Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In a shift, more education reformers say they’re worried about schools’ focus on testing

There is way too much focus on testing.  We need less testing and more learning as communicated by former deputy schools chancellor in New York City:

But differences continue to emerge. Shael Polakow-Suransky — who served as a deputy schools chancellor in New York City under Joel Klein, who awarded schools letter grades based largely on their test scores — recently tweeted, “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

Let's admit it.  This system does little more than to line the pockets of the neoliberal, testing-industrial complex of which Sandy Kress is a part.  Of course he doesn't get it.  He doesn't want to.  How could it be otherwise?  It's his baby.  Which is exactly the point.  This so-called reform did not come from the teachers or community, from those closest to the children, classrooms, and schools.  

It's a managerial model more than anything else that likes to think of itself as helping poor, black and brown kids.  Super paternalistic and non-research based.  It's total imposition that works to structure out so much of what can be be worthwhile and meaningful in education.

The research will show that, on balance, the costs outweigh the benefits. This very article suggests as much.

Join the movement.  Opt-out.  Read more on this here, as well as at

-Angela Valenzuela

In a shift, more education reformers say they’re worried about schools’ focus on testing

It was not the place you’d expect to hear sharp critiques of standardized testing.
But they just kept coming last week at an event put on by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an organization that has spent 25 years studying and supporting key tenets of education reform.
“If there is one office in every state I would want to get rid of, it’s the accountability office,” said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously led a charter school in New Orleans. “I would replace that office with some kind of statewide coordination around personalized learning.” No one on the panel with him disagreed.
“I think too much time, attention, and resources have been devoted to accountability systems that don’t produce outcomes for students that historically struggled,” Lewis Ferebee, the head of Indianapolis Public Schools, said later.
“The way we’re doing [assessment] now — that is so time-, age-, grade-based — is really constraining for those innovators that are developing models that will support all kids,” said Susan Patrick of iNACOL, an organization that promotes technology-based personalized learning in schools.
Those comments reflected the prevailing mood at the event, where testing was criticized for being at odds with the increasingly popular “personalized learning” models that allow students to progress through material at their own pace. Others, including Ferebee, complained that in their states, testing regimens have changed too frequently to be useful.
Such rumblings of discontent with testing are not entirely new among the education reform crowd. Free-market-oriented advocates like Betsy DeVos, for example, have downplayed test scores, suggesting the more important issue is whether parents are satisfied with a given school.
But the pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then push them to improve.
It left Sandy Kress, an architect of the No Child Left Behind law that ramped up testing, concerned.
“I was worried, frankly, about the conversation earlier today” on testing, he said during one panel. “How it is that the reform community gets to a position of wanting to throw it out as opposed to improve it? I don’t know, I don’t get it.”
This comes a few years after the broader national anti-testing movement reached its height, with large opt-out movements in states like New York prompted by the growth of tests connected to teacher evaluations and new academic standards. That backlash culminated in the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which scaled back aspects of No Child Left Behind and allowed states to include measures other than test scores in their judgments of school quality.
“If you’re talking about folks at the district and school level, we’ve been hearing this for a really long time,” Maria Worthen of iNACOL said in an interview. “In terms of the policy advocates, this is a newer turn in the conversation.”
In the debates about ESSA, a number of national civil rights groups, Democratic senators, and the influential group Education Trust continued to push for test scores to play a major role in identifying low-performing schools. They argue that the scores help ensure that struggling schools — and the students who attend them, especially the students of color and students from low-income families — aren’t overlooked. They largely succeeded, since ESSA still requires tests to account for a substantial share of a school’s rating.
Test results also continue to carry significant weight among philanthropies. “We do use comparable test data to determine how well our investments are doing,” Caleb Offley, a senior advisor at the Walton Family Foundation, acknowledged during one of the panels. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.)
But differences continue to emerge. Shael Polakow-Suransky — who served as a deputy schools chancellor in New York City under Joel Klein, who awarded schools letter grades based largely on their test scores — recently tweeted, “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”
And in a speech Tuesday at MIT, Paymon Rouhanifard, the former Camden superintendent who also previously worked under Klein in New York City, argued that the focus on math and English test prep had crowded out activities that might better serve students.
“Altogether, the pursuit of better life outcomes for kids might just necessitate a  depression in state test scores,” he said. “Think about that.”
It’s unclear whether the latest concerns about testing will translate into policy, or how it would work if they did, given ESSA’s requirements. And some of the proposed alternatives appear unrealistic.
“I want to be held accountable to ensure that we’re positioning students well for the next phase of their life,” Ferebee said, mentioning he wants students to earn a livable wage — something that couldn’t be measured for years after many students leave school.
Alternatives have disappointed before. Smarter Balanced and PARCC were going to be “tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching,” then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2010. Many states ended up dropping these assessments, and neither got more than a brief mention at the event.
Some groups, like iNACOL, had hoped that a pilot program included in the federal education law would spur states to experiment with new types of exams. But only two states have received federal approval, though four more say they’re interested in doing so and a handful of states are experimenting in other ways.
In Maine, a move to “competency-based” learning, where students move ahead as they demonstrate mastery of a skill, was supposed to prompt teachers to develop new kinds of tests based on portfolios of work or specific tasks. But research showed that was difficult for many teachers to do, and educators largely stuck with traditional exams.
Stacey Childress of New Schools Venture Fund, an organization that funds charter schools and education technology initiatives, suggested reducing what educators expect from testing, putting the focus only on identifying the highest and lowest performers.
That would ensure that “the worst things aren’t happening to our most vulnerable kids,” while “capturing just enough to point us to those successes so that we can learn.”
Kress, serving as the tests’ defender, argued that critics were ignoring a key fact. “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing  the achievement gap and lifting student achievement,” he said.
That’s true, to an extent. One widely cited national study showed that No Child Left Behind did boost students’ performance in math on the low-stakes federal NAEP exam, though it had no effect in reading. There’s also evidence that those gains petered out as states ratcheted up the pressure on schools.
In Texas, one study found that stricter accountability helped students in low-performing schools over the long term.
Research has also shown that turning tests into high-stakes events can prompt negative outcomes, like cheating, teaching to the test, and worse teachers being pushed to grades where students aren’t tested.
And while there is evidence that teachers and schools that raise student test scores also help students do better in the long run, it also appears that teachers’ impact on other measures matters even more.
“I’m happy to hear that these groups are in fact grappling with and realizing some of the same problems we are,” said Andre Green, the executive director of FairTest, a group that pushes for a smaller role for testing. “Come talk to us.”
Sarah Darville contributed reporting. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Great story out of Ethnic Studies history.  It helps illustrate Ethnic Studies as a legacy agenda, a claim that I regularly make.

