National Education Policy Center’s New Brief on Critical Race Theory Is a Must-Read for All Americans

The National Education Policy Center’ new brief,  Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory,  is essential reading to support all of us who are puzzled or grieving or outraged by the battle raging across the states about regulating the way public school teachers can teach American history. Or, if you are not aware that these fights have been happening across 26 states, you should definitely read this brief to inform yourself. Far right ideologues are working hard to prevent any discussion about race, racism, and the history of slavery in public school social studies classes.

After all, according to the brief, “Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.” The brief addresses the questions that puzzle many of us.

What is this battle that that is tearing apart state legislatures, state boards of education, and local school boards?

“Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.  Even as many local school boards and state boards of education have been implementing new policies, additional legislation has been or is being, considered in 15 other states and in the U.S. Congress.”  “President Trump issued an Executive Order 13950 in September of 2020 to withhold funding from federal entities that promoted nine categories termed ‘divisive concepts’ as well as race or sex ‘stereotyping’ and ‘scapegoating.’  In December 2020, litigation successfully stayed the order, and in January 2021, President Biden rescinded it. However, at least a half-dozen bills with similar aims and approaches have been introduced in Congress… Republican legislators in 26 states introduced copycat legislation to ban certain types of curriculum… Although the framing of the bills varies somewhat by state, they all attempt to ban the use of ‘divisive concepts’ in employee training programs, in K-12 curriculum, and in certain student activities.”

What is Critical Race Theory (called CRT, for short) and how has the meaning of the original academic concept been turned upside down by far right ideologues?

“Critical Race Theory is an academic legal theory developed in the 1970s by Derrick Bell (and colleagues) to examine how race and racism have shaped American institutions, culture, politics, economics and education and to examine how racism produces and sustains inequality… Given that CRT is a theoretical, analytical framework useful primarily to academic researchers, at first glance it seems an odd target for pundits, think tanks, wealthy donors, foundations, and legislators associated with the ideological right to attack…  The demand that CRT not be taught in schools is absurd, since it would be hard to find a K-12 school that teaches CRT to begin with…  Instead, ideologues are using CRT as a frightening symbol to intensify a collection of cultural and political fears related to race, racism, and the prospect of an increasing number of citizens from marginalized groups participating in the democratic process.”

“Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts.  These organizations include The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute, as well as billionaire-funded advocacy organizations such as Parents Defending Education and the Legal Insurrection Foundation.”  The brief quotes Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo describing how he set out to change the meaning of Critical Race Theory and politically charge his new concept: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic.”

What are the political objectives of those promoting attacks on CRT?

“We see two overall political objectives of the anti-CRT attacks.”

(1) “Mobilizing a partisan base for upcoming elections… Far Right lawmakers and advocates saw early on the political potential of attacks on discussion of racial and gender justice in schools… In this context, the anti-CRT legislation is intended to mobilize the Republican base for the 2022 midterm elections….”

(2) “Thwarting efforts to promote racial justice by deflecting debate away from systemic racism and suppressing information about it… Most such bills allude to the premise that if a school teaches about racism, White children will be scapegoated for being White and so will experience feelings of guilt and embarrassment related to their race, which will in turn prompt fear and resentment of people of color—and thus promote racial division. This framing promotes distrust in government and opposition to government efforts to address racism.”

How can citizens—who believe that American history should be taught accurately and who believe our children should consider how our society can better embody our stated goals of liberty and justice for all—most effectively respond to provocative and highly charged attacks on teachers and public school curriculum?

“Some ways of engaging politically are likely to be more successful than others. Strategies that may seem logical, such as denouncing ‘dog-whistle’ politicians for being racist, or avoiding mentioning race in order to avoid accusations of engaging in ‘identity politics,’ are not necessarily the most effective…. Efforts to reframe the debate, engage with decision-makers… are more likely to be successful. Of particular interest and importance is research supporting messaging that acknowledges race and racism, but establishes the shared stake of Americans of all racial backgrounds in public education; that contextualizes social, economic, and educational inequities; that illustrates why inequities should concern Americans of all racial backgrounds; and that provides specific examples of solutions. Ultimately, only by understanding the political nature of the attacks… can we choose effective political ways to counter them….”

How does the Fight about Critical Race Theory Fit into the Big Picture?

