Protest in America is historic….and patriotic

Not that high school students need additional reasons to be frustrated with the adults who constrain their lives, but:

The elected Jefferson County School Board is considering a proposal to revamp its American history curriculum that (according to the AP)

calls for instructional materials that present positive aspects of the nation and its heritage…[and] establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

As if to confirm the worst fears of the three conservatives on the Board, students didn’t wait for the Board to act, organizing a walk-out in protest.

As a teacher, I’m always heartened when students want to know more than what they may be getting in school, particularly about American history.  As someone who has built an academic career on the politics of protest, I also find both vindication and yet another case!

So in the suburbs of Denver, hundreds of students at six high schools walked out of class, ambled into the streets, and marched into a history that at least some of their elders want to edit severely.  The students were sufficiently savvy to know that they were far more likely to find an audience for their views by going broadly and dramatically public, organizing a campaign on Facebook and by word of mouth.

The walk-out was dramatic and telegenic, and made national news.  Indeed, students in Colorado were particularly cheered to learn that the New York Times picked up the story.

Jack Healey, writing there, even got my favorite quote:

“It’s gotten bad,” said Griffin Guttormsson, a junior at Arvada High School who wants to become a teacher and spent the school day soliciting honks from passing cars. “The school board is insane. You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic. It’s stupid.”

Censoring protest and contention from American history is particularly difficult.  After all, the country’s birth came from a civic rebellion, featuring plenty of what we’d now call civil disobedience.  Would you drop the Boston Tea Party?  Shays’s Rebellion?  John Brown, draft riots, and the Civil War altogether? Discuss Congressman John Lewis without mentioning the beatings and arrests he endured as a young man?  What about the Tea Party’s anti-tax protesters?  Griffin Guttormsson is right; it is stupid.  In fact, the Board tabled the resolution and then softened it, but the word got out.  Taking protest out of the schools is likely to be every bit as difficult as banning prayer.

But it’s not just about curriculum; it’s never all about curriculum.  As in much of the rest of the US, the Board is also battling the teachers and their union about creating charters and adopting a merit pay system.  The Board’s move on curriculum at the same time has created an alliance; many students hold signs emphasizing their support and affection for their teachers.

By awkwardly overreaching, conservatives on the Board have succeeded in drawing attention to what is most assuredly a national movement, funded and promoted by groups like Americans for Prosperity, and already winning scattered victories  across the United States (see Texas!).

I’d bet that the Jefferson County students gained at least as much from today’s American history lesson as from the one the day before.  They may even win a victory on the battle over the history curriculum.  But the larger conflict is far from resolution, and the students have very successfully put out a call for help in that struggle.

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The Scottish referendum: what victory looks like.

In real life assessing social movement victories or defeats is rarely like figuring out which runner breaks the tape in a sprint.  Achievements are virtually never all that activists demand–or want–and apparent defeats are not always what they seem.  Look again at Scotland:

The independence referendum was defeated clearly, with opponents posting nearly 400,000 more votes than supporters (55%-45%).  But what did the “no” voters want?  Remember that UK Prime Minister David Cameron rejected a referendum ballot with three choices: independence, no change, and devolution of powers, in favor of an up/down vote on independence.  To defeat the nationalists, however, he had to add devolution to the options covered by the no side, frenetically making promises of reforms in the last days of the electoral campaign.

The Nationalists will work to hold him–and the UK–to those promises.

So Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond accepted defeat, but explained that it was one step in a longer march toward increased autonomy for Scotland.  It wasn’t just the defeated trying to find some smattering of hope.  Alistair Darling, who headed the no campaign, claimed victory by announcing that the UK would have to afford Scotland more control over taxing, spending, and the contours of its own welfare state, sentiments echoed by the leaders of the UK’s major parties–including David Cameron, whose authority and leadership was clearly damaged by the entire campaign.

It’s certainly not an unambiguous victory for the nationalists: Trident submarines armed with nuclear weapons will continue to sail in the North Sea, while the Scots will continue to send taxes and representatives to London.  But the debate and the politics will be about negotiating greater autonomy for Scotland and greater power for its parliament.  It’s not all the nationalists wanted, but it’s more than Cameron wanted to give, and it’s far more than most people thought possible two years ago when the referendum was negotiated.  Cameron says the issue is now settled for a generation, but it’s hard to think that 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence (and many of the “no”s as well) are ready to accept that.  The rapid growth of support for independence reflected, more than anything else, gross dissatisfaction with the current Westminster government.  That’s not going to go away so quickly.

Alex Salmond has announced that he will step down as First Minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, but there are many others eager to stand in his place and conduct negotiations for autonomy.  David Cameron did not make a similar commitment, but the course of this independence/autonomy battle didn’t do any good for his authority as Prime Minister or leader of the Conservative Party.

