2012 by Michigan voters, but Snyder left the emergency managers and their decisions in place). Governor Mitch Daniels and the Indiana legislature authorized vouchers, for- profit charter schools, for- profit cyber- charters and a test- based teacher accountability system. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana pushed through sweeping legislation in 2012 that offered vouchers to more than half the students in the state and authorized the opening of many new charter schools; in addition, students will be able to take their state money and spend it in almost any place that calls itself a vendor of educational services. The money to support the alternatives to public education was to be taken out of the budget for public schools, until state courts ruled it unconstitutional to do so. The Louisiana reform legislation ties teachers’ evaluations to the test scores of their students, but teachers in charter schools and voucher schools do not need to be certified or subject to the same requirements, as is the case in many other states and districts.
When the Louisiana legislation was hurriedly passed, it was hailed by a group of state superintendents called Chiefs for Change as “student- centered reforms” that “will completely transform Louisiana and its students.”  Chiefs for Change is affiliated with Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. It describes itself as a coalition of state leaders who share a “zeal for education reform.” Its members include the state superintendents in Rhode Island, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Florida, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico.
Much of the legislation for the education reform movement in states with conservative governors or legislatures comes from a shadowy group called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council).
Much of the legislation for the education reform movement in states with conservative governors or legislatures comes from a shadowy group called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council). ALEC stayed out of the public eye until 2012, when a shooting in Florida brought it unwanted national attention. A black teenager named Trayvon Martin was killed by a man who said he was defending himself in accordance with Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which was based on model legislation written by ALEC. ALEC was founded in 1973 to advance privatization and free- market principles. Its membership includes some 2,000 state legislators. Funded by scores of major corporations and philanthropists, ALEC writes model legislation, which its members bring to their state legislatures. Many states have adopted ALEC model laws, simply inserting the name of the state into the proposed legislative language. ALEC does not like public schools or unions. ALEC likes vouchers and charter schools. It wants to eliminate tenure and seniority and to encourage paths into teaching that don’t involve getting a license or pedagogical training. ALEC likes for- profit schools, especially cyber- charters. It promotes “parent trigger” laws to enable privatizers to convince parents to sign petitions that will turn their schools over to charter managers. 
The most unexpected supporter of corporate reform was President Barack Obama. Educators enthusiastically supported Obama, expecting that he would eliminate the noxious policies of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. They assumed, given his history as a community organizer and his sympathy for society’s least fortunate, that his administration would adopt policies that responded to the needs of children, rather than concentrating on testing and accountability.
The first big surprise for educators occurred when President Obama abandoned Linda Darling-Hammond and selected Arne Duncan, who had run the low- performing schools of Chicago, as secretary of education. The second big surprise — shock, actually — happened when the Obama administration released the details of Race to the Top, its major initiative, which was designed in Secretary Duncan’s office with the help of consultants from the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and other advocates of high- stakes testing and charter schools.
The most unexpected supporter of corporate reform was President Barack Obama. Educators enthusiastically supported Obama, expecting that he would eliminate the noxious policies of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind.
There was very little difference between Race to the Top and NCLB. The Obama program preserved testing, accountability and choice at the center of the federal agenda. Race to the Top was even more punitive than NCLB. It insisted that states evaluate teachers in relation to the test scores of their students, which made standardized testing even more important than it was under NCLB. It encouraged states to authorize more privately managed charter schools, an initiative that President George W. Bush would never have been able to get through a Democratic- controlled Congress. It endorsed competition and choice, which were traditional themes of the Republican Party. The very concept of a “race to the top” repudiates the traditional Democratic Party commitment to equity; it suggests that the winner will “race to the top,” leaving the losers far behind. But a commitment to equity means that federal resources should be allocated based on need, not on a competition between the swift and the slow.
Because Race to the Top was handsomely funded, states eagerly competed for a share of its $5 billion. President Obama spoke out of both sides of his mouth about this signature program. He said in his State of the Union address in 2011 that Race to the Top was not a topdown mandate (after all, states had volunteered to accept its mandates) but “the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities” (which was not true in any sense).
Even though Race to the Top made standardized testing more important than ever, President Obama spoke out against testing. In 2011, he said he was strongly opposed to teaching to the test. He said,
One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.
His critics agreed with him. The California teacher and blogger Anthony Cody wondered if the president knew that Race to the Top required states to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, that Secretary Duncan wanted to evaluate teacher preparation programs by the test scores of the students of the teachers they produced and that Obama’s Department of Education “is proposing greatly expanding both the number of subjects tested and the frequency of tests, to enable us to measure the ‘value’ each teacher adds to their students.” At the same time that the president was lamenting “teaching to the test,” his own policies made it necessary to teach to the test or be fired. 
In his 2012 State of the Union, the president’s message was even more inconsistent. He said that he wanted schools to encourage teachers to “teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test,” but at the same time he wanted schools to “reward the best ones” and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” He didn’t acknowledge that the rewards and the punishments he approved would be tied, at his administration’s insistence, to test scores.
In response to Race to the Top, the number of charter schools grew rapidly. For-profit charter schools expanded, as did virtual charter schools. Neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan expressed any concern about the risks of deregulating public money to private corporations, nor did they oppose the entry of for-profit entrepreneurs into the charter school market. By advocating for school choice rather than public schools, Race to the Top implicitly encouraged not only charters but the other form of school choice: vouchers.
The 2010 elections brought a new crop of far-right governors into office and these governors warmly embraced charter schools and advocated for vouchers. The Obama administration was silent; after a brief attempt to defund the Washington, DC, voucher program, the administration gave in to Republican protests and permitted it to continue.
The 2010 elections brought a new crop of far-right governors into office and these governors warmly embraced charter schools and advocated for vouchers. The Obama administration was silent; after a brief attempt to defund the Washington, DC, voucher program, the administration gave in to Republican protests and permitted it to continue. As state after state adopted vouchers, the Obama administration raised no protest against the advance of privatization. Nor did Obama strongly object when the governors of Republican states attacked the collective bargaining rights of public- sector unions. In the spring of 2011, Wisconsin’s right- wing governor, Scott Walker, proposed to strip away the collective bargaining rights of most public sector workers, including teachers and they organized massive protests in Madison. They surrounded the state capitol and mounted daily protests. President Obama said he sided with the workers but didn’t show up in Madison to demonstrate his support. Instead, he and Secretary Duncan flew to Miami in the middle of the Wisconsin protests to praise the former Florida governor Jeb Bush as “a champion of education reform” and to celebrate the successful “turnaround” of Miami Central High School. The national media recognized that President Obama was bestowing important support on Jeb Bush’s policies of testing, accountability and grading of schools. The national media did not pay attention, however, when the Florida Department of Education announced plans to shutter Miami Central because of its low performance only four months after the meeting between President Obama and Governor Bush. The state granted the school a waiver to avoid closure. Despite some gains, it was still one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools.
