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I’m not a union basher. Overall, I’m a very progressive guy — a “socialist,” many would say. For years, I’ve lived in a union household and supported union causes. I understand and honor the important things unions have done for America – the 40-hour work week, weekends, child labor laws, sexual harassment laws, the minimum wage, civil rights laws, paid vacations, paid family and medical leave, workplace safety laws, and employer-based health coverage. I know unions have helped all Americans and the entire nation, not just union members.
I strongly disagree with those who say unions are no longer needed. In fact, during a time of the worst income inequality since 1928, we need more unionization in America, not less.
But just as I have a problem with Republicans who refuse to oppose businesses and billionaires when their interests don’t match the public interest, I have a problem with Democratic politicians who refuse to oppose unions in the relatively rare instances when their interests don’t coincide with the public interest.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this as I was watching part of the DFL State Convention online. I watched a parade of DFL politicians line up to deliver speeches about which of them was most unfailingly loyal to unions and their policy agenda. Their speeches made it sound as if unions are public interest groups, instead of self interest groups.
Unions are special interest groups. That’s not a criticism; it’s just reality. They promote what is good for their organization and members. In contrast, public interest groups — the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the ACLU, the Environmental Defense Fund, Children’s Defense Fund, Consumer’s Union, others — promote what they believe is good for the public at-large. Public interest groups are not perfect, but their missions are broader than special interests groups.
For instance, the public needs things like accountable law enforcement officers, effective teachers, efficient government, and environmentally safe industries. Unions are often supportive of those things, but not always.
When the rules police unions demand inadvertently serve to keep abusive law enforcement officers harming vulnerable citizens, unions are not serving the public interest.
When the rules teachers’ unions demand inadvertently keep relatively ineffective teachers in public school classrooms, unions are not serving the public interest.
When public sector unions force governments to do things inefficiently, that effectively takes limited funding from addressing worthy unmet public needs, and is therefore not serving the public interest.
And when unions fight to maintain and expand environmentally destructive industries and projects, they’re not serving the public interest.
Again, union self-interests often overlap with the public interests. But there are important exceptions to that rule. The unwillingness of so many Democratic politicians to be independent from unions who aren’t always working in the public interest is one the party’s primary blind spots that prevents it from appealing to swing voters and enacting truly progressive policies.
This week, statewide coverage featured Minnesota Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis mugging with President Donald Trump’s lead partner in crime, Vice President Mike Pence.
The news coverage serves as a helpful reminder to Minnesotans that these three gentlemen have enabled Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency every step of the way. They have slavishly voted for the mean-spirited Trump agenda about 90% of the time. It reminds us that the reelection of Minnesota’s Trumpublican Trio is effectively a referendum on Trump’s corruption, chaos, incompetence, and extremism. A few things that Minnesotans should be reminded of during campaign season:
WEAKENING OUR HEALTH PROTECTIONS. These three congressmen repeatedly supported Trumpcare, which would have stripped health protections from 51 million Americans, and only had the support of 17% of Americans. They are also complicit with Trump’s ongoing sabotaging of the historically effective Affordable Care Act protections. Moreover, they oppose efforts that would make health protections much more available and affordable, such as with a national reinsurance program, restoration of the Cost Sharing Reductions (CSR) they cut, and giving Americans the option of buying into the popular and efficient Medicare program.
Oh, and by the way, these self-proclaimed “deficit hawks” put the $1.5 trillion cost of their lavish tax giveaway to the wealth on the federal credit card that our kids and grandkids now have to pay. Absolutely shameless.
PUTTING TRUMP ABOVE THE LAW. They have turned a blind eye to Trump’s repeated obstruction of justice during the investigation into Russia’s attack on America’s democratic jewel, our free and fair elections. This obstruction of justice is far more extensive than the actions that forced President Nixon out of the White House, but the Republicans of 1972 had enough integrity to fulfill their oversight duties and push Nixon out, while these contemporary Republicans are cavalierly shrugging it off.
PUTTING CORPORATIONS’ NEEDS OVER ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS. They have marched lockstep behind Trump as he has racked up the worst environmental record in our lifetime. For instance, Trump made the United States the only nation on the planet to not sign the Paris accord on climate change.
