Like a recurring nightmare, election season is upon us again. And once again, we are told that we must tremble in fear of what might happen in the event of a victory by the Greater Evil. Yes, we know, we’re not happy with you know who, but it will be SO MUCH WORSE if that other guy wins. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before…
As a political activist over the last 16 years, I’ve seen this pattern time and again. Lesser evilism is the stock-in-trade of left-liberal activists, particularly those who approach activism from the paid-professional or NGO angle. And all of those times but one—2000, when the Nader campaign provided a vehicle for the Global Justice Movement to express the radicalization against Democrats in power and make it intact through the election—I’ve seen the election and the accompanying deluge of lesser-evilism wreck the movements I’ve been involved in. Will 2012 be different?
In what follows, I’d like to outline the structure and problems of lesser-evilism; the question of lesser-evilism as it pertains to the presidential election; the question of lesser-evilism as it pertains to local politics; and some thoughts on how political activists might avoid the pitfalls of the most persistent illness of the left.
The Phenomenon of Lesser Evilism
The classic starting point here is the 1967 article by Hal Draper. Draper was one of the founders of the Independent Socialist clubs of the 1960s, and a key figure in the Berkeley Free Speech fight in 1964. He starts with a distinction between the “tweedledee-tweedledum” analysis of the two-party system, and the analysis that posits that the Democrats are a “lesser evil” to the Republicans. Draper quickly dismisses the first analysis, because while both are wrong, the first is relatively sterile. It is the second that is far more damaging for the left.
Now keep in mind, Draper was writing at the time of the Great Society—a time when the American welfare state, to the extent that it ever existed (and this has always been far less than the right wing would have us believe), was at its height. He analyzes the situation from within the New Deal framework—but his conclusions ring true at the end of the neoliberal era, the last 40 years during which the New Deal has been all but dismantled. He goes through any number of cases where liberals and the left frantically threw their support to a “lesser-evil” candidate, only to get the program they had opposed to begin with. Draper puts it this way:
“So besides Tweedledee-Tweedledums and besides the Lesser Evils who really are different in policy from the Greater Evils, we increasingly are getting this third type of case: the Lesser Evils who, as executors of the system, find themselves acting at every important juncture exactly like the Greater Evils, and sometimes worse. They are the product of the increasing convergence of liberalism and conservatism under conditions of bureaucratic capitalism. There never was an era when the policy of the Lesser Evil made less sense than now.”
Substitute “free-market-run-amok” for “bureaucratic” in the penultimate sentence, and we could not have a more accurate analysis of the current two-party system.
But what does this mean for us on the left? Draper talks about this not in terms of individual votes, but in terms of the “liberal-labor” section of the population, i.e. a section that actually takes action, and as such, can have its activism disrupted or disoriented by elections. When a movement (such as the labor movement) rushes frantically to a lesser evil, the lesser evil knows the game is up and is completely free to move to the right. As Draper puts it: “What the classic case teaches is not that the Lesser Evil is the same as the Greater Evil – this is just as nonsensical as the liberals argue it to be but rather this: that you can’t fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them.”
The left and the social movements have to state clearly their own programs, and develop their own methods (such as petition campaigns, demonstrations, strikes, direct action, etc.) in order to fight for them. When we rely entirely on the electoral system, when we put our faith into the “democratic process” under capitalism, we put ourselves into an impossible position, a position which requires us to give up our struggle. As Draper puts it: “The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.”
Is Obama the Lesser Evil to Romney?
So how does Obama compare to Romney on the questions of public education and ed reform? There has already been plenty of hyperventilating over just how bad Romney would be for education. The overview of his platform makes it quite clear: he’s for charter schools, high-stakes tests and teacher evaluations, merit pay schemes to destroy solidarity, and further corporate takeover of our schools. And of course, Paul Ryan’s budget-cutting fanaticism would ensure an even greater financial crisis for our schools.
But frankly, Obama’s platform is different only in tone—and even that is a big perhaps. Romney says: “Global competitiveness begins in the classroom.” Obama says: “Understanding that America has to out-educate the rest of the world to be competitive in the global economy, President Obama has made education a national priority.” Great! So our schools are the secret source of the power of US Imperialism! And therefore our children need to be tested, their schools deprived of elective classes and sold to the highest bidder, their teachers battered—all for the greater glory of Uncle Sam!