In his support for charter schools, high- stakes testing, merit pay and evaluating teachers by test scores, President Obama forged a bipartisan consensus. But he had strange bedfellows, at least for a Democrat. When I blogged about ALEC and its right- wing agenda for privatization and lowering standards for entry into teaching, the organization’s research director responded that President Obama shared credit with ALEC for promoting charter schools and “teaching- profession reforms.” During the 2012 election campaign, the only difference between Obama and Mitt Romney in relation to their K– 12 policy was that Romney supported vouchers (which he called “opportunity scholarships”) and Obama did not.
During the 2012 election campaign, the only difference between Obama and Mitt Romney in relation to their K–12 policy was that Romney supported vouchers (which he called “opportunity scholarships”) and Obama did not.
Neither candidate in the 2012 election supported public education. Both agreed that it was in crisis and that it needed radical change. In their debates, the subject of poverty never came up. Indeed, the subject of education was barely mentioned aside from the candidates’ agreement that Race to the Top was a great success.
The public is only dimly aware of the reform movement’s privatization agenda. The deceptive rhetoric of the privatization movement masks its underlying goal to replace public education with a system in which public funds are withdrawn from public oversight to subsidize privately managed charter schools, voucher schools, online academies, for- profit schools, and other private vendors.
No matter how many Hollywood movies the corporate reformers produce, no matter how many television specials sing the glories of privatization, no matter how often the reformers belittle the public schools and their teachers, the public is not yet ready to relinquish its public schools to speculators, entrepreneurs, ideologues, snake- oil salesmen, profit- making businesses and Wall Street hedge fund managers.
3. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers together gave a total of $330 million to political campaigns and civil rights groups over a six- year period from 2005 to 2011. Alicia Mundy, “Teachers Unions Give Broadly,” The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012. During the same period of time, the major foundations supporting test — based accountability and choice spent many times that amount. Gates spends $300 — $400 million each year on education. Ken Libby, “A Look at the Education Programs of the Gates Foundation,” Shanker Blog, March 2, 2012. In 2011, the Walton Family Foundation spent $159 million on education grants. These figures do not include political contributions made by either Gates or the Walton family.
Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education. She was the assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Ravitch has authored several books on education, including her latest Reign of Error. She blogs about education issues at dianeravitch.net. You can follow her on Twitter @dianeravitch.
Cushing, Okla. -- where Keystone XL's southern leg begins. Photo: Tara Lohan
By now most people have heard of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline and the fact that, after five years of deliberation and protest, its fate still hangs in the balance (the southern portion is already built, but the northern portion that crosses the Canadian-US border awaits a permitting decision). The issue has galvanized the environmental movement, inspired dozens of high-profile demonstrations and captured media attention. But while the impacts from Keystone XL are significant, it’s not the only tar sands pipeline project in town.
Usually pipelines don’t draw much attention unless something goes wrong — like when a suburban Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood was flooded with heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands last May courtesy of a busted Exxon pipeline. But increasingly, communities aren’t waiting until catastrophe strikes to voice their opposition to new or expanded pipeline projects — partly because of environmental and public health risks from spills and partly out of concern for increasing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
When Keystone XL was brought into the spotlight, people began to understand that not all pipelines are created equal — a pipeline carrying “dilbit,” or diluted bitumen from tar sands — poses different (and often greater) risks than a conventional oil pipeline. Hazardous chemicals and other hydrocarbons need to be added, along with high pressure and heat, to move viscous dilbit through a pipe. And when spills occur, the oil doesn’t sheen at the surface; it sinks — making cleanup difficult (or impossible). Just ask communities along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan where a 2010 dilbit spill of close to a million gallons is still causing headaches even after $1 billion in cleanup operations.
And then there are also the environmental implications that come from the mining of tar sands, which have devastated the boreal forests of Alberta, creating massive lakes of toxic chemicals, clear cuts, and polluted water and air.
Producing oil from the tar sands is scraping the bottom of the oil barrel. Tar sands consist of a mixture of 85 percent sand, clay, and silt; 5 percent water; and 10 percent crude bitumen, the tar-like substance that can be converted to oil. Bitumen doesn’t flow like crude oil, and getting it out of the tar sands is a messy job. The current technology, which has evolved relatively little since it was first developed in the early 20th century, is a hot-water-based separation process that requires huge quantities of water and energy. Imagine mixing a bucket of roofing tar into a child’s sandbox. Then boil some water, pour it into the sandbox, and try to wash the tar out of the sand.
In summary, it’s about the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive way to get energy these days.
In a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times, leading US climatologist Dr. James Hansen wrote, “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” He was referring to the greenhouse gas impacts from the development and export of tar sands from Alberta. His “game over” assessment became a rallying cry for opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. But these days it could apply to a growing number of other pipelines in the works that could also carry dilbit.
Here are five projects that rival Keystone XL in size, but which very few people have heard of.
The Alberta tar sands. (Flickr/ Howl Arts Collective / CC)
Alberta Clipper (Line 67)
The Alberta Clipper (otherwise known as Line 67) is part of a large network of pipelines owned by Enbridge, the company responsible for the spill of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. The 1,000-mile Alberta Clipper line, completed in 2010, is still a work in progress. It was recently expanded to carry 570,000 barrels a day and now is seeking the okay to hit a design capacity of 880,000 barrels a day.
The line travels from the tar sands capital Hardisty, Alberta, southeast through Canada and then across North Dakota and Minnesota, ending in Superior, Wis. Enbridge already received permission from Canada’s National Energy Board for the expansion. But like the Keystone XL, things on the US side are still hung up pending State Department approval. With a max capacity of 880,000 barrels a day, the Clipper is larger than Keystone XL’s expected capacity of 800,000 barrels a day.
While most of the public hasn’t heard about it, the project hasn’t escaped the attention of environmental groups. As Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club wrote, the expansion means hundreds of thousands of gallons more of “heavy, toxic, corrosive tar sands being blasted against the inside of the pipeline — increasing the risk of a spill and increasing the danger and size of any such spill.”
2. Line 3 Rebuild
If pipeline companies like Enbridge and TransCanada have learned anything in recent years, it’s that getting the Obama administration’s stamp of approval for pipeline projects is no longer a sure thing (or at least a quick thing). Fortunately for them, there are some loopholes.
Enbridge is willing to shell out $7 billion for a rebuild of their Line 3 pipeline, which also transports light crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis. The line, 34-inches in diameter and built in 1968, is one of six in its US Mainline system. The replacement plan would allow the line to be widened by two inches and hit a capacity of 760,000 barrels of oil a day — nearly twice its current capacity.
And here’s the kicker. Heather Libby writes for Desmog Canada, “Unlike the Keystone XL pipeline or its predecessor Line 67… this project is classified as ‘replacement’ or ‘maintenance,’ meaning it operates under an existing presidential permit and does not require a new one.”
The change will allow Enbridge to bring nearly the same capacity as the Keystone XL will handle across the border, without requiring any sign-off from the State Department, and it will also allow it to move crude oil ranging from light (which it currently carries) to heavy (which includes dilbit).