These are just a few examples, but the list of pro-Trump votes is a long one. According to FiveThirtyEight, Rep. Emmer votes with Trump 87% of the time, Rep. Lewis votes with Trump 90% of the time and Rep. Paulsen votes with Trump 97% of the time. Clearly, a vote for Emmer, Lewis, and Paulsen is effectively a vote for the historically unpopular Trump. Minnesotans who are fed up with Trump need to be speaking out, donating and organizing against them.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about three million votes, a larger margin than Presidents Nixon and Kennedy had. She only lost the electoral college by roughly 100,000 votes (0.08 percent of the electorate) in three states. In a race that close, there is a long list of things that might have shifted the outcome of the presidential race.
I am sure that the Clinton campaign’s get out the vote (GOTV), data mining, advertising, debate zingers, primary election peace-making, voter suppression battling and many other things could have been better. Who knows, those improvements might have swung that relatively small number of votes. But if I had to name the top three things that swung the election, I wouldn’t name any of those more tactical issues. Instead, these are my nominees:
WORST POSSIBLE NOMINEE PROFILE FOR OUR ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT TIMES. I admire Hillary Clinton on many levels, and think she has been treated very unfairly in this campaign and throughout her career. But early on in the nomination cycle, it was extremely clear that general election voters were in a white hot anti-Washington establishment mood, and were looking for someone very different than a Hillary Clinton-type candidate.
Hillary Clinton was the ultimate Washington establishment candidate. Her resume, network, husband and demeanor absolutely screamed “Washington Insider.” Democrats could have run a less establishmenty candidate that was more sane than Trump –Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, others — but they chose to run a candidate who had the worst possible profile for the times.
This created two huge problems 1) It caused Hillary to lose change-oriented voters who supported change-oriented Obama in the past and 2) It caused much of the Obama coalition to sit out the race, or effectively throw their vote away by supporting a third party candidate.
President-elect Trump won a somewhat smaller vote total than Republicans have been winning in their past two presidential losses. Despite all of the post-election hype about the Trump political magic show, he didn’t perform that well, historically speaking. The difference wasn’t that Trump created a tsunami of support, it was that the cautious establishment-oriented Democratic candidate was unable to generate sufficient excitement among the Obama coalitions of 2008 and 2012, particularly millennials and people of color. This chart tells the story.
COMPLETE LACK OF ECONOMIC MESSAGE. In May, I made this argument:
The Clinton campaign needs to stick to a small number of lines of attack, even as the Trump vaudeville act continually tosses out new bait to lead the Clinton campaign down dozens of different messaging paths. Trump is clearly incapable of message discipline, but Clinton can’t allow his lack of discipline to destroy hers.
Swing voters are disgusted by establishment figures like Hillary and Congress, because they see them as part of a corrupt Washington culture that has rigged the economy for the wealthy few to the exclusion of the non-wealthy many. That is the central concern of many Trumpeters and Bern Feelers, and so that issue is the most important messaging ground for Clinton.
Therefore, Secretary Clinton should align a disciplined campaign messaging machine – ads, speech soundbites, policy announcements, surrogate messaging, etc. — around framing Mr. Trump as: Trump the self-serving economy rigger.
Why choose this framing over all of the other delicious options? First, it was proven effective against a billionaire candidate in 2012. There is message equity there. Why reinvent the wheel? Second, it goes to the core of what is bugging swing voters the most in 2016.
Needless to say, this never happened. The Clinton campaign reacted to pretty much everything that Trump did, and never stressed anything close to a bold agenda for addressing income inequality. She also failed to offer much of a critique of a Trump economic agenda that would badlyaggravate income inequality for Trump’s base of voters.
For reasons I’ll never understand, the economic populist message and agenda that an unlikely candidate like Bernie Sanders used to light up the political world earlier in the election cycle was almost entirely ignored by Team Clinton. As a result, 59% of Americans are somewhat or very confident that the economy will improve under President-elect Trump. Given the truth about the devastation that will be caused by Trump policies, shame on Clinton for allowing that level of public delusion to develop.
But as unfair and maddening as most of the Hillary criticism was, Democrats knew full well that it was coming. They knew Clinton had three decades worth of earned and unearned skeletons in her family closet, but arrogantly chose her anyway.
If Democrats hope to win more Presidential elections, the days of always nominating the candidate with the longest political resume must end. In the current environment of non-stop congressional and media investigations, long political resumes now will always come with a long list of real and imagined “scandals.” Those alleged controversies will, quite unfairly, make veteran insiders increasingly unelectable, because confused, under-informed voters will always tend to conclude “if there is corruption smoke, there must be fire,” as so many did with Clinton.
