Working class resentment and the cuts in public education in Arizona

Okay, let me go right to Peter’s comment from yesterday about fixing the system using the Arizona piece as a jumping-off point. I’m going to be talking about the US here. But some of what I say is probably relevant elsewhere as well.

Peter wrote:

…I am interested in learning more about your ideas on how to fix the working class resentment issue, if you are comfortable to share with me…

I am 100% interested in sharing my view. So let me start doing that here.

The Arizona problem

There are a lot of things in that Arizona piece I drew from in the daily just now that bothered me. But what really bugged me is how teachers – effectively working class folks in Arizona – have been hoodwinked while they kept their heads down and nose to the grindstone.

Let me string together the quotes that resonated with me and tell you what I heard.

In the past, the idea of participating in anything that resembled a political movement had repelled [Kelly] Berg. “I would say, ‘Don’t talk to me about politics,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘I think it’s a waste of time.’ ” A 46-year-old lifelong Republican, she called herself a “sleepy voter,” as if she sleepwalked through the voting booth every four years. “I was just voting for the person with an R by their name or not voting.”

This was true even though the Legislature and governor — unified under Republican control since 2009 — cut education spending more than any other state in the wake of the Great Recession. Berg suffered doubly because her husband, a web developer, lost his state job, and now the entire family of six — they have four sons, ages 7 to 13 — was on her health plan, with the premiums cutting her previous take-home pay almost in half. She was working three extra jobs to keep the family afloat, arriving home most nights barely in time to check her kids’ homework and kiss them good night….

In December 2016, the day before Christmas break, Berg heard that her son Mark’s sixth-grade teacher had quit to take a private-sector job for more money, and suddenly she felt that she couldn’t take it anymore…She turned for help to her best friend, Tiffany Bunstein, who followed state politics closely and, like Berg, had been teaching for more than 20 years at Dobson High School in Mesa, a sprawling, demographically diverse suburb east of Phoenix. “I went to Tiffany and said, ‘I want to know what you know,’ ” Berg said.

Bunstein, 47, an active member of the teachers’ union and a Democrat, told her friend that she had once been uninformed, too. “Then when you start paying attention and you see what’s been happening,” she said, “it’s like clearing your glasses: Damn, this is what’s been going on all along?” With Bunstein’s encouragement, Berg began educating herself. She learned basic, and alarming, facts: Arizona ranked 49th in spending per student and seventh from the bottom in average teacher salary: $47,403. It had the highest average class size after Nevada, and amid national alarm over school shootings by troubled youngsters, Arizona school counselors had an average caseload of more than 920 students each, the highest in the country….

Translation: Like most regular people, I do my job, care for my family and participate in my community. Those are the things I value. Politics is more abstract – and frankly I have less time to think about it. But now that it is affecting me and my family so deeply and in so many ways, I am diving in — and what I am discovering is deeply troubling.

Making the trains run on time

Kelly Berg has been hoodwinked. She thought that if she did the right things in the right ways, followed the rules and acted like a good citizen, good things would come to her. But through no fault of her own, her whole life was turned upside down, not by natural disaster but by political fiat, by public policy choices – choices her votes helped to enable.

I say hoodwinked because of another passage in the Arizona piece that resonates for me:

Aidan Balt, 31, a high school English teacher and a Republican, had watched all night, growing increasingly distressed. She had been teaching for eight years at a school south of Phoenix where half the students are low income. She took home $2,200 a month, too little to afford to live on her own. She routinely worked 12-hour days and longer, trying to make up for what her students didn’t get from their underfunded school. During the budget negotiations, she met with one of her representatives, a Republican, to tell him in detail why the system needed more revenue. She said he was cordial but told her she didn’t understand the budget.

“You go meet a Republican lawmaker, and they say you don’t know what you’re talking about,” she recalled later, sipping passion-tea lemonade in a Starbucks. “But I do know what I’m talking about. This is something I’m an expert in, something I love and live every day.”