While we may want to keep score at the ballot box, social movements are always playing on a broader field.

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Scottish independence and the payoff of persistence

With global attention now turned to the referendum on Scottish independence, it’s worthwhile to recall that the cause has a much longer history, predating the 1707 Acts of Union; regardless of the outcome of the current vote, it will certainly continue.

The Scottish National Party succeeded in getting a referendum on the country’s future largely by focusing on that demand over decades, pursuing multiple strategies to stay relevant, building inroads in mainstream political institutions, and taking advantages of opportunities, including political errors by its opponents.

The SNP has been competing in UK parliamentary elections since the 1930s, and it’s NEVER done very well.

The best showing, in 1974, was just over 30% of the vote, but the single member district system meant that this translated into just 11 of 650 seats.  More recently, the SNP has posted roughly 20 percent of the vote in Scotland, never winning more than 6 seats, and Labour has consistently won the unicorn’s share of Parliamentary seats in Westminster.

The SNP has performed a little better in lower profile European Parliament elections, trending toward 30 percent of the vote.

Winning seats, even just a few of them, is a big benefit for a movement campaign.  Members of Parliament have salary, status, staff, and some access to media.  Since first winning a seat in Parliament (1970), the SNP has used these resources to emphasize the political (and geographic!) distance between Westminster and Scotland and to press its alternative.  Parliamentary representation means that the SNP had paid professional politicians to make this case.

The modern Scottish parliament first held session in 1999, its charter the result of a referendum supported by a Labour government in Westminster.  At first Labour was the largest party, but the cause of Scottish nationalism–and the electoral fate of the SNP–advanced in opposition to Conservative governance in England.  It was aided by a hybrid electoral system which combined district representation with proportional representation.  In 2011, the SNP won an outright majority of seats, gaining a stronger platform for advancing the cause of independence.

Opponents could have clearly been smarter in crafting a response.  David Cameron’s Conservative government agreed to allow a referendum on Scottish independence, which was framed as an either/or choice. Prime Minister Cameron was confident that union would triumph handily, affording him complete latitude in dictating any terms of devolved political powers to the Scottish Parliament.  In retrospect, this was an obvious mistake.  The SNP had asked for a third option on the ballot: increased autonomy for Scotland within the UK.  It’s hard to imagine such a three part choice generating anything but ambiguous results.  Cameron was greedy for a complete victory.

As virtually all commentators have noted, Cameron was particularly bad at campaigning for union; every time he spoke, support for independence grew.  I think John Oliver, below, is particularly entertaining on this.

Now conventional wisdom holds that regardless of how the vote turns out, Cameron’s government will have to grant more autonomy to Scotland than even the more optimistic SNPers had initially hoped for, and Cameron’s own political future is in severe jeopardy.

For Politicsoutdoors, there are lessons not only about the extraordinarily slow pace of change, but also about a movement’s using elected office to build a movement, and about the gains that can come from exploiting opponents’ mistakes.  Sometimes just persisting–to be around when those opportunities and mistakes occur–is the critical component to victory.

 

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Peace movement anyone?

Strong social movements are hard to start and end all too easily.  It’s just about exactly the opposite of wars.

President Obama’s speech last night (September 10) was emphatic about a couple of things:

his determination to use American military force to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, aka ISIL–Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant); and

his determination to let allies, rather than Americans, do the fighting on the ground.

Even if it’s not quite the same as sending a hundred thousand troops into the field, the plan absolutely means American air power dropping bombs and killing people (mostly bystanders, not soldiers), and the United States spending more money on armaments for newly allied forces.  According to President Obama, it also means sending more advisers to Iraq to help train those newly allied forces.

At  the moment, it’s an enhanced, but still guarded, American commitment to war.

So, where’s the peace movement?

United for Peace and Justice, the largest coalition mobilizing opposition to the invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, trumpets its support for a People’s Climate March at the end of next week.  It’s about peace and social justice too.

Win without War, an antiwar coalition of major, mostly mainstream, organizations, posted statements of many of the member groups who, unexpectedly, oppose the escalation.  The reasons are predictable: there isn’t a military solution to these problems; Congress should be involved in  authorizing the use of force; the UN should be involved; there should be a national debate; war stinks.  Etc.  (Not that any of this is wrong.)  But you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find an actual event.  Massachusetts Peace Action is sponsoring a demonstration in Boston this weekend.

International Answer opposes the war too, but right now it’s also supporting the climate change march, and promises to organize demonstrations in the future.