Thanks to Julia O'Hanlon for sharing.


In the latest battle over academic multiculturalism, University of California students are holding hunger strikes to press their demands for improved ethnic-studies programs.
Buoyed by recent protest demonstrations and public support from several state legislators, hunger strikers at the university's Los Angeles and Irvine campuses say they are seeking expanded Asian-American and Chicano studies.

 At UCLA, a professor, five students and a parent keeping a 24-hour vigil on the lawn in front of the administration building completed their first 24 hours of fasting Wednesday. Supported by several dozen students gathered in eight tents nearby, the demonstrators say they will not eat until administration officials agree to fund a separate Chicano studies department.
"This is not symbolic. We either get the department or we will die here," said one of the fasting protesters, Jorge Mancillas, an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology.

As part of their demands, the activists are asking university officials not to file any charges against the 83 students arrested May 11 for allegedly damaging school property during a sit-in.
Responding to protests in the last four years at UCLA, where the student body is 19 percent Chicano, school officials increased the Chicano studies budget from $1,800 to $272,421 and doubled courses from nine to 18. As in other ethnic-studies programs, the courses are offered through various departments, such as history and literature.
The protesting students, however, want the program funded as a free-standing department with its own professors and a director in charge of hiring and course offerings.
As continuing budget cuts devastate the University of California system, UCLA officials say they cannot allocate resources to create a Chicano studies department. For academic reasons, they believe the subject should remain interdisciplinary because it involves coursework that overlaps with departments as diverse as anthropology and theater.