The National Education Policy Center’s new brief additionally presents the history of politically motivated attacks on the honest acknowledgment of racism in public school social studies classrooms—during the McCarthy era, during the Civil Rights Movement, as a reaction during the Reagan era to educational and political liberalism in the 1960s, and after the tragic death of George Floyd last year. The new brief explains the NY Times Magazine articles called The 1619 Project and the backlash led by President Donald Trump to prevent students from reading these articles as part of high school history and government classes.

It is important to remember that the attacks on teaching about race and racism in public schools are motivated more by politics  than they are by educational concerns.  In Let Then Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, a book published in the summer of 2020 as President Donald Trump was mounting his campaign for reelection, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic practices, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize.” (Let Then Eat Tweets, p. 117)

But the implications for our children are not only political; they are educational.  In June, to confront today’s right-wing attack on the accurate teaching of American history, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History : “(T)hese bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.  Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”

Donald Trump Exemplifies Plutocratic Populism Run Amok: the Implications for All of Us

The United States has become a textbook case, and I don’t mean merely a textbook case of pandemic denial, although that is also true.  Last July, two political science professors, Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson from the University of California at Berkeley, published a thorough analysis of the politics of today’s Republican Party. They explain that President Donald Trump is a mere symptom of what the Republican Party has become.

In Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson define “plutocratic populism.” They preview what we subsequently watched through the fall’s presidential election campaign, and what we were still observing this past weekend in Washington, D.C. as Donald Trump’s bullies paraded en masse, ending in a violent melee.  Here are Hacker and Pierson on the rise of Republican plutocratic populism over recent decades:

“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. And more and more, it coupled this vote rigging with even more extreme strategies to undermine the checks and balances in our system, weakening democratic accountability and strengthening the ability of powerful minorities to dictate policy. 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 explain what they call the Conservative Dilemma: “(T)his is the essence of the Conservative Dilemma: Conservative parties want to stand up for the rich when writing laws, even as the rich are increasingly outnumbered when votes are cast.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 113)  “Scholars… have long seen extreme inequality as a threat to democracy. This threat takes three forms. The first is unequal power. As Frederick Douglass famously observed, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”… The second threat extreme inequality poses is diverging interests. Democracy rests on the notion that even in large and diverse societies where fundamental disagreements are inevitable, most citizens will come to have reconcilable economic interests… The third and final threat is elite fear. There are always going to be very considerable tensions between rich and poor. A widening chasm between the interests of the wealthy and those of the less fortunate encourages the privileged to view democracy itself as a danger to their wealth and status.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 19-20) (Emphasis is mine.)

Finally: “We use ‘Conservative Dilemma’ more specifically to describe the tension facing conservative parties. A century ago, in all countries with expanding franchises, conservative parties struggled to maintain their historical defense of elite privilege in the face of electoral challenges from the masses. When suffrage was restricted, conservative parties could ignore the massive gap between the rich and the rest. But this became a losing game once the working class gained the vote. Relatively quickly, conservative parties found themselves caught between a commitment to economic elites and an expanding electorate. How, they were forced to ask themselves, do we reconcile the needs of our core constituency with the need to win elections? … Inevitably, conservative parties found they had to offer something else to voters. Outflanked on the left on economic issues, their survival depended on introducing or highlighting other social divisions… In modern societies, the list of such ‘cleavages’ is short, and their history unpleasant. There are racial, ethnic and religions divisions. There is the call of nationalism or foreign military adventures. There are sectional loyalties. There is opposition to immigration. In short, there is a set of non-economic issues—many racially tinged, all involving strong identities and strong emotions—that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 21-22)

After mounting a fear-based election campaign based on the sort of plutocratic populism Hacker and Pierson describe—appealing to racism and white identity, promoting individual freedom from any government restraint demanding mask-wearing in a pandemic, and exploiting conspiracy theories promoted by extreme right-wing media—the President, who lost but still attracted nearly 73 million votes, continues to rage. It also appears that a conservative U.S. Senate majority is not prepared to give up protecting the privilege of economic elites at the expense of the masses whose needs continue to be ignored.  Here are three examples:

The first involves the pandemic itself as Trump and his staff have sponsored superspreader events at the White House and a mass of maskless campaign rallies that produced a surge of COVID-19 even inside the Secret Service. And a summer and autumn have passed without a second COVID-19 relief bill. The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner summarized the dilemma last week: “Congressional Democratic leaders accused Republicans on Thursday of refusing to confront the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic and instead acquiescing to President Trump’s false insistence that he won last week’s presidential election… As Washington has become paralyzed over the past 10 days, 1 million new people have tested positive for the virus as death numbers are climbing rapidly.  President-elect Joe Biden joined congressional Democratic leaders on Thursday and demanded a new economic relief package to address the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic before the end of the year… Democrats have called for a wide-ranging bill that would extend new unemployment benefits, send another round of $1,200 checks to American households, provide more small business aid, money for states and cities, and expand access to testing…. McConnell has said that third-quarter economic news showing the unemployment rate has dropped makes a case for a smaller relief package.”