3. Energy East
Not to be outdone by Enbridge, TransCanada is plotting a pipeline that will be the largest in North America, with a capacity of 1.1 million barrels a day. The company will be applying for a permit from Canada’s National Energy Board this summer. The route is not set in stone, but the company reports that the “4,600-kilometre pipeline will carry 1.1-million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada.”
The project would involve converting existing gas pipeline, adding new pipeline, and building new pump stations and tank terminals. It would link oil-producing regions in Western Canada with refineries in Montreal, Quebec City, and St. John, New Brunswick.
While it will run entirely on Canadian soil and won’t cross the US border, it’s still an international issue. In addition to supplying Canadian refineries, Enbridge says the pipeline will include “marine facilities that enable access to other markets by ship.”
A new report from Canada’s Environmental Defence reveals that Eastern Canadian refineries have about all they can handle already from other sources and most of what Energy East carries will end up traveling to off-shore markets.
“Canadians are being misled about this risky project. The evidence is clear that Energy East is primarily an export pipeline. Canadians would have all the risks of the pipeline, but little reward,” said Adam Scott of Environmental Defence. “Energy East threatens thousands of Canadians with the risk of a tar sands oil spill and only benefits the companies that want to export Canadian crude oil.”
4. Flanagan South
Work is already underway on Enbridge’s Flanagan South — a 589-mile pipeline — despite legal challenges from the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation. The 36-inch diameter pipeline will link Pontiac, Ill., with “pipeline crossroads of the world” Cushing, Okla. (which is also the starting point of Keystone XL’s already-operational southern leg).
Enbridge says the pipeline will have an “initial capacity of 600,000 barrels per day.” But at the rate Enbridge is going lately, expect a plan to expand its capacity shortly. It will also run alongside Enbridge’s Spearhead pipeline (for a combined volume of 790,000 barrels a day).
The pipeline will be able to carry heavy crude (including dilbit) from Western Canada, as well as fracked oil from North Dakota’s booming (and literally explosive ) Bakken Shale. “The Flanagan South Pipeline gives North Dakota’s Bakken and western Canadian producers timely, economical and reliable options to deliver a variety of crude oil supplies to refinery hubs throughout the heart of North America or as far as the Gulf Coast,” the company reports. “From Cushing, shippers can continue through the Seaway Crude Pipeline System to meet the crude supply needs of refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.” That’s right — just like the infamous Keystone XL, this largely unheard-of pipeline will enable tar sands product to hit Gulf Coast refineries, making it a prime target for export.
Enbridge doesn’t have to mess around with State Department permits and seek Obama’s blessing for this pipeline, in fact it is speeding the process along by using a Nationwide Permit 12 from the Army Corps of Engineers. This type of permit is considered a “fast-track” because it bypasses the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which would require an environmental impact statement and public comments.
The Sierra Club and NWF’s lawsuit contends that the project was executed behind closed doors. “This massive pipeline has been authorized without any public notice, without any opportunity for public comment, without any public hearings, and without any NEPA review of the extensive environmental impacts of the entire pipeline, including the grave risk of oil spills,” the lawsuit states.
Doug Hayes, a Sierra Club attorney, says the organization has used the Freedom of Information Act to see the company’s permit application, but requests for even that basic information have been denied.
At issue is also the use of the Nationwide Permit 12, which is given for “single and complete projects” that won’t result in impacts to more than a half-acre of wetland. Even though Flanagan South will have about 2,000 stream crossings, “the definition of ‘single and complete linear project’ allows the Corps to treat each water crossing as a separate ‘single and complete project,’” the lawsuit explains. So the cumulative impacts of the pipeline are not assessed.
In direct competition with TransCanada’s newly operational southern leg of the Keystone XL, which runs from Cushing, Okla., to refineries around Houston, Enterprise Product Partners and Enbridge teamed up a few years ago to reconfigure the Seaway pipeline.
Built in 1976, Seaway originally moved imported oil arriving in Freeport, Texas, north to midwest refineries. But a few years ago Enbridge and Enterprise decided to reverse the flow of the pipeline and use it to bring dilbit south from Cushing, Okla., to Houston. The repurposed and reversed line originally carried 180,000 barrels a day, but was expanded to 400,000 barrels a day last year. And now the companies are building a twin line that together will carry 850,000 barrels a day. It’s expected to be operational this year.
Reversing and repurposing pipelines has become more common with the expansion of tar sands mining in Alberta. Such changes are not usually subject to additional environmental or regulatory scrutiny. But there is concern of increased risk when older pipelines, which previously carried conventional oil, are instead used to carry dilbit, which is more viscous and needs a hotter, heavily pressurized pipeline. The dilbit spill that coated a Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood last year — Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline — was reversed to carry dilbit at a higher volume.
Other pipeline reversal plans are in the works, with Exxon and Enbridge working to reverse the flow of two pipelines in the northeast. The first, Line 9, links Sarnia, Ontario and Montreal. The second is the Portland-Montreal pipeline that crosses into Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Both currently pipe conventional oil west, but would be reversed to send dilbit to the ports of Maine. Both plans have seen much local pushback, but have been a mere blip on the radar of national media coverage in the US.
Sierra Club’s Hayes said that too often, as with Flanagan South, “these other pipelines are being permitted behind closed doors.” The kind of pushback that we’ve seen with Keystone XL, which requires State Department approval, isn’t possible because the public is given no notice.
But increased vigilance from environmental organizations and community groups (as well as growing opposition from landowners angered by potential eminent domain seizures for pipeline routes) may bring some much-needed attention to these projects.
350.org, one of the groups that has led the charge against Keystone XL, says it’s also helping to support other opposition campaigns.
“In project after project, communities are facing an all-risk and no-gain proposition around expanded refining and distribution of tar sands,” said David Stember, 350.org’s regional tar sands organizer. “Like the Keystone fight we’re seeing that local citizens must come together to have a voice in state and local regulatory processes to stop these projects. Though we’re already deeply involved in several state and regional campaigns, once the Keystone project is finally stopped, we’ll continue opposing tar sands infrastructure expansion across North America.”
Cameron Karnes sorts CDs at Independent Records & Video in Denver. As a group, Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1999, are characterized as confident, hardworking and technologically fluent. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Kathryn Osler)
The Pew Research Center recently released a study finding that the Millennial generation – those born between the early 1980s and 2000 – is increasingly alienated from the major institutions of American society. Many are turned off by religion and see little difference between the two major political parties. They’re less trusting of strangers than previous generations. Fewer are tying the knot. Less than half consider themselves patriotic.
The report led to a lot of media chin-scratching – and no small amount of hand-wringing – much of it from flummoxed members of the preceding generations, Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat lamented the loss of community, warning that hyper-individualism may leave young adults susceptible to dangerous demagoguery. Unsurprisingly, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg blamed Obama. And Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post that he believed their lack of loyalty to the administration, rather than a sense of invincibility, may factor into the Millennials not signing up for Obamacare in sufficient numbers. Ignoring a Kaiser Family Foundation study which concluded that young people’s participation “is not as important as conventional wisdom suggests” and “a premium ‘death spiral’ is highly unlikely,” Milbank claimed that if their enthusiasm “doesn’t improve significantly, the result likely will be fatal for the Affordable Care Act.”