So, with a military escalation on the horizon, the committed activists are still committed, but haven’t quite developed a strategy to mobilize and reach a broader public.  Putting together a national presence remotely comparable to the massive efforts that preceded the invasion of Iraq is going to be extremely difficult.  It’s worthwhile to figure out why:

1.  The American public IS wary (and weary) of war, but President Obama has promised to make sure that all virtually all of us are going to have to do is pay for it.  The advisers, pilots, and bombardiers are all volunteers.  By emphasizing a proximate threat and a very distant response, the president is loading the political dice in his favor.  And thus far, a majority seems to support the plan.

2.  ISIS has helped in painting itself as an unambiguous bad guy in this, calling out the United States, posting video of its brutal executions of opponents–and American journalists.  While segments in earlier rounds of peace movements have found sympathy for those America opposed, that’s unlikely to happen here.

3.  The mainstream of the American left votes for Democrats, and is willing to cut a Democratic president far more slack than a Republican.   In a book due to come out early next year, Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas show that the peace movement stalled after Barack Obama’s election, as many Democrats stopped going to demonstrations, preferring to trust their guy in office–or at least try to work influence through more conventional channels.

4.  Republicans are ill-positioned to support an antiwar movement, even as they harbor no sympathy for this president.  The foreign policy graybeards in the party, notably Senators Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and John McCain (Arizona), have been attacking Obama for years for not doing more, and not being more aggressive in using the military.

Preparing to run Congressional and Presidential campaigns painting the president as soft, their opposition to bombing is likely to focus less on “no” and more on “not enough.”   It’s always hard for an elected official to stand up to the president on war issues, and these days it’s even harder for the Republican Party.

Even Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky), who has a real record of opposing the use of American troops abroad, has been reluctant to challenge President Obama on the merits of his plan, focusing instead on the need for Obama to go to Congress.

Eying the Republican primary electorate, Senator Paul is also surely aware of the political risks of seeming soft on the use of force.

The Tea Party surely contained an isolationist strain, but it was mixed with a lot else, and the keep America home contingent is not nearly enough to win even primary elections.

Growth for the movement means reaching beyond the committed to engage people who don’t think about peace and international injustice on a daily basis, and who may not always oppose the military.  It’s going to be difficult to get them out in the streets.

And this is especially true in an election season.  As the midterm election campaign heats up, some large stream of money and effort that might go to an antiwar movement is going to get sucked up in Congressional races and local politics.  It’s hard to see candidates in tight races (Michelle Nunn in Georgia???) finding advantage in standing up against a military effort to destroy ISIS, particularly one that is portrayed as cheap, limited, and distant.

 

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Reviving Labor from the bottom

Even organized labor mostly skipped this year’s Labor Day, which has never really been about the American worker.  Later in the week, however, activists made another play at reviving the fortunes of organized labor–and the American worker–from the bottom up.

Fast Food Forward, a campaign funded by the Service Employees Employees International Union (SEIU), staged actions at McDonald’s restaurants across the country, as well as at the company’s national headquarters outside Chicago.  Activists staged pickets, protests, and sit-ins in 150 cities, generating nearly 500 arrests, including at least one member of Congress, Rep. Gwen Moore (Democrat, Wisconsin).

Now let’s put this in context: I’ve been reading about the revitalization of labor mostly since I started reading, and academics frequently write evaluations pointing to successful new strategies for rebuilding unions in America.  You can accept the arguments, but the numbers nationally just don’t support any of them.  Every year the story is one of record lows of union membership nationally.

 

Organized labor worked to organize and create a middle class over the years, and numerous economic, political, and judicial decisions have made doing so tougher and tougher.  Recent campaigns against teachers in particular, and public sector workers generally, have made that landscape look even more bleak.

SEIU’s effort is to start at the bottom, focusing on the lowest paid workers, ones that Americans see routinely, fetching fries and punching up totals on cash registers.  It’s a two-prong (at least) strategy: organizing the unorganized, and demanding government action for all workers, pressing for a minimum wage hiked to $15 an hour.

It’s not really quite as outrageous as it may look.  The value of the minimum wage has eroded fairly steadily, in concert with the strength of organized labor.

Nationally, we hit the current $7.25 minimum wage in 2009, and even though Democrats like to campaign for an increase, they realize it’s not going to happen in the current political climate.  State and city governments have sometimes been more responsive, generally over the opposition of restauranteurs and retailers, who respond with predictable economic analyses.  A higher minimum wage means that they will have to juggle to maintain profits through prices (raise them) and/or personnel (cut jobs through reorganization or automation).  Presumably, they are already paying as little as they possibly can for their products (especially the food).

The organizers like to tell the story of workers leaving their griddles and registers to join the protesters–and the movement, but that’s not mostly what’s happening.  Few workers are willing to risk their jobs, even for a day, to make political claims.

McDonald’s–and the other low wage employers–see that it’s critical for them to keep the organizers and unions apart from the people who are actually behind the counter.  Paradoxically, one way to do this is to raise the wages.

