Showdown in Chicago
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the pesky little ankle-nipper charged in the first years of the Obama administration with dissing the left (“f…ing retards”), empowering Blue Dog Democrats and killing the public option in the Affordable Care Act, is Barack Obama writ obnoxious. It is of the utmost importance that teachers in Chicago win their strike against his administration.
Theirs is the first battle in what will be a protracted war, during the second Obama administration, to save public institutions, public education especially, from the anti-worker, pro-corporate, privatizing predations of Democratic presidents.
To be sure, it is Republicans who prattle on about Ronald Reagan and advocate the retrograde policies associated with his name. But while they are relentless in praising that villainous old actor, they are terrible at implementing the Reaganite agenda. This is understandable: when they are in the White House, their efforts inspire Democrats to fight back — not so much from conviction but because it plays well with the base and therefore pays off at election time.
Democratic presidents, on the other hand, are good at implementing the Reaganite agenda, whether their hearts are in it or not. No one, so far, has been better at it than Bill Clinton. This is because, as we saw again in Charlotte, he is adept at winning Democratic hearts and minds, and therefore at neutralizing potential opposition and even bringing it along.
This is how that old horn dog was able to win more for the Gipper than either Bush. He did more even than Reagan himself to end the New Deal and Great Society “as we know it,” and to give Wall Street free rein.
Obama might have bested him had he not been stymied by Republican obduracy. Now that obduracy is coming back to haunt the GOP. By pandering to God-fearing, ignorant and stupid white men – and the women who stand by them — they have made themselves scary enough to assure a second Obama term.
Barring unforeseeable developments, therefore, it will be Obama, not Romney, who will be wielding the Reaganite cudgel in the next four years; and therefore Obama, the lesser but more effective evil, whom we will have to fight.
Obama is poised to leave the Clintons standing in the dust. Hizzoner Da Mare is showing the way. Workers be damned, and let the Grand Bargains begin!
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Even before the Occupy movements of last fall, public workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere were beginning to fight back. In Wisconsin, their efforts were unsuccessful, thanks in part to the indifference or connivance of the national Democratic Party and the Obama administration.
It isn’t just that Obama was AWOL throughout the winter and spring of 2011, when workers and their allies occupied the state Capitol in Madison, mobilizing tens of thousands of supporters. When it came down just to a recall election a year later, the hope and change President couldn’t even be bothered to campaign for Tom Barrett, the anodyne Democratic rival to the execrable, Koch-funded, Republican governor Scott Walker. All he could muster was a tweet at the final hour.
With the election less than two months away, Team Obama must realize that it will cost the President to betray the Chicago Teachers’ Union similarly. But count on him to give it his best shot – the Obama-Emanuel tie is tight, and Emanuel’s anti-union, pro-corporate “reforms” are in line with Arne Duncan’s, Obama’s Secretary of Education.
Expect him therefore to remain aloof for as long as he can. After all, who will stop him? Not organized labor. They’ve pledged their troth unconditionally to Democratic presidents so many times that they’ve
forgotten how to do anything else, even when the object of their servility poses an “existential threat.”
For a long time, it seemed that the problem with Obama, and the Democratic Party, was their almost pathological “reasonableness,” their preference for compromising over winning. But the real situation was becoming clear even before Emanuel became the face of militant Obamaism.
The problem is not just that Obama is inept at governance or that caution sometimes gets the better of him. It is that he is on the wrong side.
Romney is scarier by orders of magnitude and more onerous by far. But, like Clinton, Obama can deliver, especially nowadays when liberals are hell bent on cutting the man slack. This is why he is, arguably, more dangerous even than his Republican rival. Romney is unabashed class warrior for the one-percent; Obama is a more complicated figure. But by their deeds, ye shall know them.
What Emanuel and Duncan and Obama want is what George Bush wanted: to despoil public education. Of course, this is not what they say. But it is hardly concern for kids, much less poor kids or for their families, that drives Bush-Obama efforts at reforming public education to ruin or that makes “market solutions” and privatization the order of the day. Only hapless Republicans and market theologians (to the extent there is a difference) could believe that.
The Obamaites want to privatize public education, to the extent they can, for the same reason they want to privatize so much else: because there is a lot of money – local, state and federal – involved, and the corporate interests Obama and his basketball buddies work for want to get their hands on it.
Obama and Duncan, and maybe even Emanuel, the “f-ing retard,” are too smart to be taken in by the meretricious charms of corporate bean counting. They surely understand how detrimental teaching to tests can be, and how it serves no one other than corporate managers, or those who have internalized their values, to undermine educators’ morale by imposing impossible working conditions and assaulting workers’ dignity.
It is telling that Obama sent his own kids to the Chicago Lab School and then to Sidwell Friends. Expensive private schools have always been about reproducing social elites – and, in recent years, coopting a few others for diversity’s sake — but Obama’s children, reared in the White House, have nothing to gain on that account.
The Obamas, like the Duncans and Emanuels of the world, just want their own children to get decent educations. No doubt, they’d like that for working peoples’ children too, other things being equal. But other things are not equal; the oligarchy has a different plan in mind.
They want a work force that is trained, not educated; workers ready to do what capitalist firms nowadays require — on the off-chance that capitalists find it more profitable, in certain circumstances, to exploit domestic labor instead of workers abroad.
Not long ago, the children of rich and poor alike were formed in the same schools, taught by dedicated teachers who, though underpaid, were treated with dignity and respect. Not long ago, public higher education was cheap enough to be broadly accessible and good enough to rival or out perform even the richest private universities.
This is all inimical to the Reaganite agenda but, even now, public education, at all levels, is holding up tolerably well, notwithstanding chronic underfunding and increasingly vitriolic opposition from the minions of the one percent. If Emanuel prevails, it will be harder, much harder, to hold the line.
This is a real danger. Emanuel has the austerity mongers in the Obama administration, and Obama himself, at his back. In an election year, he has the support of most Democrats. And, of course, he has the implicit support of Mitt Romney, who at least has the decency to be more forthrightly anti-union and anti-(small-d) democratic than his rival.
Emanuel also has the “liberal” media doing its best to keep the Reaganite tide from receding.
Now that the New York Times has priced itself so much higher than it is worth and made itself, or at least its print edition, scarce, NPR has become perhaps the main source for conventional wisdom and pro-regime propaganda.
As the Chicago strike began, it was almost comical to listen to them struggle to find voices willing to berate the teachers for the inconvenience they are causing parents and students. Evidently, Chicagoans, so far anyway, are behind the teachers because they realize that, in combatting Obama-style Reaganism – in taking on Rahm Emanuel — they are fighting for them.
They are absolutely right. The Chicago teachers’ strike is the successor of last year’s demonstrations in Wisconsin and other states in the grip of reactionary Republican governors; it is the successor of the Occupy movements. Its outcome matters more than the November election. Chicago teachers must prevail!
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).