But rather than blame those crazy kids, we can look at some social trends that make their detachment seem perfectly rational. One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite lines about his switch in partisan allegiance was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.” The reality is that America’s institutions have become a lot less worthy of the Millennials’ trust.
Pew found that whether it’s faith in religion, trust in politics or sense of patriotism, every subsequent generation since World War II’s “silent” one has less of it than the one that preceded it.
Heather McGhee on the Millennial Generation
The silent generation had every reason to be patriotic. Their political leaders had put their parents to work during the Depression, defeated fascism and built a middle class with the GI Bill. They’d seen rural America get electricity and an interstate highway system constructed from coast to coast.
But the baby boomers’ faith was tested, and in many cases shattered, by Vietnam, political assassinations and civil strife. Yet they also saw their government try to tackle poverty and were eyewitnesses to a major expansion of civil rights.
Gen-Xers came of age being told, as per Ronald Reagan, that the government itself was the problem. Then, the oldest of the Millennial generation grew politically aware as President Clinton’s sex life was the pretext for impeachment and they cast their first votes in a disputed election decided by the Supreme Court. The youngest are growing up in an era when dark money spent by a faceless few dominates political contests. For them, partisan politics have always been toxic.
American religious life has undergone dramatic changes as well. In 1960, Kevin Phillips, who had been the chief political analyst for the 1968 Nixon campaign, wrote The Coming Republican Majority. Thirty years later, he would recall predicting that “the new GOP coalition seemed certain to enjoy a major infusion of conservative northern Catholics and southern Protestants,” only to discover that “the move unleashed an evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal counterreformation, with strong theocratic pressures becoming visible in the Republican national coalition and its leadership.”
The mainline churches still exist, but the rise of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s made them the loudest and most politicized voices in the room. As Alana Massey wrote for Religion Dispatches, this appears to have had a marked effect on young people, whom Pew found to be much more accepting of homosexuality than their parents and grandparents:
A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute confirmed what Millennials with a vested interest in the church have known for some time: homophobia, and the ill-treatment of human beings that it engenders, has a toxic influence on religion. Of course, you need not be a Millennial to know that a stance of intolerance from a religion founded on principles of radical inclusion is a losing strategy but it’s in this generation that the shift is most remarkable: one-third of Millennials who left the religious institutions of their upbringings cite “negative teachings” and “negative treatment” of LGBT communities as primary reasons for their departure.
Changing social mores no doubt play a significant role in Millennials increasingly eschewing marriage – it’s no longer scandalous to live with a significant other. But that’s not the only dynamic driving this change. According to Pew, Millennials are “the first [generation] in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations… had at the same stage of their life cycles.”
A study that followed 3,700 low-income working couples between 1998 and 2000 found that for every dollar a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of a year rose by 5 percent, and those earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less. The Pew researchers also concluded that “the economic hardships of young adults may be one reason that so many have been slow to marry.”
It’s unfortunate that Pew didn’t ask about young people’s faith in corporate America. When Gallup asked Americans of all ages to rank 16 institutions by their level of trustworthiness, big business came in 13th. How different generations viewed it would be telling – since responding to a call to arms known as the “Powell Memo” in 1972, major corporations, like many churches, have become highly politicized and in many ways abandoned what had been a tacit social contract.
It’s worth noting, too, that Millennials aren’t alone in becoming alienated from our major institutions. According to Gallup, over the last 40 years, all Americans have lost faith in them. The only one that hasn’t seen a dramatic decline is the military, and the pollster started asking the question a few months before the US halted combat operations in Vietnam, when trust in the armed forces was at a nadir.
With a mountain of student debt, an unemployment rate hovering around 15 percent and an array of major institutions that don’t appear to be in tune with the problems that they face, the fact that younger Americans aren’t running out to salute the flag should come as little surprise. It’s a perfectly rational reaction to the world in which they’re coming of age.
If you think the first episode of the new Fox Cosmos series was controversial (with its relatively minor mentions of climate change, evolution and the Big Bang), Sunday night’s show threw down the gauntlet. Pretty much the entire episode was devoted to the topic of evolution, and the vast profusion of evidence (especially genetic evidence) showing that it is indeed the explanation behind all life on Earth. At one point, host Neil deGrasse Tyson stated it as plainly as you possibly can: “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact.” (You can watch the full episode here.)
Bill Talks to Neil deGrasse Tyson about Cosmos
Not surprisingly, those who deny the theory of evolution were not happy with this. Indeed, the science denial crowd hasn’t been happy with Cosmos in general. Here are some principal lines of attack:
Denying the Big Bang: In the first episode of Cosmos, titled “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” Tyson dons shades just before witnessing the Big Bang. You know, the start of everything. Some creationists, though, don’t like the Big Bang; at Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, a critique of Cosmos asserts that “the big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned.”
Alas, this creationist critique seems very poorly timed: A major new scientific discovery, just described in detail in the New York Times, has now provided “smoking gun” evidence for “inflation,” a crucial component of our understanding of the stunning happenings just after the Big Bang. Using a special telescope to examine the cosmic microwave background radiation (which has been dubbed the “afterglow” of the Big Bang), researchers at the South Pole detected “direct evidence” of the previously theoretical gravitational waves that are believed to have originated in the Big Bang and caused an incredibly sudden and dramatic inflation of the universe. (For an easy-to-digest discussion, Phil Plait has more.)
Denying evolution: Sunday’s episode of Cosmos was all about evolution. It closely followed the rhetorical strategy of Charles Darwin’s world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, beginning with an example of “artificial selection” by breeders (Darwin used pigeons, Cosmos used domestic dogs) to get us ready to appreciate the far vaster power of natural selection. It employed Darwin’s favorite metaphor: the “tree of life,” an analogy that helps us see how all organisms are living on different branches of the same hereditary tree. In the episode, Tyson also refuted one of the creationist’s favorite canards: the idea that complex organs, like the eye, could not have been produced through evolution.
Over at the pro-”intelligent design” Discovery Institute, they’re not happy. Senior fellow David Klinghoffer writes that the latest Cosmos episode “[extrapolated] shamelessly, promiscuously from artificial selection (dogs from wolves) to minor stuff like the color of a polar bear’s fur to the development of the human eye.” In a much more elaborate attempted takedown, meanwhile, the institute’s Casey Luskin accuses Tyson and Cosmos of engaging in “attempts to persuade people of both evolutionary scientific views and larger materialistic evolutionary beliefs, not just by the force of the evidence, but by rhetoric and emotion, and especially by leaving out important contrary arguments and evidence.” Luskin goes on to contend that there is something wrong with the idea of the “tree of life.” Tell that to the scientists involved in the Open Tree of Life project, which plans to produce “the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all 1.8 million named species, accessible to both the public and scientific communities.” Precisely how to reconstruct every last evolutionary relationship may still be an open scientific question, but the idea of common ancestry, the core of evolution (represented conceptually by a tree of life), is not.