The second example is a pending student loan debt crisis reported yesterday by POLITICO’s Michael Stratford: “At midnight on New Year’s Eve, President Donald Trump’s pause on student loan payments for 33 million Americans is set to expire, just three weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is slated to take over… Even though Trump said this summer that he planned to later ‘extend’ the freeze beyond Dec. 31, a White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether the president is still considering another executive action to move the expiration date… In an unusual alliance, loan industry officials are advocating alongside congressional Democrats, higher education groups, and consumer organizations, all warning that suddenly turning back on the federal government’s massive student loan apparatus—mostly frozen since March—in the midst of a presidential transition could lead to anguish for everybody involved…  Nearly 41 million federal student loan borrowers have had interest suspended on their loans since March 13…. Roughly 33 million of those borrowers have had their payments paused, and the Education Department has stopped seeking to collect from the 8 million other borrowers who were in default… House Democrats’ stimulus legislation would extend the freeze on student loan payments until next October and keep the interest rate at zero until at least that time—or longer if the unemployment rate remains high. Senate Republicans’ latest stimulus proposal did not include an extension of the benefits….”

A third example is the deep and widespread fiscal catastrophe in our nation’s public schools, a problem that grew slowly, quietly, and invisibly more serious until the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019 taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets during the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession, an especially serious situation in places where Tea Party legislatures had continued to cut taxes even after the recession, and as school privatization at public expense decimated state and local school budgets. From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. Schoolteachers across striking states demanded that Americans open their eyes to the problems our collective lack of support has caused for our children.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to address our collective failure to support more generous services for children in the nation’s public schools.  He has especially lifted up our obligation to expand the opportunity to learn in the schools that serve children who live in poverty: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

For the first time in many years, a president elect is putting the spotlight on urgently needed investment in basic programming in the public schools that serve over 50 million children. I hope President Biden will provide leadership to to overcome the divisions that plutocratic populism has wrought: by working with Congress to address the COVID-19 health and economic crises, exerting leadership even before he takes office to encourage Congress to relieve the student debt crisis this month, and expanding learning opportunities across of our nation’s public schools.

Trump Fans Racism As He Rages Against Public High School History and Government Teachers

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump spoke at an event celebrating the anniversary of the signing of of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.  Trump tried to turn the Constitution Day event held at the National Archives into a celebration of whitewashed American exceptionalism and an attack on how educators in our public schools teach history and government.

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Laura Meckler cover the speech: “Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence… characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as ‘left-wing rioting and mayhem’ that ‘are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools’… As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality. His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic… Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools—already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems—into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters and racial-sensitivity trainers.”

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports that on Thursday, Trump specifically attacked something called the 1619 Project, a curriculum developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the NY Times and the Pulitzer Center: “Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum. On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the ‘1776 Commission’ that would be used to ‘promote patriotic education.’  He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of ‘a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.'”

In her blog, the education historian Diane Ravitch wonders: “Do you think he knows that federal law prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction in the schools?… Federal law 20 USC 1232a prohibits ‘any department, agency officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…'”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson challenges Trump’s push to censor the full implications of slavery from public school history classes: “Trump… doubles down on the notion, embraced by too many, that slavery is now over, no legacy or current injustices exist, end of conversation…  In fact it is a grave threat to our democracy to ignore—and fail to correct—the systemic racism that undergirds our nation’s public policies and practices. The violence against Blacks by the police may lead the headlines today, but the full story cannot be understood without taking a 400-year view of the legacy of slavery. The violence of law enforcement today cannot be separated from the violence that enforced slavery, laws prohibiting Blacks from learning to read and write, segregation, inequitable schools that deny educational opportunities to children, as well as redlining and real estate covenants that deny housing opportunities to families. Only by understanding the full breadth of our nation’s history can we see the common threads linking the myriad crises of today.”