Please excuse my outbursts. But it’s hard to believe that Obama—and especially his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—are actually a lesser evil. It’s what Draper said: we can find them acting at every important juncture exactly like the Greater Evils, and sometimes worse. Often worse. Consistently worse. And it’s a matter not of rhetoric, but of action. Let’s review the record.
(Please note: I don’t actually have time to dig up links to all that follows, but I consider it all a matter of public record—and also a matter of my personal experience. I leave to others that task of corroboration, so important for left-wing bloggers and yet so ignored by right-wingers.)
On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama was careful to speak out against No Child Left Behind. Teachers and our unions enthusiastically backed Obama, glad to be rid of Bush and the era of rating schools through high-stakes tests and wildly unrealistic goals and expectations. Obama spoke to what everyone in education knew: that there was no way that we would have 100% of children “achieving the standard” by 2014, that the standardized testing mania was degrading our teaching and our students’ learning, that deeming schools as “failing” was unjust and willfully ignorant of the conditions of those schools. It was fine talk.
But once in office, President Obama discarded his campaign advisor on education, Linda Darling-Hammond, in favor of Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan. Darling-Hammond is one of the most respected researchers of education in the country, and her rejection was a clear indication that Obama was not serious about what he had said on the campaign trail. Instead, he hired the man who had started the great wave of Chicago school closures, pushing charter schools (and students into charter schools) as hard as he could. And who was the tool of the University of Chicago’s Economics Department, the Chicago Boys, the theorists of neoliberalism, the architects of Pinochet’s fascist economic reforms, the founding fathers of the Washington Consensus. Think of Naomi Klein’s analysis of the Shock Doctrine, and it becomes clear how Duncan could say with a straight face that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that could happen to New Orleans schools. (I’m happy to report that even in New Orleans—perhaps more than anywhere but Chicago—teachers are starting to learn how to fight back!)
So it was that NCLB was left intact, and not just that—but the Obama/Duncan administration rolled out School Improvement Grants to fund the “transformation” of “failing schools”. This was why the firing of the Central Falls High School teachers was so significant: it was the breakthrough for Democrats to show that they were even more serious about corporate education reform than the Republicans. Think about this: throughout the Bush era, the Democrats complained that NCLB (co-authored, by the way, by Ted Kennedy) was not fully funded. Thus their slogan: Fully Fund No Child Left Behind! Not: Fully Fund Public Education! The two things were quite different, but our unions took up the Democrats’ call whole-heartedly. When Obama took office, his first priority in education was to fully fund NCLB, i.e. to give it the teeth it lacked under the Bush administration.
The firing of the Central Falls teachers was one of the key elements in the next step of the drama, Race to the Top. Obama handed over trillions of dollars to banks in the first year of his administration, but could not be bothered to bail out states and municipalities with budget crises, for a fraction of the amount he was giving to banks. So instead, record numbers of teachers lost their jobs, and schools cut back on programs. But Obama could still claim that he was dramatically increasing funding for public education through RTTT. Here was a program that dangled money in front of cash-strapped states…in exchange for their implementation of certain reforms. These included lifting caps on charter schools and implementing punitive teacher evaluation systems, complete with “data-collection systems” and “student achievement data” as the main component of that evaluation. Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deb Gist made clear at the time that the RTTT money would not solve the funding crisis. But it did allow Obama and Duncan to pose as the champions of public education, all while attacking teachers and subjecting students to testing on a devastating new scale.
(In fact, the firing of the Central Falls teachers was the crucial element in Deb Gist’s quest for RTTT funds. She was willing, nay, enthusiastic, to attack teachers in exchange for the funds provided by the School Improvement Grant. Yes, it was CF Superintendent Fran Gallo who carried out the attack, but it was clear that she was being guided and aided at every point by Gist. Now the ensuing debacle was considerable, and Gist was forced to retreat on the firing, in the process coercing the CFHS teachers to accept the terms of “turn-around” that they had initially rejected. But this was after Gist had received national attention for her role in the incident. Furthermore, at this point in time, teachers’ unions around the state were deciding whether or not to endorse Gist’s RTTT application. The only local that endorsed was the Providence Teachers’ Union, under Steve Smith, himself a former Democratic legislator. Smith’s collusion with Gist was the key to the successful RTTT application in the second round. It’s a bitter truth, but it must be said: Steve Smith screwed over Rhode Island’s teachers for Deb Gist. And many people have the right to be bitter: NEARI, whose locals were solidly against and whose East Providence local was left to fend for itself, unsuccessfully, at the same moment; other RIFT locals, who opposed it until their state leadership endorsed it; and most of all, the Providence teachers, who were never given any chance to vote on their leadership’s endorsement.)