Denying climate change: Thus far, Cosmos has referred to climate change in each of its two opening episodes, but has not gone into any depth on the matter. Perhaps that’s for a later episode. But in the meantime, it seems some conservatives are already bashing Tyson as a global warming proponent. Writing at the Media Research Center’s Newsbusters blog, Jeffrey Meyer critiques a recent Tyson appearance on Late Night With Seth Myers. “Meyers and deGrasse Tyson chose to take a cheap shot at religious people and claim they don’t believe in science i.e. liberal causes like global warming,” writes Meyer.
Actually, as Tyson explained on our Inquiring Minds podcast, Cosmos is certainly not anti-religion. As for characterizing global warming as simply a “liberal cause”: In a now-famous study finding that 97 percent of scientific studies (that bother to take a position on the matter) agree with the idea of human-caused global warming, researchers reviewed 12,000 scientific abstracts published between the years 1991 and 2011. In other words, this is a field in which a very large volume of science is being published. That hardly sounds like an advocacy endeavor.
On our most recent episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Tyson explains why he doesn’t debate science deniers; you can listen here (interview starts around minute 13):
Johnny Collins, of Kernersville, NC, holds a large photo of a Duke Energy coal plant during a protest near that company's headquarters in Charlotte, NC, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 over its coal plants. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
News broke last week that Duke Energy and its North Carolina regulator had worked together to minimize penalties the utility would have to pay for leeching chemicals into the drinking water. And this was before a coal ash spill last month dumped thousands of tons of poisonous coal slurry into the Dan River.
But these emails are just the latest evidence of a problematic coziness between the politically influential utility and the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DENR).
In this case, a coalition of environmental groups headed by the Southern Environmental Law Center sued Duke Energy for violating the Clean Water Act. The groups hoped to bring Duke before a federal court, but DENR intervened, filing its own lawsuit in a state court so that it could control the outcome. The result: Duke was fined $99,000 — a negligible sum for a company with an operating revenue of $19.6 billion in 2012.
This week, emails emerged suggesting that Duke lobbyists may have asked DENR to intervene in the litigation on the company’s behalf — a regulator doing the bidding of a company it was tasked with overseeing. The Charlotte Observer reported:
Internal emails the [Southern Environmental Law] center released include one from an NC Department of Justice lawyer in March of last year, seven weeks after the law center had filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue Duke.
The lawyer wrote that she needed to learn under what corporate name the state would file its own lawsuit against Duke. Duke merged with Progress Energy in July 2012, combining two fleets of coal-fired power plants.
“I need to check with (DENR general counsel Lacy Presnell) about how Duke wants to be sued,” she wrote.
The next day, according to the emails, the same lawyer wrote Presnell: “I need to know from you if Duke is expecting us to sue them or Progress.”
DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said he didn’t know whether Duke asked regulators to sue.
“But the point is, Duke is not our legal counsel,” he said. “We had a choice to make: Do we enforce the Clean Water Act, or do we let a citizens group enforce the Clean Water Act? There was only one choice, and that’s what we did.”
When Duke was fined last year, another lawsuit against the utility by the Southern Environmental Law Center was still pending.
But then disaster struck. A pipe running under a 27-acre toxic waste pond collapsed and poured — by company estimates — 39,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, which serves as a source of drinking water for a number of towns and cities. It was the third worst spill of its kind in US history.
State of Conflict: North Carolina
The environment is one area hit hard by the deregulation of North Carolina, where state government has taken a decidedly pro-corporate turn in recent years. (Moyers & Company dove into the GOP’s successful push to take control of both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office in “State of Conflict: North Carolina.”)
Duke in particular has been the recipient of what The New York Times editorial board dubs “regulatory favoritism.” The company is a heavy-hitter politically, both in the Tar Heel State and nationally, reporting $6 million in lobbying last year alone. The Republican governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke for 29 years before becoming mayor of Charlotte. The man he appointed to head the DENR, former businessman John Skvarla, sees his agency as a “partner” with the industries it regulates, with a “customer-friendly” approach. (He’s also a climate change skeptic who opined that if every environmental group “gets what they want, we would live in lean-tos and wear loin cloths.”) Former employees of DENR told Salonthat the ethos in the department changed dramatically when Skvarla took control: “They told us that industry and business do a better job of regulating themselves than we do,” one said.
The US Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into both the spill and the relationship between DENR officials and Duke that may have kept it from being prevented.
Amy Adams, a former DENR employee who now works for the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said in a statement: “While Duke Energy and DENR have clearly been shirking their responsibilities to adhere to environmental practices that would have protected the Dan River, a federal investigation raises the stakes considerably. We’ll be watching the process closely and, like citizens in North Carolina and Virginia who have been impacted by the coal ash spill, we’re eager to find out what was truly going on that caused this crisis.”
The Empire State Building and large portions of midtown Manhattan are seen without power as a result of Hurricane Sandy. October 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Our runaway consumption habits and growing inequality could lead to the collapse of Western civilization, according to a new short paper slated for publication the journal Ecological Economics and written up at The Guardian’s Earth Insight blog. Noting that warnings that the end is near are often “controversial,” the interdisciplinary analysis looked at the factors that have caused civilizations to collapse in the past and makes a compelling argument that we may be headed in that direction. According to The Guardian:
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilizational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialized countries responsible for both:
“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”
In the scenarios the researchers studied, the “elites” were the last to feel the effects of the collapse, which, at first, were only apparent to those beneath them on the social ladder.
In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”
However, the paper’s authors wrote that it’s not a given that we will go the way of the Romans. If we take action to halt climate change and rein in inequality, the worst-case scenario won’t be realized. “Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion,” they wrote.
Correction: This piece originally stated that the short paper referenced was actually a NASA-funded study. That was an inaccurate characterization. NASA developed the research tools used in the study, but did not oversee the study. We regret the error, and have corrected it on this page.
This was once a question asked only by kings, presidents and public figures trying to dodge the paparazzi and criminals trying to evade the law. The rest of us had few occasions to worry about being tracked.
But today the anxious question — “who’s watching?” — is relevant to everyone regardless of his or her fame or criminal persuasion. Any of us can be watched at almost any time, whether it is by a Google Street View car taking a picture of our house, or an advertiser following us as we browse the Web, or the National Security Agency logging our phone calls.
Dragnets that scoop up information indiscriminately about everyone in their path used to be rare; police had to set up roadblocks, or retailers had to install and monitor video cameras. But technology has enabled a new era of supercharged dragnets that can gather vast amounts of personal data with little human effort. These dragnets are extending into ever more private corners of the world. MORE
Supporters hold up hand-painted signs as then Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama addresses a rally in Jersey City, NJ, in 2008. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Like many days, March 3, 2014, saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking history as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.
For some time now, observers — a surprisingly wide range of them — have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant” of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch — a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.
A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40 percent. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office — or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.
