NOTE: This article originally appeared in Australian Options magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.
In September 2012 Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted to break the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) with a bid to privatize Chicago’s public schools. The mayor’s proposal was based on a plan to subject teachers (and schools) to performance measurement based on students’ standardized test scores.
Teachers whose students scored poorly would be fired. Schools whose students scored poorly would be closed. The students would then be farmed out to so-called “charter schools” – for the most part, for-profit institutions run by corporations like Edison Schools, Rocketship, Victory Schools, and Educational Services of America.
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The CTU went out on strike with the goal of maintaining public education in Chicago, America’s third largest city. Schools in Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest city, have already been largely privatized, and the state of Texas is currently in the process of privatizing its local public school systems.
Under threat of a court injunction that might force them to return to work without a contract, the CTU ended its strike after just six business days. The negotiated settlement terms included a longer working day (for the same pay), teacher evaluations based 30% on student test scores, and complete mayoral discretion over teacher hiring and firing.
As Reuters reported on September 18, “those were major goals for Emanuel and positive outcomes for any Emanuel financial backers associated with the national education reform movement.” The outcome, however, was widely viewed in the United States as a victory for the teachers, since (amazingly, to most Americans) they retained their pre-strike jobs, salaries, and health insurance benefits.
Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, is a Democrat.
The Obama administration: Center-right Democrats
Rahm Emanuel is not just any Democrat. He was Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, responsible for hiring many of the Obama administration’s key personnel. One of Obama’s appointees, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is a former “Chief Executive Officer” of the Chicago public school system. In Chicago he had promoted the expansion of for-profit charter schools.
In Washington, Secretary Duncan developed the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” program to encourage states to privatize their schools. The funding was structured as a competition. All 50 states adopted the Race to the Top program in hopes of receiving scarce federal funding during a severe recession; only 12 actually received any grants. The tournament format was designed to ensure maximum institutional impact for the smallest possible investment.
It’s not just in education policy that the Obama administration has pursued a broadly neoliberal, center-right agenda. For example, President Obama has taken no action to improve minimum wages or working conditions. The US federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, with no guaranteed sick days, holidays, or vacation time. The last increase was in 2009, under a law passed by the Bush administration in 2007. President Bush actually supported the increase – in combination with business tax cuts.
The federal minimum wage for restaurant staff (and others who might be expected to receive customer tips) is just $2.13 an hour, against which the value of meals provided by the employer can be deducted.
But of course President Obama’s signature program is health care reform. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 is proudly or derisively (depending which side you’re on) known as Obamacare. America has long been the only rich country without universal health insurance. Obamacare is intended to extend health insurance coverage to all Americans.
What is Obamacare really? At its heart is a requirement that all Americans will have to buy health insurance, mainly from private, for-profit insurance companies. Insurance premiums will remain largely unregulated, subject to the single requirement that insurance companies will have to accept all applicants and not be allowed to turn away those with pre-existing conditions.
People who refuse to buy health insurance will be forced to pay a $695 penalty. Given that the cost of the most basic private health insurance in the United States is far greater than this, many people are likely to remain uninsured even after Obamacare is fully implemented in 2014.
What’s more, starting in 2017 states will essentially be able to opt out of Obamacare if they present an alternative plan that is approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. This requires no further action by Congress. So if the next US president is a Republican, expect every Republican-controlled state to opt out of universal healthcare as soon as that president is inaugurated.
And then there’s foreign policy. The Obama administration foreign policy is slightly to the left of … Dick Cheney. The Obama administration embraces targeted assassination and maintains a kill list – sorry, “disposition matrix” – of people it considers fair game for drone attacks. The Obama administration embraces the use of torture on people in US custody (with the sole specific exclusion of waterboarding). The Obama administration embraces the infliction of national collective punishment to induce civilian populations to overthrow their governments.
The Obama administration maintains a gulag archipelago of secret CIA prisons around the world, and automatically as a matter of policy classifies as “enemy combatants” any adolescent or adult male civilians who are killed in its military operations on the logic that if they were killed, they must have been combatants.
Non-Americans who applaud the Obama administration on the very limited basis that it hasn’t invaded any other countries (yet) might consider these facts before forming their opinions. For a balanced view of the American foreign policy consensus, one need only listen to the October 22, 2012 third US presidential debate. Democrats are no doves.
And Then There Are the Republicans
If Democrats are no doves, Republicans are virtual velociraptors – and proud of it. Mitt Romney was considered a “moderate” Republican and easily the least right wing of the major contenders for the Republican nomination. In fact, his “moderateness” was the main charge made against him in the Republican primaries.
Nonetheless, Romney’s official electoral platform called for a trade war with China, the privatization of old age pensions, the elimination of inheritance taxes, further expansion in US military spending, and of course the de-unionization of public employees.