If Democrats had run a candidate who didn’t have known “scandals” looming, and who had a background, demeanor, agenda and message that gave voters confidence that they were willing and able to do something about an economy rigged in favor of the 1%, Democrats wouldn’t have needed to look for a stray 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They could have won in an electoral college landslide over the worst Republican presidential candidate of our times.
When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders explains why Americans shouldn’t fear his “democratic socialism,” he usually points to Scandinavia.
“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people. In Denmark, there is a very different understanding of what “freedom” means… they have gone a long way to ending the enormous anxieties that comes with economic insecurity. Instead of promoting a system which allows a few to have enormous wealth, they have developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all — including the children, the elderly and the disabled.”
His opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, who clearly understands American exceptionalism biases, quickly shuts down Sanders’ arguments with a smug shrug: “We are not Denmark.”
By continually citing countries other than America to explain democratic socialism to Americans, Senator Sanders is hurting his case. Instead of pointing to Norway, he should more consistently cite the New Deal.
First, let’s consider the definition of “democratic socialism” offered by Democratic Socialist’s of America:
“Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.”
Truth be told, the United States of America is no stranger to this kind of democratic socialism. It was brought to us during some of the most successful and popular presidencies of the past century. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower enacted a whole series of popular measures that fit under this definition of democratic socialism. At the time their ideas were proposed, they were criticized as infeasible, un-American and socialistic, just as Sanders’ ideas are today.
Therefore, Senator Sanders should be explaining his democratic socialism with American examples that a large majority of Americans already know and love. Sanders might say something like this:
You want to know what democratic socialism is? When the great Republican Teddy Roosevelt dissolved 44 corporations to protect the middle class, and when he protected ordinary Americans from the railroad companies and other big corporations, his critics said “you can’t pass that, because it’s socialism.” But he passed them anyway, because the American people demanded it.
When the enormously popular Franklin Roosevelt used government funding to put Americans to work building community infrastructure, they said “you can’t pass that, because it’s socialism.” When FDR proposed a Social Security system of government-run pensions that lifted millions of American seniors out of poverty, conservatives said “you can’t pass that, because it’s socialism.” But he passed those things anyway, because the people demanded it.
When Harry Truman enacted Medicare, people like Ronald Reagan called that socialism too.
And you know what? When Republican Dwight Eisenhower invested in an enormously expensive interstate highway system and had 90% income tax rates on the ultra-wealthy, they said it again: “You can’t pass that, because that’s socialism.” But he passed those things anyway, because the American people demanded it.
And despite the dire predictions from critics, America’s economy prospered under these policies that were all predicted to be catastrophic for the economy.
So in 2016, when the defeatist “no you can’t” crowd tells Americans “you can’t pass bills to provide higher education and health care to all, because that’s socialism,” I get my inspiration and courage from Teddy, FDR, Give ‘em hell Harry and Ike. Because of them, I know America can overcome the cynics’ name-calling and naysaying to do great things for the middle class now, just as we did then.”
Democratic socialism is already in America, and it is enormously popular. Surveys consistently show that Americans are vehemently opposed to cutting or eliminating democratic socialist programs such as Medicare, Social Security, and the minimum wage.
Americans not only have embraced democratic socialism in the past, they strongly support it for the future. A recent GBA Strategies poll shows that likely 2016 voters overwhelmingly support a whole range of Sanders’ ideas being dismissed as socialist ideas lacking sufficient political support: Allowing governments to negotiate drug prices has 79% support. Medicare buy-in for all has 71% support. A $400 million infrastructure jobs program has 71% support. Debt-free college at all public universities has 71% support. Expanding Social Security benefits has 70% support. Taxing the rich at a 50% rate — the rate under conservative icon Ronald Reagan — has 59% support, and only 25% in opposition. Breaking up the big banks has 55% support, and only 23% in opposition.
This is hardly a portrait of a nation that opposes democratic socialism. Overwhelming support for democratic socialism is already there, ready to fuel a 2016 presidential candidate. But for two reasons, Senator Sanders needs to cite American parallels to explain his approach, not European.
First, citing examples of American policies will help build confidence that bold measures can be enacted over fierce opposition now, just as they were in the days of Teddy, FDR, Truman and Ike. Second, citing American examples will paint Sanders’ democratic socialism label and his policy ideas red, white and blue, rather than just red. It will show that such ideas have been embraced in the past by idolized Republicans and Democrats. It subsequently will normalize democratic socialism.
Americans are in a very nationalistic, ethnocentric and nostalgic mood. So, rather than continually pointing to the Rikstag, Storting, and Folketing to explain democratic socialsm, Sanders needs to point to the faces on Mt. Rushmore.