What could have given Obama such a strange perspective on how the American political system was meant to work? Let us not ignore one obvious and pertinent fact. He came to the race for president in 2007 with less practice in governing than any previous candidate. At Harvard Law School, Obama had been admired by his professors and liked by his fellow students with one reservation: in an institution notorious for displays of youthful pomposity, Obama stood out for the self-importance of his “interventions” in class. His singularity showed in a different lightwhen he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review — the firstlaw student ever to hold that position without having published an article in a law journal. He kept his editorial colleagues happy by insisting that the stance of the Review need not be marked by bias or partisanship. It did not have to be liberal or conservative, libertarian or statist. It could be “all of the above.”
This pattern — the ascent to become presider-in-chief over large projects without any encumbering record of commitments — followed Obama into a short and uneventful legal career, from which no remarkable brief has ever been cited. In an adjacent career as a professor of constitutional law, he was well liked again, though his views on the most important constitutional questions were never clear to his students. The same was true of his service as a four-term Illinois state senator, during which he cast a remarkable number of votes in the noncommittal category of “present” rather than “yea” or “nay.” Finally, the same pattern held during his service in the US Senate, where, from his first days on the floor, he was observed to be restless for a kind of distinction and power normally denied to a junior senator.
Extreme caution marked all of Obama’s early actions in public life. Rare departures from this progress-without-a-trail — such as his pledge to filibuster granting immunity to the giants of the telecommunications industry in order to expose them to possible prosecution for warrantless surveillance — appear in retrospect wholly tactical. The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes and the US senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation: this was the candidate who became president in January 2009.
The Man Without a Record
Many of these facts were rehearsed in the 2008 primaries by Hillary Clinton. More was said by the Republicans in the general election. Yet the accusations were thrown onto a combustible pile of so much rubbish — so much that was violent, racist and untrue, and spoken by persons manifestly compromised or unbalanced — that the likely inference was tempting to ignore. One could hope that, whatever the gaps in his record, they would not matter greatly once Obama reached the presidency.
His performance in the campaign indicated that he had a coherent mind, did not appeal to the baser passions and was a fluent synthesizer of other people’s facts and opinions. He commanded a mellow baritone whose effects he enjoyed watching only a little too much, and he addressed Americans in just the way a dignified and yet passionate president might address us. The contrast with George W. Bush could not have been sharper. And the decisiveness of that contrast was the largest false clue to the political character of Obama.
He was elected to govern when little was known about his approach to the practical business of leading people. The unexplored possibility was, of course, that little was known because there was not much to know. Of the Chicago organizers trained in Saul Alinsky’s methods of community agitation, he had been considered among the most averse to conflict.
Incongruously, as Jeffrey Stout has pointed out in Blessed Are the Organized, Obama shunned “polarization” as a valuable weapon of the weak. His tendency, instead, was to begin a protest by depolarizing. His goal was always to bring the most powerful interests to the table. This should not be dismissed as a temperamental anomaly, for temperament may matter far more in politics than the promulgation of sound opinions. The significance of his theoretical expertise and practical distaste for confrontation would emerge in the salient event of his career as an organizer.
As Obama acknowledged in a revealing chapter of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, the event in question had begun as a protest with the warmest of hopes. He was aiming to draw the attention of the Chicago housing authority to the dangers of asbestos at Altgeld Gardens, the housing project where he worked. After a false start and the usual set of evasions by a city agency, a public meeting was finally arranged at a local gymnasium. Obama gave instructions to two female tenants, charged with running the meeting, not to let the big man from the city do too much of the talking. He then retired to the back of the gym.
The women, as it turned out, lacked the necessary skill. They taunted and teased the city official. One of them dangled the microphone in front of him, snatched it away, and then repeated the trick. He walked out insulted and the meeting ended in chaos. And where was Obama? By his own account, he remained at the back of the room, waving his arms — too far away for anyone to read his signals. In recounting the incident, he says compassionately that the women blamed themselves even though the blame was not all theirs. He does not say that another kind of organizer, seeing things go so wrong, would have stepped forward and taken charge.
“I Can’t Hear You”
“Leading from behind” was a motto coined by the Obama White House to describe the president’s posture of cooperation with NATO, when, after a long and characteristic hesitation, he took the advice of Hillary Clinton’s State Department against Robert Gates’s Defense Department and ordered the bombing of Libya. Something like that description had been formulated earlier by reporters covering his distant and self-protective negotiations with Congress in the progress of his health-care law. When the phrase got picked up and used in unexpected ways, his handlers tried to withdraw it. Leading from behind, they insisted, did not reflect the president’s real attitude or the intensity of his engagement.
In Libya, all the world knew that the planning for the intervention was largely done by Americans, and that the missiles and air cover were supplied by the United States. Obama was the leader of the nation that was bringing down yet another government in the greater Middle East. After Afghanistan and Iraq, this marked the third such American act of leadership since 2001. Obama, however, played down his own importance at the time; his energies went into avoiding congressional demands that he explain what sort of enterprise he was leading.
By the terms of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a president needs congressional approval before he can legally commit American armed forces in “hostilities” abroad. But according to the argument offered by Obama’s lawyers, hostilities were only hostilities if an American was killed; mere wars, on the other hand, the president can fight as he pleases — without the approval of Congress. No American soldier having been killed in Libya, it followed that Obama could lead the country from behind without congressional approval. This delicate legal sophistry served its temporary purpose and the bombing went forward. Yet the awkward description, “leading from behind,” would not go away. These days, the phrase is mostly used as a taunt by war-brokers whose idea of a true leader runs a remarkably narrow gamut from former president George W. Bush to Senator John McCain (R-AZ). These people would have no trouble with Obama if only he gave us more wars.
The curious fact remains that, in Obama’s conception of the presidency, leading from behind had a concrete meaning long before the Libyan intervention. When approached before the 2008 election by labor leaders, community organizers, foreign policy dissenters and groups concerned with minority rights and environmental protection, each of which sought assurance that he intended to assist their cause, Obama would invariably cup his ear and say, “I can’t hear you.”
The I-can’t-hear-you anecdote has been conveyed both in print and informally; and it is plain that the gesture and the phrase had been rehearsed. Obama was, in fact, alluding to a gesture President Franklin Roosevelt is said to have made when the great civil rights organizer A. Philip Randolph put a similar request to him around 1940. Roosevelt, in effect, was saying to Randolph: You command a movement with influence, and there are other movements you can call on. Raise a cry so loud it can’t be mistaken. Make me do what you want me to do; I’m sympathetic to your cause, but the initiative can’t come from me.
It was clever of Obama to quote the gesture. At the same time, it was oddly irresponsible. After all, in the post-New Deal years, the union and civil rights movements had tremendous clout in America. They could make real noise. No such combination of movements existed in 2008.