When the NY Times Magazine published the 1619 Project a year ago in August, Education Week‘s Madeline Will described the kind of critical thinking the group of authors hoped the materials would inspire among high school students of American history and government: “The one full lesson plan in the curriculum is based on Hannah-Jones; essay, ‘The Idea of America.’ It asks students to consider the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and how they work—and fail—in American society today.  Then, students would read the essay and consider their own prior knowledge of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to U.S. society… There’s a list of questions for students to discuss in class, including: What did you learn about major figures in U.S. history, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and why do you think this information wasn’t included in other historical resources?  Other activities to engage students include creating a new timeline of U.S. history, starting with the year 1619 (the year the first slaves were sold by pirates to American colonists), and creating an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the United States and its links to slavery.”

I urge you to read Hannah-Jones essay, The Idea of America, for a fascinating exploration of the origins of slavery, its history, the role of Reconstruction and its replacement by Jim Crow. Hannah-Jones challenges assumptions at the core of our national mythology, but her essay’s purpose is constructive and patriotic: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’  But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.  Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Not only is it fascinating to explore Hannah-Jones’ article that drives the 1619 Project, but it is essential to consider why, as we move closer to the November election and as his desperation grows, President Trump is so belligerently fanning the flames of racism.  We can turn to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, academics who just published a new book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality , on today’s political climate. In the deliberate tone one might expect from two professors in a Political Science 101 class, Hacker and Pierson explicate why Trump is alleging, without any reference to the facts, that America’s public schools are undermining white America:

“We see a political system in which a once-moderate party now tightly orbits the most reactionary elements of America’s emergent plutocracy. And we see a political system in which, despite that party’s embrace of unpopular economic policies, tens of millions of Americans of modest means don’t just vote for that party but have become increasingly tribal in their loyalty to it. (p. 3) “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (p. 117) (All citations are to Let Them Eat Tweets).

American Plutocracy and The So-Called Objective Media

For ten years Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist, and Paul Pierson, the Berkeley political scientist, have been tracking exploding economic inequality in the United States. In this summer’s book, Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson explicitly identify our government as a plutocracy.  And they track how politicians (with the help of right-wing media) shape a populist, racist, gun-toting, religious fundamentalist story line to distract the public from a government that exclusively serves the wealthy.  In a new article published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Journalism’s Gates Keepers, Tim Schwab examines our plutocracy from a different point of view: How is the mainstream media, the institution most of us look to for objective news, shaped increasingly by philanthropists stepping in to fill the funding gaps as newspapers go broke and news organizations consolidate?

In their 2010 classic, Winner-Take-All Politics, Hacker and Pierson present “three big clues” pointing to the tilt of our economy to winner-take-all: “(1) Hyperconcentration of Income… The first clue is that the gains of the winner-take-all economy, befitting its name, have been extraordinarily concentrated. Though economic gaps have grown across the board, the big action is at the top, especially the very top… (2) Sustained Hyperconcentration… The shift of income toward the top has been sustained increasingly steadily (and, by historical standards, extremely rapidly) since 1980… (3) Limited Benefits for the Nonrich… In an era in which those at the top reaped massive gains, the economy stopped working for middle-and working-class Americans.”  Winner-Take-All Politics, pp. 15-19) (emphasis in the original)

Hacker and Pierson’s second book in the recent decade, the 2016 American Amnesia explores America’s loss of faith in government, our massive forgetting about the role of government regulation and balance in a capitalist economy: “(T)he institution that bears the greatest credit often gets short shrift: that combination of government dexterity and market nimbleness known as the mixed economy. The improvement of health, standards of living, and so much else we take for granted occurred when and where government overcame market failures, invested in the advance of science, safeguarded and supported the smooth functioning of markets, and ensured that economic gains became social gains.” (American Amnesia, p. 69)

In their new Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson no longer avoid the label. They now call America a full blown plutocracy: “This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead, it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy—government of, by, and for the rich.  Runaway inequality has remade American politics, reorienting power and policy toward corporations and the super-rich (particularly the most conservative among them)… The rise of plutocracy is the story of post-1980 American politics. Over the last forty years, the wealthiest Americans and the biggest financial and corporate interests have amassed wealth on a scale unimaginable to prior generations and without parallel in other western democracies. The richest 0.1 percent of Americans now have roughly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. They have used that wealth—and the connections and influence that come with it—to construct a set of political organizations that are also distinctive in historical and cross-national perspective. What makes them distinctive is not just the scope of their influence, especially on the right and far right. It is also the degree to which the plutocrats, the biggest winners in our winner-take-all economy, pursue aims at odds with the broader interests of American society.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 1-2)

