In the idealism of youth, I came to believe deeply in the power of education to transform not only individuals (as it had done for me) but also society. More than a decade before I discovered my intellectual home, critical pedagogy, I was compelled by John Dewey’s philosophy of education, democracy, and their relationship.
This idealism was tinted with a naive lack of awareness about my own privilege and the corrosive power of systemic inequities driving racism, sexism, classism, and many other social biases. I was raised in a home, community, and region of the country steeped in rugged individualism and bootstrap narratives among working-class (and racist) whites.
Over the course of my first decade-plus of teaching, I certainly could see that I was shaping individual lives, but I grew increasingly skeptical of the revolutionary power of education to transform society.
By the spring of 2005, then, after I had secured my doctorate and moved from K-12 to higher education, I sat in a hotel room in New Orleans watching George Carlin talk about being a non-voter. I recognized that day my skepticism had turned into full-blown cynicism, and I then joined the ranks of non-voters who argued there was little discernible difference between the two major political parties in the U.S.—and that the U.S. had no real organized Left with political power.
I had spent nearly all of my adult life as an impotent voter since I lived in South Carolina, a monolithically Republican state where many Republican candidates run unopposed. Very few people I voted for were ever elected, and almost all of those “for” were in fact more votes “against” Republicans and conservatives.
Soon after I became a non-voter, the U.S. elected Barack Obama. I conceded that Obama’s election had very important symbolic power since he stood as the country’s first Black president, but I spent a great deal of scholarship and public writing criticizing the failures of the Obama administration that were indistinguishable from the George W. Bush era.
The election of Trump, however, and the sudden and awful deaths of both my parents brought into full relief that voting has the most dire consequence, even when the two political parties are nearly identical.
In hindsight, I began to recognize that while Obama’s policies were often inadequate (the Affordable Care Act) and even regressive or harmful (most the of the education agenda), the Obama years did create the atmosphere in which the country became demonstrably more progressive—expanding marriage to gay Americans and allowing the decriminalization/legalizing of marijuana, for example.
But the most profound evidence I witnessed for recognizing the consequences of the democratic process was my parents, lifelong Republicans who voted repeatedly against their own self-interests as working-class and aging (chronically ill) people.
I am not sure if they were avid supporters of Trump, but I am certain they would easily be counted among those more than tolerating Trump, mostly to stick it to the liberals.
I also know that their political commitments brought them early and truly awful deaths in an uncaring system they refused to challenge.
While I am not and have never been a Democrat, I have been more partisan politically active during this primary season, advocating for voting for women as well as calling for anyone with moral grounding to abandon Trump and his Republican base. In the wake of the South Carolina Primary and Super Tuesday, however, I find myself creeping back to the cynicism I recognized in 2005.
I have watched as large groups of people have continued, like my parents, to vote against their self-interests and even against their stated policy commitments. For example, the exit polls from Super Tuesday show the following:
A government plan for all instead of private insurance,
MA: 50%/45%@CNN Exit Pollshttps://t.co/sjyDdhHNMa https://t.co/Xm0GheJTNj
— Political Polls (@Politics_Polls) March 4, 2020
Yet, Joe Biden, distinctly not supporting Medicare for All or anything like universal health care, garnered similar support percentages to the contradictory level of support for abandoning private insurance (which Biden endorses).
Much of these contradictions lie in the South, which I have long described as self-defeating. And even as Biden’s record on race and racism are deeply scarred by his rhetoric and his support for harmful, racist policies (such as mass incarceration and the war on drugs), voters who are Black have significantly supported Biden and reveled on social media that Sanders got burned on Super Tuesday.
My critical pedagogy calls for me to resist fatalism, but the hope expressed in Paulo Freire and others is often very hard to hold onto. As an academic, then, I am left with trying to understand and not simply, once again, to abandon our democratic process.
What are our choices? Here is my analysis as best as I can offer now:
- Elizabeth Warren is a Capitalism Idealist (Active). Her position is that we must repair the damage we have done to capitalism. This idealistic view of capitalism holds that when it works properly, capitalism works for all people in a free society, and her belief in capitalism requires an academic (and legal) approach to repair and maintain the best capitalism has to offer (a rising tide lifts all boats).
- Joe Biden is a Capitalism Idealist (laissez-faire). His stance is that capitalism will correct itself if leaders are decent people (“decent” as code for idealized paternalism). He and his supporters are arguing not really for policy, but for replacing Trump (not a decent leader) with Biden (because he is, they claim, decent). This position concedes that capitalism needs some sort of moral rudder, but Biden’s “nothing will change” claim reflects his laissez-faire approach to leadership in a capitalist society.
- Mike Bloomberg is a Capitalism Individualist (authoritarian like Trump). Billionaires by virtue of their enormous wealth are uniquely qualified to manage capitalism (like a rodeo cowboy who can ride a bull the longest). This perspective also concedes a “bull in the china shop” possibility for capitalism when it isn’t well managed by those with expertise in strong-handed management.
- Bernie Sanders is a Social Democrat (but not a socialist). His skepticism of capitalism holds that it is inherently amoral/flawed. Citizens in a democracy must protect themselves against capitalism, and protect capitalism from itself, with robust public institutions. This is a public before private stance.
- Barack Obama is a Capitalism Pragmatist. In many ways, his approach to capitalism and leadership is a blend of Warren and Biden’s idealism, but Obama is uniquely likable. Capitalism and government can, it seems, be judiciously guided by charism and personality—as long as the biggest boats enjoying the rising tide are not rocked too much (see Biden).
Smarter people than me in terms of political science have noted that a great deal of voting is driven by fear, both fear cultivated by politicians (see Trump) and existential fear experienced by voters who are more comfortable with the known bad than the unknown that may be better (this includes the worst aspects of racist voters embracing the known of their racial hierarchies).
Sanders and his policies are not as likable as Obama nor as known as Biden’s. Warren has proven in the wake of Hillary Clinton that women have a tremendous hurdle to jump in presidential politics; Kamala Harris and Cory Booker highlighted that race and gender are enormous hurdles as well.
Among these candidates we can see the corrosive impact of fear grounded both in ideology (the unknown and misunderstood specter of “socialism”) and bigotry (sexism and racism).
But there is more as well, I think, in terms of the cult of personality in politics. Too often we become trapped in supporting and voting for candidates while not focusing on policy.
I am weary of participating in the partisan politics of personalities, but I am trying to resolve myself to remain committed to the politics of policy, advocating and using my privilege in the service of the following policies:
- Universal single-payer health care
- Student loan forgiveness and universal publicly funded K-16 education
- Protecting and expanding women’s reproductive rights
- Marijuana legalization/decriminalization (reparations to those incarcerated and released)
- Ending mass incarceration
- Reversing Trumpism
- Expanding workers’ rights
I am certain that re-electing Trump works against these commitments, but I am hard pressed to imagine how electing Biden serves them much better.