And yet, in 2008 there had been a swell of popular opinion and a convergence of smaller movements around a cause. That cause was the candidacy of Barack Obama. The problem was that “Obama for America” drank up and swept away the energy of all those other causes, just as Obama’s chief strategist David Plouffe had designed it to do. Even in 2009, with the election long past, “Obama for America” (renamed “Organizing for America”) was being kept alive under the fantastical conceit that a sitting president could remain a movement leader-from-behind, even while he governed as the ecumenical voice of all Americans. If any cause could have pulled the various movements back together and incited them to action after a year of electioneering activity on Obama’s behalf, that cause would have been a massive jobs-creation program and a set of policy moves to rouse the environmental movement and address the catastrophe of climate change.
By the middle of 2009, Barack Obama was no longer listening. He had already picked an economic team from among the Wall Street protégés of the Goldman Sachs executive and former economic adviser to the Clinton administration, Robert Rubin. For such a team, job creation and environmental regulation were scarcely attractive ideas. When the new president chose health care as the first “big thing” he looked to achieve, and announced that, for the sake of bipartisan consensus, he was leaving the details of the legislation to five committees of Congress, his “I can’t hear you” had become a transparent absurdity.
The movements had never been consulted. Yet Obama presumed an intimacy with their concerns and a reliance on their loyalty — as if a telepathic link with them persisted. There was a ludicrous moment in the late summer of 2009 when the president, in a message to followers of “Obama for America,” told us to be ready to knock on doors and light a fire under the campaign for health care reform. But what exactly were we to say when those doors opened? The law — still being hammered out in congressional committees in consultation with insurance lobbyists — had not yet reached his desk. In the end, Obama did ask for help from the movements, but it was too late. He had left them hanging while he himself waited for the single Republican vote that would make his “signature law” bipartisan. That vote never came.
The proposal, the handoff to Congress and the final synthesis of the Affordable Care Act took up an astounding proportion of Obama’s first year in office. If one looks back at the rest of those early months, they contained large promises — the closing of Guantanamo being the earliest and the soonest to be shelved. The most seductive promise went by the generic name “transparency.” But Obama’s has turned out to be the most secretive administration since that of Richard Nixon; and in its discouragement of press freedom by the prosecution of whistleblowers, it has surpassed all of its predecessors combined.
In the absence of a performance to match his promises, how did Obama seek to define his presidency? The compensation for “I can’t hear you” turned out to be that all Americans would now have plenty of chances to hear him. His first months in office were staged as a relaxed but careful exercise in, as was said at the time, “letting the country get to know him.” To what end? The hope seemed to be that if people could see how truly earnest, temperate, patient, thoughtful and bipartisan Obama was, they would come to accept policies that sheer ideology or ignorance might otherwise have led them to doubt or reject.
It was magical thinking of course — that Americans would follow if only we heard him often enough; that people of the most divergent tempers and ideas would gradually come to approve of him so visibly that he could afford to show the country that he heard the call for reform. But one can see why his presidency was infused with such magical thinking from the start. His ascent to the Oval Office had itself been magical.
To be known as the voice of the country, Obama believed, meant that he should be heard to speak on all subjects. This misconception, evident early, has never lost its hold on the Obama White House. The CBS reporter Mark Knoller crunched the first-term numbers, and some of them are staggering. Between January 2009 and January 2013 Obama visited 44 states, led 58 town hall meetings, granted 591 media interviews (including 104 on the major networks) and delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments or scheduled public remarks. From all those planned interactions with the American public, remarkably few conversions ever materialized.
By following the compulsion (which he mistook for a strategy) of coming to be recognized as the tribune of all the people, Obama squandered indefinite energies in pursuit of a finite opportunity. For there is an economy of gesture in politics, just as there is in sports. Show all your moves too early and there will be no surprise when the pressure is on. Talk steadily on all subjects and a necessary intensity will desert you when you need it.
In Confidence Men, the most valuable study so far of the character and performance of Obama as president, the journalist Ron Suskind noticed the tenacity of the new president’s belief that he enjoyed a special connection to the American people. When his poll numbers were going down in late 2009, or when his “pivot to jobs” had become a topic of humor because he repeated the phrase so often without ever seeming to pivot, Obama would always ask his handlers to send him out on the road. He was convinced: the people would hear him and he would make them understand.
He sustained this free-floating confidence even though he knew that his town halls, from their arranged format to their pre-screened audiences, were as thoroughly stage-managed as any other politician’s. But Obama told Suskind in early 2011 that he had come to believe “symbols and gestures… are at least as important as the policies we put forward.”
The road trips have proved never-ending. In 2014, a run of three or four days typically included stops at a supermarket outlet, a small factory and a steel mill, as the president comforted the unemployed with sayings such as “America needs a raise” and repeated phrases from his State of the Union address such as “Let’s make this a year of action” and “Opportunity is who we are.”
In discussions about Obama, one occasionally hears it said — in a mood between bewilderment and forbearance — that we have not yet known the man. After all, he has been up against the enormous obstacle of racism, an insensate Republican party and a legacy of bad wars. It is true that he has faced enormous obstacles. It is no less true that by postponement and indecision, by silence and by speaking on both sides, he has allowed the obstacles to grow larger. Consider his “all of the above” energy policy, which impartially embraces deep-sea drilling, wind farms, solar panels, Arctic drilling, nuclear plants, fracking for natural gas and “clean coal.”
Obama’s practice of recessive management to the point of neglect has also thrown up obstacles entirely of his devising. He chose to entrust the execution and “rollout” of his health care policy to the Department of Health and Human Services. That was an elective plan which he himself picked from all the alternatives. The extreme paucity of his meetings with his secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, in the three years that elapsed between his signing of the law and the rollout of the policy makes a fair epitome of negligence. Indeed, the revelation of his lack of contact with Sebelius left an impression — which the recent provocative actions of the State Department in Ukraine have reinforced — that the president is not much interested in what the officials in his departments and agencies are up to.
The Preferential President
Obama entered the presidency at 47 — an age at which people as a rule are pretty much what they are going to be. It is a piece of mystification to suppose that we have been denied a rescue that this man, under happier circumstances, would have been well equipped to perform. There have been a few genuine shocks: on domestic issues he has proven a more complacent technocrat than anyone could have imagined — a facet of his character that has emerged in his support for the foundation-driven testing regimen “Race to the Top,” with its reliance on outsourcing education to private firms and charter schools. But the truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.
Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions — and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.
More than most people, Obama has been a creature of his successive environments. He talked like Hyde Park when in Hyde Park. He talks like Citigroup when at the table with Citigroup. And in either milieu, he likes the company well enough and enjoys blending in. He has a horror of unsuccess. Hence, in part, his extraordinary aversion to the name, presence or precedent of former president Jimmy Carter: the one politician of obvious distinction whom he has declined to consult on any matter. At some level, Obama must realize that Carter actually earned his Nobel Prize and was a hard-working leader of the country. Yet of all the living presidents, Carter is the one whom the political establishment wrote off long ago; and so it is Carter whom he must not touch.