The Minnesota Legislature is crisis driven. It has a brief amount of time to address a long list of requests, so every year it tends to prioritize relatively small number of issues that legislators view as being most urgent. Those prioritization decisions are the most impactful decisions they make in any given year.
So, what should the Legislature’s top priority be for the brief 2016 session? Job-creation? Crime? Homelessness? Social issues? Health improvement? Economic competitiveness? Reducing the cost of government to ease tax burdens?
Each legislator has different priorities, but the one issue that will profoundly impact all of those issues for decades to come is Minnesota’s education achievement gap. If we can narrow the achievement gap in our increasingly diverse schools, it will go a long way to making progress on all of the issues just mentioned.
Overall, Minnesota is a high-performing state academically, but it has some of the highest achievement gaps in the country between white minority students, and between low-income students and their more affluent peers. Those gaps have caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in a January 2011 speech to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce criticized the state for its “lack of urgency” and its stalled progress in raising the achievement of disadvantaged students.
Well guess what, Arne? Five years later, I still don’t feel that sense of urgency.
Sense of Urgency, Anyone?
For example, we know that retaining effective teachers, and removing ineffective ones, is one of the most important things that can be done to improve student performance. Yet Minnesota is one of a very small number of states that continues a policy of retaining k-12 public school teachers based on seniority, instead of measured effectiveness. This “last in first out” policy makes it makes it difficult to retain high performing young teachers, who disproportionately work in schools serving low-income students. Though a huge majority of Minnesotans agree this policy should be changed, the teacher’s union’s insistence on protecting the seniority-driven status quo prevails at the Legislature year-after-year. That doesn’t sound like a state with a sense of urgency about the achievement gap.
We also know that research shows that education achievement gaps can be measured in children as young as 9 months old. So, clearly the most vulnerable children need help very early in life, not just at age 4. To catch up, low-income children need extra help as early in life as possible. Yet, some state education leaders recommend heavily subsidizing pre-k services for parents of 4 year olds who can already afford services before we help the thousands of low-income kids under five who currently can’t afford high quality home visiting and early learning programs. If narrowing the achievement gap was truly driving education policymaking, we would be helping those most at-risk kids first and fully.
More k-12 funding is also needed to fund gap-narrowing strategies, such as intensive remedial tutoring. But leaders aren’t acting with sufficient urgency on this front either. As of FY 2013, Minnesota ranked an underwhelming 21st among states in inflation-adjusted spending, at $11,089 per student. Oh to be investing at the level of even sixth ranked Wyoming, which is at $15,700 per student. If Minnesota could just be a little more like Wyoming, we could use the additional $4,600 per student to better support our most gap-vulnerable students.
More Rhetoric Than Reform
I’m not saying that Minnesota is ignoring the achievement gap. It is mentioned ad nauseam at the State Capitol, by people of all political stripes. Discussing the problem is a necessary first step, but it has to lead to reform of the status quo.
Leaders who are truly feeling a sense of urgency about the education achievement gap don’t continue to fire effective young teachers in low-income schools, ignore the plight of its youngest and most vulnerable children, and remain complacent with middle-of-the-pack investments. Both the political right and left can do better.
If we don’t start getting more serious about addressing the k-12 achievement gap, Minnesota won’t have the highly educated workforce it needs to compete in the global economy. As Minnesota’s workforce become less competitive, jobs will be less plentiful and will pay less. When that happens, our state and local revenues will decrease, and our state and local government costs will increase. The resulting fiscal squeeze won’t just hurt those “other people” from different races, ethnicities and neighborhoods; it will hurt all Minnesotans, and our collective future.
That’s why the k-12 achievement gap can’t be considered “just another issue” on a long laundry list of issues. An issue of this magnitude needs to be treated like the Legislature’s top priority. Legislative initiatives to narrow the achievement gap should attract the most intensive focus, the best thinking, the most thoughtful and courageous leadership, the most bipartisan cooperation, and necessary resources. If we don’t get more serious about the achievement gap soon, the state known for an education-driven “Minnesota Miracle” in the 1970s could become known for an education-driven Minnesota Meltdown in the not too distant future.
Disclosure: In addition to being a blogger expressing personal opinons, the author is a communications consultant. Among many other clients, he works with a nonprofit that advocates for income-targeted investments in pre-k early education. As with all blog posts, this reflects solely the author’s personal opinion.