Romney planned to create 12 million jobs by building oil pipelines, expanding offshore oil drilling, and working to “eliminate regulations destroying the coal industry.” Offshore oil drilling alone would supposedly employ an additional 1.2 million Americans – the population of Dallas – in some New Atlantis floated on oil. In the immortal words of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin: “Drill, baby, drill.”
The official Republican party platform for the 2012 elections called for a return to the gold standard, the complete outlawing of all abortions, the disenfranchisement of the (mainly black) residents of the District of Columbia, the vitiation of food and drug regulation, “consumer choice” in education, a flat income tax, and the building of a nationwide missile defence system. It had an entire 26-point section on “American Exceptionalism” based on “the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.”
The most loathsome of Republican policies, however, is not listed on any party platform. It is the wholesale use of voter suppression as a strategy for electoral victory. Far from being mandatory, in the US, voting is a minority activity, governed by state-by-state rules and procedures. Less than 60% of the adult population votes in presidential elections, far less in congressional and local elections. Every American government is a minority government.
With its pro-rich tax policies, demonization of Spanish-speaking immigrants, opposition to all things feminist, anti-idealism that turns off young voters, and outright racism, the Republican Party simply can’t win a fair national election. There just aren’t enough rich middle-aged white male racists to win a majority. So it tries to suppress the vote of everyone else.
Republicans have made proof of citizenship (and, more importantly, mailing address) a major campaign issue, despite the fact that only 10 (yes, ten) cases of in-person voter fraud have been identified over the five federal elections between 2000 and 2010. The real purpose of these Republican-sponsored voter ID laws is to disenfranchise those who move frequently or have no fixed address: the young, the homeless, the very old, and the poor. In other words, Democrats.
Even more frightening, Republican state administrations around the country have vigorously pursued the installation of computerized voting machines made by companies that are controlled by activist Republican campaign contributors. These are not machines made by IBM or Apple or some other monolithic multinational firm (scary as that might be). These are voting machines made by – among others – companies in which the Romney family are investors.
In 2003 Diebold CEO (and major Bush fundraiser) Walden O’Dell infamously declared, “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” In 2004 Ohio’s Republican government duly reported a late-evening change in voting patterns that swung Ohio (and the presidency) from John Kerry to George Bush. Ohio used Diebold voting machines.
In a country where voting is voluntary, however, it doesn’t take a computer conspiracy to swing the vote. The Ohio state government overstaffed voting stations in Republican areas and understaffed then in Democratic ones. As a result, white suburbanites could vote in two minutes while some black inner-city dwellers waited in line for up to 10 hours. Waits of 2-3 hours or more were reported as commonplace in black districts.
Sadly, in the democratic United States of America such shenanigans aren’t even illegal. For the Republican Party, they’re just part of the game. Voter suppression works. Where suppression isn’t enough, outright fraud is possible. It may be happening already. With unencrypted, paperless electronic voting machines that can’t be audited and a lack of exit polling to verify results, we’ll never know.
The End, or At Least the Ending
Why are the only two choices in US politics the responsible center-right and the barbarian nationalist extreme? It wasn’t always this way. Though social scientists have long investigated / bemoaned the non-existence of a socialist alternative in the United States, the Democratic party of the 1930s – 1960s was at least as progressive as any social democratic party in Western Europe. Even the 1950s Republican party of Dwight Eisenhower maintained Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, including a 90% top marginal tax rate.
In fact, the Republican Party once had a liberal (i.e., left) faction. No more. In 1996, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater reportedly wondered in amazement that he and presidential candidate Bob Dole were by then on the left of the Republican party. Goldwater died in 1998; both parties have since moved much farther to the right. Today, Goldwater would be considered left even for a Democrat.
Over the past forty years, America has become much more politically correct with regard to gender and sexualiy. Men do not openly display calendars featuring topless models on their office walls, and public gay bashing is now considered inappropriate, even in Republican circles. But gender and sexuality are issues that transcend social class. Even rich, powerful men have gay children – or may be gay themselves. Even rich, powerful men have wives.
On every other issue, America – or at least American politics – has swung violently to the right. The more social class is involved, the further to the right America has swung. Poverty was once a social disease to be cured; it is now an individual crime to be punished. Put it down to individualism, conservatism, neoliberalism, or whatever -ism you want, America is now the world’s greatest reactionary force.
Unfortunately, all the evidence is that the rest of the world is following America down the road to perdition. Nowhere are national health insurance schemes, access to free education, and old age pensions being expanded. Nowhere is the world moving forward. Everywhere the social gains of the twentieth century are either being eroded, or destroyed.
The mid-late twentieth century may or may not turn out to have been the highpoint of human civilization. Progress may yet return. But if it does, it will not be led by the United States. It will be resisted by the United States. It’s up to the rest of the world to provide the hope for the future that once emanated from Washington, New York, and California. Otherwise you will become just like us.
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