Let Them Eat Tweets is about American plutocracy, the growing conservatism of the GOP, and politicians’ use of racism, right wing media, the NRA, and religious fundamentalism to win elections by distracting the masses from noticing that they are benefiting not at all from America’s plutocracy.  The book is a wonderful guide to what we are all living through as we watch the evening news—the strategies underneath Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

But there is another hidden element of the power of plutocrats. Philanthropies led by the wealthy make charitable gifts which subtly shape news reporting itself.  And the subject here is not merely Fox and Breitbart and the other right-wing outlets. Tim Schwab’s important report from the Columbia Journalism Review is about one of America’s powerful plutocrats, Bill Gates. Schwab explores, “a larger trend—and ethical issue—with billionaire philanthropists’ bankrolling the news.  The Broad Foundation, whose philanthropic agenda includes promoting charter schools, at one point funded part of the LA Times‘ reporting on education. Charles Koch has made charitable donations to journalistic institutions such as the Poynter Institute, as well as to news outlets such as the Daily Caller, that support his conservative politics. And the Rockefeller Foundation funds Vox‘s Future Perfect, a reporting project that examines the world ‘through the lens of effective altruism’—often looking at philanthropy.  As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organizations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an unexamined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors.”

Those of us who have been following public education policy over two decades know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in policy itself—funding think tanks like the Center on Reinventing Public Education—which brought us “portfolio school reform” charter school expansion—which led to Chicago’s Renaissance 2010— which led to Arne Duncan’s bringing that strategy into federal policy in Race to the Top.  We know that the Gates Foundation funded what ended up as an expensive and failed small high schools initiative, and, after that failed—an experiment with evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores—and later experimenting with incentive bonuses for teachers who quickly “produce” higher student scores.  We remember that the Gates Foundation brought us the now fading Common Core. And we remember that Arne Duncan filled his department with staff hired directly from the Gates Foundation.

What we too often forget is that the Gates Foundation has also invested in creating a positive climate for the reception of the Foundation’s policy initiatives—a positive climate that has been uncritical until years later when the experiments failed—sometimes leaving behind millions of dollars in costs to be paid, for example by the school district in Hillsborough County, Florida, and leaving public school districts to undo complicated restructuring and restore comprehensive high schools.

Schwab shows how the Gates Foundation has been able to shape reporting on its policy experiments: “I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism.  Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, A1 Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times‘ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a ‘news site’ to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations—which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate.  The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders… Notably, the study’s underlying survey data showed that nearly a third of funders reported having seen at least some content they funded before publication.”

Schwab evaluates exactly what kind of influence Gates’ investment has purchased: “In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture—a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes‘s list of the most powerful people in the world.”  “Gates’s generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity.  Twenty years ago, journalists scrutinized Bill Gates’s initial foray into philanthropy as a vehicle to enrich his software company, or a PR exercise to salvage his battered reputation following Microsoft’s bruising antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Today the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.”

Of course, the PBS NewsHour discloses Gates Foundation funding when Bill Gates is invited to comment on the coronavirus pandemic as though he is not merely a funder of world health initiatives but is instead himself a world health expert. But Schwab doesn’t believe the ubiquitous disclosure statements solve the problem: “Even perfect disclosure of Gates funding doesn’t mean the money can’t still introduce bias. At the same time, Gates funding, alone, doesn’t fully explain why so much of the news about the foundation is positive. Even news outlets with no obvious financial ties to Gates—the foundation isn’t required to publicly report all of the money it gives to journalism, making the full extent of its giving unknown—tend to report favorably on the foundation. That may be because Gates’s expansive giving over the decades has helped influence a larger media narrative about its work.  And it may also be because the news media is always, and especially right now, looking for heroes.  A larger worry is the precedent the prevailing coverage of Gates sets for how we report on the next generation of tech billionaires-turned-philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.”

The Washington Post appears independent and at this point seems merely to reflect its current owner’s laudable belief, proclaimed every morning on the newspaper’s masthead, that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  But we ought to consider how Jeff Bezos’s generous purchase of The Post affects our objectivity as we try to evaluate the role of AMAZON in our economy.  How is Bezos’s generosity subtly undermining our own objectivity?

In Let Them Eat Tweets, two prominent political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson have now explicitly identified our government as a plutocracy. Tim Schwab expands the analysis: warning about the plutocratic purchase of how we understand our world even if we shun the extremist press and get our news straight from the mainstream media.

Republican Plutocrats Hold a Convention that Fans Fear, Racism and Rage

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 TimesPaul 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)