Friday, November 05, 2021

Education At The Forefront (Or Not)

Yascha Mounk, a professor of international affairs described here as  "one of the world's leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism," emphasizes the primacy of education in the defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe by Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia. He argues that he initially "struggled to generate any enthusiasm for his campaign" but

Then Youngkin started to home in on a new theme: education. Responding to widespread anger among parents across the commonwealth, he lambasted public schools for failing to reopen for in-person classes for most of the pandemic. Then, capitalizing on growing unease about curricular content—which parents who were home with their kids could eavesdrop on via Zoom—he warned that teachers were trying to indoctrinate students with radical political ideas, collectively referring to them as “critical race theory.”

The pivot worked. Voters usually consider education to be one of many important issues and tend to trust Democrats to handle it better than Republicans. This was the case in Virginia as late as September, when voters who prioritized education favored McAuliffe by 33 points. But, especially after McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” the wind turned. A week before the election, a Washington Post poll found that a plurality of voters in Virginia ranked education as the election’s most important topic. Among those who did, Youngkin was now up by nine points.

Other polls taken in the run-up to the election provide further evidence that Youngkin owes his victory to his focus on education. According to one poll taken in the week before the election, for example, Youngkin led McAuliffe by three percentage points among all likely voters. But among K–12 parents, the Republican led the Democrat by 15 points.

Mounk is blowing smoke up our posteriors. That is not evidence because "education" means different things for different people. For Glenn Youngkin, who advocated in his closing argument an immediate and dramatic increase in charter schools, neglecting to mention that would mean big profits for private companies at taxpayers' expense.  (However, some people are easily fooled.)

Not so, though, is Will Bunch, who wrote

If the American voter truly thought that education is a front-burner issue, we would have seen a robust debate in 2021 not over anti-racism instruction but over the Democrats’ failure to enact free public community college — which over time would reduce the education gap in U.S. politics because millions more could become better educated. I find it scandalous that while voters and the media were going gonzo over “critical race theory” that’s not actually being taught in grade schools, no attention was paid to California’s Long Beach City College allowing 70 students to live in their cars, because they can’t afford tuition and a roof over their heads at the same time.

That's because, as Bunch recognizes, this wasn't primarily about education. One thing which Bunch does not understand- and there is very little- if this were truly about education and Youngkin et al. were determined to keep schools open, they'd say: open schools and ditch the masks because they interfere with learning.

But they don't say that, because it wasn't primarily about education- or at lest not learning, which is nary a concern for the many conservatives who disconnect education from learning.

Bunch emphasizes the lamentable, but real, growing support for GOP politicians among the white working class, especially prominent in Youngkin's victory. He notes "In many ways, today’s so-called culture war issues become a proxy for much deeper anxieties and resentments over who has social status in modern America, and why."

As Bunch seems to realize, those resentments are not necessarily the product of "white privilege," nor are they manifested in what may blithely be characterized as "racism." Yet, it is only five years since Donald Trump was elected President, fewer than eighteen months since millions of people marched in the streets against systemic racism, and only one year since Donald Trump was almost re-elected. It would be comforting to conclude that centuries of American racial history magically vanished. It would be naive to conclude, in a time when critical race theory suddenly became front and center, that a concern about "education"  is prompting the stunning Republican surge.

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