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Scoring the Tea Party at the polls

Almost from the outset, the Tea Party movement committed to an electoral strategy to get what its adherents wanted–or at least some of what they wanted.  By 2010, the movement had largely moved from the town halls and streets to the polls, raising and spending tons of money to take out insufficiently conservative Republicans, and nominate stalwarts (who would sometimes lose winnable races) for visible offices.

But keeping score is tough.  First: Democrats don’t lose in races for the Congressional seat in my district because they’re too liberal or too conservative or silly or intellectual or lazy.  They lose because the district is overwhelmingly Republican.   Most Congressional districts nationwide are just like mine, skewed to one party or the other.  More liberal candidates usually win in safer Democratic districts, and more conservative candidates win in safer Republican districts.

Second, the Tea Party is hardly a unified bloc.  Conservative groups endorsed competing candidates in many races.  In Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, two very conservative candidates reached the run-off ahead of two even more conservative candidates.  All had received support from conservative causes and activists, but only the losers were identified as Tea Partiers.

Third, politicians can change their views, rhetoric, or approaches.  Mostly, Republican incumbents who “fended off” Tea Party challengers adapted and moved right to make it easier to do so.  Tea Partiers may not have gotten their preferred candidate in South Carolina, let’s say, but incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham was certainly more responsive, and less inclined to criticize them.

Fourth, incumbents almost always win renomination.  Just as Tea Partiers couldn’t take out incumbents, so-called Establishment Republicans couldn’t take out Tea Partiers.  (The defeats of Representatives Kerry Bentivolio [Michigan] and Eric Cantor [Virginia], for example, are far better explained by candidate idiosyncrasies and local conditions than any national political wave; they were defeated by candidates espousing pretty much the same policies.)  Michigan’s Justin Amash, a committed Tea Partier ostensibly targeted by the House Republican leadership and the Chamber of Commerce, won renomination easily.

So, be wary of people who have a stake in claiming the Establishment triumphed in saving the Republicans from the Tea Party, or Tea Partiers who enthusiastically trumpet their victories and general resilience.  Not all that much changed either way.

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Ice bucket challenged

A creative campaign to raise attention and money for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has circulated across the web and through virtually every social media channel.  You’ve seen a friend or a celebrity post a video of themselves dumping ice water on his own head, announcing a donation to research on ALS, and challenging others–by name–to do the same.  It’s generated an enormous amount of money for research on ALS, by one estimate $42 million, more than twenty times the money raised over the same time period last year.

Wow!

ALS is a terrible disease.  There’s no cure, limited understanding, limited treatments, and not enough research, and a terrible decline for those diagnosed which doesn’t last very long before death.  Because the population affected is so small–relative to other health conditions–there’s just not much private sector interest in investing in research.  But the ice bucket provides an odd marketing redress.  Is it just wonderful that a viral marketing campaign took off and produced a windfall?

Absolutely, but not really.  Research on ALS is drastically underfunded, but that’s true for just about every disease or condition you can imagine.  Government funded scientific research has stagnated since the George W. Bush administration, and ongoing battles about taxes and the deficit have kept federal investment in science very low.  Effective political advocacy slices bigger shares of this limited pool of funds to selected conditions like AIDS and breast cancer.  Biotech and drug companies invest in research to develop products they think they can sell profitably–ideally to large markets.  As the rate of diabetes increases in America, it becomes a more attractive research and development area for the drug industry.  (Treatable but incurable?  That’s maybe fifty years of drug purchases per patient!)

Non-profits raise and spend money to fill in where government and industry falter, and they dedicate a great deal of money and effort to keep the dollars flowing.  This viral ice bucket twist has been incredibly successful–for now–but it’s hard to imagine it morphing into an organized annual event–like an AIDS Walk, MDA (once muscular dystrophy) telethon, or Breast Cancer Run for a Cure.

The fundraising calendar gets crowded, and you really can’t imagine racing and fundraising for every worthy cause.  Causes of all sorts, including nonprofits concerned with diseases, have to innovate and find some new way to break the clutter of fundraising appeals and regularize and stabilize their income.  Even then, funding is cyclical, as people and foundations are more flush and more generous when the economy and the stock market are stronger.

Research on ALS is critical and funding it completely worthwhile.  But I don’t have a way to compare the value of funding ALS with funding research on AIDS, Breast Cancer, Celiac Disease, Depression, Ebola….all the way through the alphabet.  Should funding be based on the state of the science?, the number of people affected?, the likely development of knowledge that helps with other diseases?  And what about funding scientific research on disease at the expense of action on education or poverty? I don’t know the answers on this stuff, and would distrust any flip opinion.

I am sure, however, that I don’t trust the wisdom of the charity market on these matters.  Nonprofits hire fundraisers who build careers moving across charitable causes.  The quality of the campaign is, I fear, more important than the worthiness of the cause.

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