She said she identified strongly with the Republican Party. “I was raised to believe in personal freedom. I was raised around people with guns. I’m pro-life,” she said. “But over time my perception has changed. Politics shouldn’t be polarized. I’m not so black-and-white that I can’t see that sometimes I might have to vote differently because of other issues. For me, all I can do is focus on something I know, and that’s education.”

This lawmaker basically had contempt for his constituent. He told him she didn’t know what she was talking about even though it was something she considered herself “an expert in”.

And then she said something revealing – so I’ll repeat it:

I was raised to believe in personal freedom. I was raised around people with guns. I’m pro-life,” she said. “But over time my perception has changed. Politics shouldn’t be polarized. I’m not so black-and-white that I can’t see that sometimes I might have to vote differently because of other issues.

What she’s saying is that her party has beat the drum on the social issues she cares about, while sneaking behind her back and defunding the programs from which she draws her livelihood. They effectively say to her, “but we’re pro-life and pro-guns. Vote for us anyway.”

Their agenda is to cut taxes and reduce the size of government. Some of these people truly believe doing so will make the economy more prosperous. But others just want to make sure they allow their rich donors to have low taxes and keep as much of their wealth as possible in return for campaign donations.

That’s how the system works, folks.

Citizens United.

Now I call people like Kelly Berg and Aidan Balt the people that make the trains run on time. They are the backbone of society, insuring that ordinary day-to-day stuff gets done. They create the order we have come to expect. Without them, the whole thing falls to pieces and we live in anarchy.

But people who focus on the details and on the day-to-day have neither the time nor the inclination for thinking about the big picture. That’s not their beat and it’s not their forte. Other people do that. And those people are selling us out.

First cut at solutions

How do you fix that?

Reader Ryan said, “My concern is that change is coming and I would prefer managed change to violent or radical change.” That’s where I am as well. I don’t want a Great Depression. I don’t want a Mussolini-style dictatorship to convince my fellow citizens that we are headed in the wrong direction.

So I think the first thing you do is deal with norms and rules. And that’s not just because Trump is violating them on a daily basis. As an aside, let me say that before I started this post I retweeted this, thinking of it as a norm being broken, that shouldn’t be broken:


And I tweeted this as someone who thinks illegal immigration is a problem. But the ends don’t justify the means. Norms matter. Rules matter.

Once we start voting people out of office who refuse to respect basic norms and rules of government, we will have a group of people representing us who believe in the rule of law, who value bipartisanship and who are seeking office because they believe in public service. Those are people who can effect change.

Right now, we have a bunch of politicians beholden to special interests and political donations. And that not only changes behavior, it also changes the composition of politicians who hold office. If you make money the defining element for holding office, then the people who hold office are more likely to be interested in money – and less interested in meeting their constituency’s needs.

We’re not going to take money out of the process though. It’s too late for that. American democracy is too far gone. Citizens United has changed everything permanently. And until we get different Supreme Court justices, that’s how it will be.

But we can elect people with principles if we focus on norms. People who believe that the means are as important as the ends are more likely to behave ethically. And I believe they are, therefore, more likely to serve their constituents’ interests.

Donald Trump is the antithesis of this, by the way. He is exactly what we don’t want to see at any level of government, especially the Presidency.

I think this election in the US is crucial because of Trump. It’s clear that many Republicans in Congress think Trump is a horrible person and unfit for office. The Bob Woodward book confirms that this view is so widespread on Capitol Hill that even political appointees in Trump’s own administration feel this way.

Nevertheless, what the Republicans in Congress have proven thus far is that they are much more concerned with getting tax cuts for their rich donors and Supreme Court justices in place than in upholding the rules and norms of government. They and Democrats who think like them need to be voted out of office.

My view: anyone who thinks withholding documents from the public when vetting a Supreme Court Justice is acceptable is not fit to be in Congress. They clearly think ends justify means. So they need to be voted out.

Only when these people are replaced will the US stand a chance of meeting the needs of working class people. Once we see a set of people representing us who believe no one is above the law, and that rules and norms are to be respected, we will see a set of public servants predisposed to serve the public and not special interests. Until then, don’t expect anything to change unless we get war or Depression.

Comments are closed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More