Despite its sensational title, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s new book, Let Them Eat Tweets, is a basic and thorough examination of what we are watching in this week’s Republican Convention. Hacker is a respected professor of political science at Yale and Pierson at the University of California at Berkeley. Their new book, published on July 7, is important for its careful analysis of what has happened to today’s Republican Party.
Hacker and Pierson explain that Republicans have, for years now, been pursuing an agenda that promotes extreme economic inequality—a political strategy unlikely to be popular with voters. But they have figured out a way to win elections by divisively hyping rage, racism and fear: “This book is our answer to the ‘how’ question. As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged. Encouraging white backlash and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media. When and where that proved insufficient, it adopted a ruthless focus on altering electoral rules, maximizing the sway of its base and minimizing the influence of the rest of the electorate through a variety of anti-democratic tactics, from voter disenfranchisement to extreme partisan gerrymandering, to laws and practices opening the floodgates to big money… In short Republicans used white identity to defend wealth inequality. They undermined democracy to uphold plutocracy.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4)
Hacker and Pierson remind us: “The tax cuts of 2017—passed after a presidential campaign in which the Republican standard-bearer suggested he would turn the GOP into a ‘worker’s party’—delivered more than 80 percent of their largesse to the top 1 percent.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4) To provide cover for an agenda that exclusively benefits wealthy Americans and the stock market, “the GOP proved unusually skilled at creating durable shared identities that motivated citizens, and then getting those citizens to show up, not just on election day, but whenever big shows of strength were needed. These were groups, in short, that could rally their troops, creating sharp lines between friend and foe and instilling a sense of threat. And what best rallied those troops, they discovered, was outrage.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 78) Hacker and Pierson explore the political roles of a long list of GOP-Trump allies—the Christian right, the National Rifle Association, talk radio shock-jocks like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Sean Hannity, Breitbart and its provocateurs. “The false narratives boosted by right-wing media generally have two characteristics: they incite tribalism and they escalate a sense of threat.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 103)
And so… As we watch the Republican Convention on television this week, the NY Times‘ Paul Krugman warns: “If you get your information from administration officials or Fox News, you probably believe that millions of undocumented immigrants cast fraudulent votes, even though actual voter fraud hardly ever happens; that Black Lives Matter protests, which with some exceptions have been remarkably nonviolent, have turned major cities into smoking ruins; and more. Why this fixation on phantom menaces?… Trump… can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try… What he… can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices…”
The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank describes the Republican Convention as “a veritable festival of fear—made all the more intriguing because it… (is) delivered by the incumbent president’s party, much of it from an ornate hall near the White House, the Mellon Auditorium, named for a robber baron. Four years ago, Trump pledged to end ‘American carnage.’ Now he’s asking for another four years to put an end to all the additional American carnage he created in the first four years. The difference is his leadership has turned the dystopian America Trump pictured into more of a reality.”
And Milbank mentions something that ought to make us all stop and think: “The party officially resolved to ‘adjourn without adopting a new platform.'” For MarketWatch, Mike Murphy reports: “The Republican National Committee will go without a traditional policy platform… saying instead that it ‘will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-First agenda.'”
The real, but little little mentioned, Republican platform—what is underneath all the sensationalism and fear mongering—is, as Hacker and Pierson document extensively, the protection of tax cuts for plutocrats and the growth of the stock market. The real Republican platform neglects the millions who are unemployed in a quiet but deep recession caused by COVID-19 driven business closures. It is an agenda that has prevented Congress from passing a second relief bill that would have helped school districts implement precautions to make reopening schools much safer, increased needed funding for Medicaid and SNAP (foodstamps), and provided needed assistance for state and local governments to protect the jobs of school teachers, school nurses and healthcare workers during what is expected to be a long recession.
When he was asked his priorities for the next four years, the President threw out an off the cuff remark: “I’d love to see school choice… Education is going to be a big factor for me.” It’s hard to believe that Trump really cares at all about the education of America’s children. His education secretary Betsy DeVos, however, has persistently advocated for expanding marketplace school choice by supporting privately operated charter schools and advocating for vouchers which divert tax dollars to pay for private school tuition, while neither of these priorities has been seriously expanded by Congress during Trump’s first term.
What is clear, however, is that Trump has paid no attention to the needs of the nation’s 90,000 public schools. Never has his neglect been so visible as it is right now. His administration has failed to enact a consistent plan to contain the coronavirus at the same time Trump is demanding that schools reopen. This is despite high infection rates; despite problems with making school transportation safe; and despite challenges posed by old school buildings that are heated in many places with steam radiators, lack ventilation systems altogether, and depend on opening classroom windows.
NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes powerfully about her dilemma as a New York City public school parent this month: “There are only two ways out of pandemic-driven insecurity: great personal wealth or a functioning government. Right now, many of us who’d thought we were insulated from American precarity are finding out just how frightening the world can be when you don’t have either.” “The abandonment starts, of course, at the top, with a president who has refused to take the necessary steps to get the pandemic under control. By blundering into the debate over schools, issuing threats and pressuring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its guidelines, the administration has destroyed many people’s confidence that schools can be reopened safely, even in places like New York City that have low transmission rates. Republican senators have abandoned families by refusing to pass new funding to allow schools to improve ventilation and make other urgently required upgrades.”
The Republican Party agenda—the plutocrats’ agenda described by Hacker and Pierson,—is not a public school agenda. Here, from educational historian David Tyack, is one of the things that is missing from the priorities of the Republican Party:
“I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)