So here we are in 2012. RTTT is moving ahead full force, and teachers are demoralized by it. But our unions have fallen over themselves to endorse Obama. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel attended the showing of the new charter school propaganda film at the DNC and apparently thought it was great. Meanwhile, the Democrats are turning on us. Hopefully, more of us will turn on them.
Lesser Evilism in the Local Arena
Perhaps a more pressing question for activists in Rhode Island is that of how to respond to local politicians and local races. But first, let’s be clear: the notion that “all politics is local” is utter nonsense. It is the national political scene that sets the terms of the discourse, and it is impossible for local politicians to talk outside of these parameters. Thus it is that we cannot make a distinction between Democrats on the national level, and those on the local level. The Congressional Democrats (and the White House) put pressure on the state-level Democrats, who in turn put pressure on the local Democrats, all for the sake of keeping them in line at every level. And as the party at the national level has swung consistently to the right over the past 40 years, so have the local Democrats. A case in point: it was our openly gay House Majority Leader, Gordon Fox, who was crucial to undermining marriage equality in Rhode Island. And Fox has played an important role in undermining progressive initiatives from those he leads in the General Assembly.
Two years ago, Shaun Joseph and I coauthored a piece on the 2010 elections in Rhode Island in which we made a number of predictions about the election. It was a crucial election for my union, the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI), which put a tremendous amount of money and effort into key elections, particularly the gubernatorial race and the House District 68 election (my own district—and those are my comments in that particular article). The reason: they were frantic to stop the election of Frank Caprio as governor and the re-election of District 68 Rep. Doug Gablinske, both of whom had pledged to make public employee pension reform the focus of their fire, once in office. In the end, Shaun and I were proved wrong in our immediate predictions: NEARI was actually successful in their efforts to get both Lincoln Chafee (governor) and Richard Morrison (District 68 Rep.) elected.
But a funny thing happened on the way to victory. You see, it turns out that Shaun and I were completely right about the actual political direction that would be taken by the powers that be. In the event, public employees in Rhode Island have seen their pensions savaged in yet another attack of national significance. But it wasn’t Caprio and Gablinske who led it; instead, it was Treasurer Gina Raimondo (who ran unopposed in 2010 but was endorsed by NEARI anyway) who spearheaded the attack, with the full support of Gov. Chafee. And when the legislation went to the General Assembly for a vote, Richard Morrison voted yes. It was the classic case once again: at the crucial juncture, the lesser evils acted exactly as the greater evils had promised they would, had they been elected. This time around, Morrison is not running, and NEARI has endorsed John Hanley for District 68 over Ken Marshall. I’m glad they didn’t endorse the barely articulate and obediently neoliberal Marshall, who as a member of the Bristol Town Council has always helped in the foot-dragging when it came to their avoidance of funding our schools. And I like John Hanley personally—he’s my next door neighbor. But if elected, why would I expect him to act any differently than the rest of them?
Before I move on, however, I must comment on the most important election for the liberal left in Rhode Island in 2012: the race for Rhode Island State Senate District 3. This race will be decided by the primary—as is often the case in Rhode Island, there is no Republican running. So instead, the “greater evil” status is attached to Democratic candidate Maryellen Butke. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that Ms. Butke is indeed the greatest evil for education in this state. We all know her as the architect of the Achievement First invasion of Rhode Island, a campaign she worked on as the executive director of RI-CAN. RI-CAN is the local version of Stand for Children. These people are the real hatchet men and women, working to undermine public education. But we also have to be honest: Ms. Butke is a liberal. She thinks she is. She’s been through the Leadership RI and Women’s Fund of RI programs. She has been affiliated with Marriage Equality Rhode Island. She grew out of the same NGO-tied milieu that has produced a number of the same people who fought against Achievement First. She is just as much a white East Side liberal as the next person.
