Opposition in a Democracy and in a Union

Today’s New York Times includes an editorial entitled “A Teachout Moment: Gov. Cuomo Should Welcome Zephyr Teachout.” Cuomo’s campaign has been trying to remove his challenger from the Democratic primary. Cuomo, with money and incumbency, will clearly win but, as the Times says:

he should not dismiss Ms. Teachout and her growing number of followers as irritants. Her criticisms are mostly legitimate, and he should defend his first term in a series of robust debates with her in the weeks before the primary, rather than through the timidity of litigation.

A contested election is good for everyone, even those running. They may not like it, but contests make them hone their arguments and respond more directly to their constituents. They may even need to spend the time learning more about the voters and their needs. That’s how democracy, when it works, works best.

The AAUP, in its own elections this year, had closely fought contests decided in squeakers. Though way too few of us members voted, at least there was a real choice–especially as both sides had real shots at winning. And that’s how it should be (it’s too bad Teachout hasn’t much chance of overtaking Cuomo).

In many of our unions, unfortunately, that’s not the case. The established leadership often gets up to 90% if the vote, opposition being token, at best. Instead of being encouraged, opposition is often marginalized or, as Cuomo is trying to do to Teachout, squashed. The desire to neutralize opposition is pervasive in today’s American political culture: the gerrymandering of House of Representatives districts has made most districts noncompetitive, to the detriment of everyone except the incumbents.

What we don’t need in such a situation of incumbency entitlement are statements from union leaders like this recent one from Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers:

“If someone takes something from me I’m going to grab it right back out of their cold, twisted sick hands and say it is mine, and I am going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt because this is the teachers!  These are our tools and you sick people need to deal with us and the children we teach.”

Passion in discussion, yes, but such belligerency from our leaders, in any context, is inappropriate, be it Mulgrew protecting his vision of standards or Cuomo protecting his vision of his own popularity.

The antidote for it is right before us, at home in our own unions and their elections, in the smaller venues where each of us can have a discernable impact. We all need to make sure that there are real alternatives even on our campuses, not simply elections certifying incumbents. And, if we are union leaders, we need to be encouraging opposition, not squelching it or making it feel threatened.

The Times ends its editorial, “Governor Cuomo should welcome her [Teachout] to the fray.” He should do more; all of our leaders should. They should welcome and encourage those with alternative viewpoints instead of trying to shut them out, as American politics, from top to bottom, tries to do today.

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