Political Involvement: It’s No Choice, Now

AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum, in his column in the May/June issue of Academe, when did the growth and vigor of the American middle class–and of American higher education–end?

The reversal began under the Carter administration and accelerated during the Reagan years. Why did it end? The answer has been well documented in the book Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The reversal of fortune for what we now refer to as the 99 percent occurred because the 1 percent got organized. During the 1970s, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business grew dramatically. Powerful corporate political action committees emerged. The supporters of the 1 percent began to create their own think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, funded by the Olin Foundation, beer magnate Joseph Coors, the Mellon Foundation, and, more recently, the Koch brothers.

The agenda of the 1 percent included rolling back government regulation, cutting taxes for the wealthy to “starve the beast” and thereby downsize government, and privatizing public services. To accomplish this agenda, the 1 percent broke the back of the labor movement (beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers) and started the “War on Drugs” and the consequent mass incarceration of African Americans, documented in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.

This period also saw the Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision, which effectively ended faculty unionization at private universities and colleges; the beginning of the corporatization of higher education; the first major cuts in state appropriations for higher education; and the rapidly increasing overuse of contingent appointments.

It’s time–hell, it has been time–for those of us who care about education and the middle class to fight back. Fichtenbaum is blunt: The “AAUP must remove its head from the sand and engage in progressive political action.” So should each of us, within and beyond all of the organizations we support.

What we can’t do, however, is return to the strategies of faculty unions and activism of the past. Calling each other “brother” and “sister” and speaking of “solidarity” may have made us feel good, but we were being out-maneuvered as we spoke. We thought we were part of a larger labor movement, but that movement itself was in crisis and we faculty, certainly, did nothing to resolve it. It’s even possible that, in our smug self-satisfaction, we even hastened the movement’s collapse.

The conservative movement that has brought American progress to a screeching halt grew out of careful and reasoned response to the Goldwater collapse of 1964. It took sixteen years to succeed, but succeed it did. Thirty-five years later, we progressives still don’t know how to respond.

We wring our hands as Scott Walker abolishes tenure in Wisconsin, as Bobby Jindal decimates Louisiana’s university system… as Texas encourages guns on campus with a new concealed-carry law:

Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed. And Democratic lawmakers and some university leaders worry about increased security costs and the bill’s effect on recruiting potential teachers and students from other states.

Yet opponents are powerless. We’ve been stripped of much of our influence in this country not through great popular support for (among so many other things) attacks on our universities but by better planning and more effective actions by those who would like to see (again, among other things) our systems of higher education absorbed into the corporate profit-making machinery.

Changing our defeats into new victories is going to take a great deal of work.  Ohio progressives–including faculty–have shown that this can be done. It cannot, however, be left to others. “Oh, I support my union.” “Yeah, I’m all for the AAUP.” “Isn’t it a same what is happening in ______ ?” Each of us has to take responsibility. Each of us needs to stand up instead of turning away, as we’ve been doing for so long, when conversations alight on politics. Each of us needs to organize, but in new ways and with an eye on the long term.

Though the old methods may no longer work, many of the old truths remain. As the old miners’ union song by Florence Patton Reece says:

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

We’re all in Harlan County now. We all work in the mines. And the divides are as clear as they ever were.

3 thoughts on “Political Involvement: It’s No Choice, Now

  1. True, the Barry Goldwater debacle in the 1964 presidential election set the ruling class back on its collective heels. (I can’t resist mentioning that Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl . . . and still is). But the blueprint for the reaction was set forth in 1971 by the soon-to-be US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell (just google ‘powell memo’). His premise was that the ruling class (he called it the ‘business class’), had money and influence, and they should turn those resources into power to change the direction of America. News flash: they did. All the rest follows. News flash 2: We don’t have money and power. What kind of politics can we do? The only kind of politics we coal miners from Harlan County ever have: 1. We stand together. 2. We do not move. 3. We sabotage . . . everything! 4. We teach revolution. 5. We stop being so superior, patronizing, competitive, arrogant, and all the rest of what people accuse us of. 6. We occupy the Ad Buildings . . . once again, and again, and again.

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