Sure, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas are red—just not like you think. There’s a new shade of meaning in that color. What does the Teacher Uprising represent? The end of austerity.
Massive teacher strikes have rocked the political establishment of the heartland. On the coasts, this is second-tier news. What does it matter in New York or Los Angeles, if the schools in Oklahoma close? But if they’re wise, they’ll take a closer look. Earthquakes echo deep, even when they don’t range far. The political order has shifted. New York Magazine suggests the Teacher Uprising in the red states shows the feebleness of the Republican Party:
Teachers scored improbable victories in West Virginia and Oklahoma by exploiting the biggest open secret in American politics today: The Republican Party and its voters have radically different political views.
So far, the rise-up roll call consists of West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, “and Arizona could be next,” writes Josh Eidelson of Bloomberg Politics.
Sooner educators shut down hundreds of schools. Kentucky teachers filled the capitol. And there’s more to come. Granted, West Virginia was a blue state until recently. However, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona are red states. Logic suggests these conservative strongholds should be proof against wildcat unionism. What can explain the curious culmination of labor unrest in the middle of the country? New York notes of Oklahoma that:
This is a state that responded to a $1.3 billion budget shortfall in 2016 by cutting taxes on the rich, and renewing a $470 million tax break for oil and gas companies. It’s a state that has allowed fracking interests to turn it into the earthquake capital of the world; let a gas company literally dictate policy to its attorney general; and forbade itself from raising taxes on anyone unless three-fourths of its state legislature approves (and its state legislature is dominated by tea party conservatives). All this has made increasing taxes on the state’s top industry so unthinkable to Oklahoma Republicans, they have repeatedly found it preferable to plug budget gaps by raiding their state’s emergency funds, and forcing one-fifth of its school districts to adopt four-day weeks instead.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neill used to say. The progressive pushback in the red states is evidence of that: who wants their kids to read dilapidated books?
In truth, the strikes illustrate the great unspoken political truth of our time. Oklahoma and the heartland are not Republican because that party is so strong, but because the Democrats are so weak. The Republicans sell culture war to distract from their reactionary economics. The Democrats peddle woke policy, and status quo capitalism. Given that choice, who would you pick?
The working class was thrown out of politics in the Seventies. That left the professional caste in charge of American government. Here’s how the party system has worked since Carter: white-collar America has a liberal wing (Democrats) and a conservative wing (Republicans)—and that’s it. Who does that leave to fight for economic justice?
The Republicans can’t do it. Why would they? Their owners have economic interests diametrically opposed to the public good. The Democrats haven’t been able to do it: they sold their soul to soft money, their leadership has been traumatized since Reagan, and, oh yeah, they’re scared snow-blind of their own base. But Trump was so beyond the range of acceptability, that the public forced the issue. The establishment missed the arrival of Trump … and in their rush to pander right, they missed the bigger story: here comes everyone.
Each of these red states served as a laboratory for trickle-down economics. The wildest dreams of the Koch Brothers were turned into actual policy, affecting millions. You can guess what their policies amounted to. Tax cuts for the rich, public funding slashed, bridges and roads allowed to disintegrate. It was the new right-wing Eden: gated communities for some, hell-world for others. As The Prospect noted:
Indeed, the teacher strikes now engulfing red states are a long-simmering eruption against those states’ embrace of trickle-down economics, which has deepened inequality and shredded vital public services. ... The issue is not merely teacher salaries, though indeed those are too low—before the raise, teachers in Oklahoma earned a wage that ranked 49th in the country—but Oklahoma teachers also point to the gutting of education funding as a major impetus for their walkout.
On April 1, Corey Robin, academic and author of The Reactionary Mind, wrote this post:
It’s 1978, and you’re a politically minded person paying attention to electoral politics. You focus all of your attention on the midterm elections. And you find that after two years of a historically unpopular Democratic president, whose approval ratings are tanking in the low 40s, the voters re-elect a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate by wide margins. You find that the voters give the Democrats complete control over 27 state governments (that is, the governor’s mansion plus the state legislature) and complete control over an additional nine state legislatures. You’ll be thinking: the Democrats are firmly in control of the country and will be for the foreseeable future. Nothing you’ll be noticing will give you the slightest clue that the country is heading for a profound counterrevolution in just two years’ time.
Everybody missed the sea change, wrote Robin, because they weren’t looking in the right place. They missed what Robin calls the “most important political development” in 1978:
the passage of Proposition 13 in California, which radically gutted property taxes in California and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future. This was the real harbinger of the country’s future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services, in what had once been one of the most liberal states in the country.
Forty years later, with government forever in the hands of the Republican Party and the Democrats burrowing to new dungeons of incompetency, the Teacher Uprising seems like a hopeful sideshow, a distraction from What The Hell is the Orangeman Doing Now. But don’t look away, Robin says.
Right now, in the reddest of red states, in the places you’d least expect it, teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education, not only to reverse the rule of Scott Walker which was supposed to provide a national model across the country, but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.
Unspoken assumptions govern our politics. Assumption: there’s always money for wars. Assumption: there’s never enough money for textbooks. Assumption: the poor deserve to be poor. Assumption: the market is virtuous. Assumptions limit our sense of the possible.
I grew up in a world of very specific assumptions, and I’m amazed how many of them we took as unimpeachable doctrine. In the Nineties, the public was removed from political life. The era of big government is over, said President Clinton, and then he turned Wall Street into the government.
When Clinton said that time was up, who was he speaking for? It wasn’t like a group of scientists published a study proving corporations should run everything. No public opinion poll said that the poor had to live wretched lives. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. There was no universal writ of history demanding that bond traders buy jets while public schools rotted.
Instead of presenting evidence, the neoliberals and conservatives simply repeated their assumptions over and over again. Austerity was important, the public wasn’t. Those were the rules. Single-payer health care was popular, but it was against the rules. Tobacco companies killed God knows how many Americans, but punishing them was against the rules. Peace with other nations? Well, that would have been nice, but it was against the rules. It was a shame Goldman Sachs killed the world economy, but sending them to jail was against the rules.
But as Jack Kennedy once said, things do not just happen, they are made to happen. These assumptions were carefully groomed by the Powers That Be, by media and by Respectable Opinion. Austerity had a good run. But it’s dying now, and the State of Oklahoma is the gravedigger.
See, before the Teacher Uprising, the GOP had a great gimmick. They pretended godless coastal liberals didn’t understand the travails of the heartland. But the teacher strike illustrates the problem in the starkest possible terms. The far-right’s center plank—everything must serve the rich!—has been repudiated in the most humiliating way.
That is what is changing in the red states, and why the media is at such a loss. It’s why famous failures like Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin are flailing about like stretched-leather marionettes in a hurricane. No wonder the pundits are fumbling in the shadows. A public that does not play the game, that does not play by the rules, is genuinely terrifying. For forty years, the preachers of conservativism have told Americans a dismal fable: the public had dared to dream, and the public had to be punished. The people had to learn austerity, and accept the judgment of their financial betters. And so, in 2018, the bill has come due: the public are calling in their debt. The terms of payment are being worked out for a bankrupt ideology long past its sell-by date. It’s about time: after all, dollars take care of themselves, if you look after the sense.