As an adapter to the thinking of men of power, Obama was a quick study. It took him less than half a year as president to subscribe to Dick Cheney’s view on the need for the constant surveillance of all Americans. This had to be done for the sake of our own safety in a war without a visible end. The leading consideration here is that Obama, quite as much as George W. Bush, wants to be seen as having done everything possible to avoid the “next 9/11.” He cares far less about doing everything possible to uphold the Constitution (a word that seldom occurs in his speeches or writings). Nevertheless, if you ask him, he will be happy to declare his preference for a return to the state of civil liberties we enjoyed in the pre-2001 era. In the same way, he will order drone killings in secret and then give a speech in which he informs us that eventually this kind of killing must stop.
What, then, of Obama’s commitment in 2008 to make the fight against global warming a primary concern of his presidency? He has come to think American global dominance — helped by American capital investment in foreign countries, “democracy promotion,” secret missions by Special Operations forces and the control of cyberspace and outer space — as the best state of things for the United States and for the world. We are, as he has told us often, the exceptional country. And time that is spent helping America to dominate the world is time that cannot be given to a cooperative venture like the fight against global warming. The Keystone XL pipeline, if it is built, will bring carbon-dense tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast and probably Obama would prefer not to see the pipeline built. Yet it would be entirely in character for him to approve and justify its construction, whether in the name of temporary jobs, oil industry profits, trade relations with Canada or all of the above.
He has already softened the appearance of surrender by a device that is in equal parts real and rhetorical. It is called the Climate Resilience Fund: a euphemism with all the Obama markings, since resilience is just another name for disaster relief. The hard judgment of posterity may be that in addressing the greatest threat of the age, Barack Obama taught America dimly, worked part time at half-measures, was silent for years at a stretch and never tried to lead. His hope must be that his reiterated preference will count more heavily than his positive acts.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, left, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama shake hands at the conclusion of the presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. Friday, September 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak).
When Obama briefly referenced race as one of the ways that the GOP might try to scare voters, in addition to the typical “race card” retort, the McCain camp also struck back with the charge that Obama had sought to “paint John McCain . . . as racist.” This assailment deserves a bit more attention.
Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney López
The claim to have been slandered as a racist frequently crops up on the right in response to liberal efforts to focus on troubling racial dynamics and there may be a fair level of cynical strategizing at work in such conservative carping. By translating the claim that race continues to play a distorting role in American life into a narrow indictment of mean-spirited bigotry, conservatives are more able to easily dismiss the allegation as absurd. The invented charge of being a closet Klan member is readily repudiated. In addition, because the charge of being a racist is freighted with social opprobrium, alleging they have been so charged allows conservatives to cast themselves as unfairly maligned victims. The claim to have been called a racist sucks all the air out of the room, ending any substantive conversation; the only thing left is for the race critic to apologize and to deny that she intended to call anyone a racist. In short, for conservatives, alleging that they’ve been called a racist is good strategy.
But what about the emotional affect that often accompanies this particular defensive kick? Typically, those claiming to have been denoted racists exude outrage or distress. The imagined accusation, their emotions communicate, has wounded them personally, deeply bruising their sense of themselves. McCain’s spokesperson reacted angrily, not only rejecting the non-charge but vigorously defending McCain as someone who “fought his entire life for equal rights for everyone,” as if McCain’s whole career had been smeared.
Watch the 'I Guess I'm a Racist' Anti-Obamacare Ad
Or consider the pained dismay communicated by actors in an ad opposing health care reform. The ad featured perhaps a dozen adults, mostly white and seemingly middle class, including one young woman with a toddler, looking directly into the camera to confess “I guess I’m a racist.” The ad interspersed these aggrieved confessions with text and a voice-over repeating the allegation made by some outspoken liberals, including Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter, that race likely informed some of the opposition to Obama’s health care overhaul. These actors were signaling their antagonism to health care reform — and also to the charge that in politics race matters — by facetiously taking upon themselves the “racist” label. Yet when they intoned “I guess I’m a racist,” their demeanor communicated not satire but heart sickness.
It’s impossible to know whether, coming from a politician’s camp or an anti-health care ad, these intonations of wounded feelings were genuine or feigned. Even if the latter, though, they nevertheless track a real sense of distress among many conservatives, including many tea party members, who feel that they have been unfairly vilified as racists. Sometimes allegations of having been called a racist constitute a strategic retort, but often they reflect a deeply felt wound.
Some greet this sort of defensiveness as a sign of progress. At least we’ve arrived at a place where whites worry about being racists, they say. But hair-trigger defensiveness is not a sign of forward movement. On the contrary, it reflects a pattern as old as racism. Racial ideas perpetually adapt to reassure members of the dominant group that, however unjust the social arrangements and whatever the attendant violence, they are good and decent folks. Thus, at virtually every historical juncture, challenges to existing racial structures — whether it be slavery 150 years ago or the inhumanity of racialized mass incarceration today — have often been received as personal affronts. Even in eras now recognized as unquestionably racist, most whites accepted the racial status quo as normal and moral and internalized challenges to racial injustice as assaults on their integrity. Thus, that whites should continue to feel defensive today should not be taken to indicate racial progress.
Baldwin’s words go to the larger impact generated when many whites feel implicated as racists. One dynamic is the forced exoneration. But the deeper result is to forestall desperately needed conversations about race in society.
In 1965, the novelist James Baldwin explored white defensiveness in an essay entitled “White Man’s Guilt.” Baldwin started by noting how his color seemed to impede human connection with many whites. They saw his color first and reacting to that, feared an indictment over their own racial position. “And to have to deal with such people can be unutterably exhausting,” Baldwin wrote, “for they, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one, disagreeable mirror though one may be, has not really, for the moment, made.” Baldwin lamented that white defensiveness against possible charges of racism frequently skewed any possible relationship, repeatedly forcing him into exhausting gymnastics meant to reassure whites of their innocence. Just so with contemporary claims of wounded feelings at having been, supposedly, called a “racist.” The actual charge of racial malice is almost never made. And yet, racial justice advocates are time after time pushed to provide exoneration from the fictional accusation of personal bigotry.
But this is only half the dynamic and indeed, not the important half. Baldwin wrote that he did not need to level any charges, for the proof of white responsibility for racial oppression was everywhere in society. “The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans — white Americans — would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.” The imagined allegation against which many whites aggressively defend themselves today is of personal bigotry. The social indictment written in the sky is rather of a shared responsibility for race’s continued distorting power.
Baldwin’s words go to the larger impact generated when many whites feel implicated as racists. One dynamic is the forced exoneration. But the deeper result is to forestall desperately needed conversations about race in society. Claims to have been personally attacked take productive conversations about current racial patterns and collapse them into a stultifying ventilation of wounded feelings. It shifts attention from racial dynamics that hurt everyone and focuses our eyes instead on the bruised egos of those whites who feel themselves personally targeted whenever the conversation turns to race. The imagined charge is of small-minded bigotry. The actual charge, written across society — including, importantly, in the racial politics of the GOP — is that race in various forms continues to harm us all. Histrionic distress about supposedly having been called a racist impedes recognizing the truth about race’s continued harmful power.