And that next person happens to be Gayle Goldin. Ms. Goldin, previously unknown in Rhode Island politics, has garnered the enthusiastic, almost desperate, support of a range of public education activists. Many people I have worked with over the past two years (and more) are now spending all their time trying to get Ms. Goldin elected over the Great Evil. A look at her page of supporters reveals the names of people I know and respect: Jill Davidson, a long-time parent advocate for public schools; Linda Laclair, my former local president and current NEARI Uniserv Rep; Karen McAninch, a fighter for union democracy and business agent for the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island; and most of all, Ed Benson, mon cher collègue in the CDPE. But it also reveals some other names that should shock and disturb us—a number of local political hacks in Providence, but most notably, Mayor Angel Taveras. This is the same man who closed the schools, who took all substantive power away from his (already appointed!) School Board, and who backed off of any serious attempt to tax Brown University. Why would any supporter of public education back a candidate who has Taveras’s endorsement?
And indeed, a closer look reveals that Goldin and Butke really are cut from the same cloth. Both of them are graduates of the Women’s Policy Institute, part of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island (Goldin in 2012, Butke in 2010). Both of them send their children to the prestigious and utterly private Wheeler School. And a glance at Gayle Goldin’s resume reveals that she has worked as a consultant for Rhode Island Kids Count, whose director, Elizabeth Burke Bryant, supported Achievement First’s bid to open its schools in Rhode Island. Indeed, her campaign material says that she supports “home-grown charter schools”. But these schools are just as much open to manipulation from corporate interests as are the larger schools—and remember that Butke started out at the Met. So what makes anyone think that Gayle Goldin in the Senate would act any differently than Maryellen Butke in the Senate? Feel free to tell me if I’m wrong—in two years. But I think we’re likely to see a clear case wherein the lesser evil will be compelled at the crucial moments to act just like the greater evil.
What’s the Alternative? How to Avoid Evils, Greater and Lesser
As I write these words on the evening of September 9, 23,000 members of the Chicago Teachers’ Union are preparing to go on strike. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel thought he was going to bulldoze the CTU and impose his neoliberal agenda on Chicago Schools. After all, his predecessor Richard Daley had been quite successful in his bid to reorganize Chicago’s schools along the lines of the Chicago School of Economics. But Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff was not ready for the power of an organized union with a determined and radical leadership. Despite all the obstacles Rahm tried to put in their way, the Chicago teachers have now arrayed themselves for a massive battle. The outcome of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike will have tremendous repercussions for the American public education system, the American labor movement, and the international struggle against austerity. If you have not followed this struggle, go read. And wear red tomorrow.
But before we all book that last-minute flight to Chicago, I want to conclude by posing and answering the big question: if voting for Democrats is a dead-end, what’s the alternative? The long and short of it is that society is changed fundamentally not by whom we elect, but by what we do, collectively, in the form of direct action to reclaim our schools. The lesser-evil bogey is hauled out routinely for the sake of disrupting social movements for change. Our alternative is not to rely for salvation on some elected messiah, who always turns out to be a false prophet. Our alternative is ourselves, our independent movement, and our mass direct action.
I will not go so far as to say that elections are completely irrelevant—in fact, they will be relevant as long as there’s not a revolution to end the capitalist system, and along with it, the shell game called bourgeois democracy. And it would be better if our side had a real political party of our own, a working-class party that refused to take money from corporations, that were directly accountable to its working-class base, a base that were well-organized into powerful and active unions. This party would have to keep its politicians in a minor, supporting role. The main activity of the party would be to organize the protest movements, the direct actions, the boycotts and strikes. The main activity of its elected officials would be to publicly support these activities, and to use their legislative seats to expose the hypocrisy and corruption of the capitalist politicians. Fundamentally, it would have to be strong enough to be able to hold its office-holders accountable, severely punishing any politician who broke the party line, engaged in corruption, or sold us out. But let’s be honest: we’re not there yet. And in the meantime, the Democrats are not going to play that role for us.
Imagine a country where a popular president, elected with overwhelming support from teachers, turns on them and savages their unions and their schools. Now imagine that in that president’s home city, run by his personal friend and formerly run by his basketball buddy, the teachers stand up and say, “ENOUGH!” Now imagine that they do this, not just any time, but in the midst of that president’s campaign for re-election. Suddenly, the veil is torn off, and we see the real sides in the struggle. On the one side: Rahm, Arne, and Barack, backed by Bill, Eli, and the Waltons. On the other side: Karen, Jesse, 23,000 teachers in their city, 5 million teachers nationally, and a movement of parent and community solidarity. Ask yourself: which side is Mitt on? Ask yourself: which side are you on?