"We have a program. We've had a program for 20 years," said UCLA spokesman Harlan Lebo. "It's been successful."
Student sentiment on campus is not wholly behind the hunger strikers.
"They're just going to end up going hungry," said John Green, a fifth-year economics major, who said some of his classes are already so large that it's hard to hear the professor. "Basically, we're out of money, and tuition is going up. . . . They're not going to get what they want."
At UC-Irvine, about 70 students fasting in 24-hour shifts from tents pitched on the campus green say that university officials haven't lived up to their promise of two years ago to hire professors for an Asian-American studies program.
Students still are not offered a major or minor in that subject at a university where 43 percent of the student body is Asian-American.
University officials say they are working to expand offerings beyond the eight classes offered last year and to institute a minor.
Asian-American students feel they have been ignored, particularly since the university recently established an African-American studies major at the university, though only 2.6 percent of the enrollment is African-American.
"The administration is influenced by the Asian-American minority myth that we don't ever create trouble and we don't get upset," said student leader Charles Lee. "We're trying to tell them now: We are serious."

Sunday, November 11, 2018

If the Dead Could Speak...My Reflections on the June 28, 1914 Assassination of the Duke of Serbia

My second and final re-posting that reflects on World World I.  Our K-12 Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies classrooms could make good use of this important contribution made by Dr. Emilio Zamora.  

It could also be the most amazing field trip to be able to take our youth to France to learn in a personal way like Emilio and I did, about WWI and our communities' wartime sacrifice for democracy and freedom.


-Angela Valenzuela

This day 98 years ago on June 28, 1914, the Duke of Serbia Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were killed in Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, leading to a chain of events that served as a catalyst for the first World War. Staggering numbers of Americans, including many from Texas, lost their lives. 

The bluish-tinted stamp shows Sophia, duchess of Hohenberg on the left, and Franz Ferdinand on the right. The stamp is titled "Militärpost" ("Military Mail") at the top, and the date of the couple's deaths at the bottom.
Austria-Hungary commemorative postage stamp
Today, my husband, UT History Professor Emilio Zamora and I visited the graves at the largest American cemetery in Europe located at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon and honored the memory of individuals like Simón Gonzales from Martindale, Texas, and so many others that gave their lives in the Allied Cause against Germany—and as captured in the singular, very graphic and moving WWI Diary written by former school teacher from Realitos in South Texas, José de la Luz Sáenz. 

Luz Sáenz joined the war effort with the specific intention of paying the ultimate sacrifice in order to be able to return to the U.S. and make the specific claim for civil rights for Mexican Americans back home in the U.S. 

Amazingly, Luz Sáenz not only survived the great war but also produced this fascinating and exceptionally written war diary that is a very detailed and unblinking, day-to-day account of what he experienced as an American soldier.  (Note: Emilio translated it into English and interpreted it and Luz Saenz' life and contributions in an opening chapter.)

Luz Sáenz ended up returning to the U.S. and becoming one of the founders of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), that today is the oldest and largest Latino civil rights organizations in the country.  I myself am a member of LULAC and have been so for many years.  Looking backwards through time, we might easily say that his strategy for inclusion worked, making him in so many ways a precursor to the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.

Located northeast of Paris and otherwise termed "The Western Front," the The Meuse-Argonne Cemetery located roughly where the Meuse-Argonne Offensive took place is where we visited today. I came to appreciate in a tangible way just how important this specific offensive was to the ultimate defeat of Germany despite it's incalculable toll within and across time—indeed generationally, in particular, for the French, British, and so many others that experienced the brunt of this war. 

It was moving to see the headstones of the 14,246 fallen that were never repatriated to the United States.  It was similarly moving to traverse the towns, hills, and rivers where so many fought bravely, shed blood, and lost their lives. 

We located the grave of individuals like Simón Gonzales of Martindale, Texas, who was a good friend of Jose de la Luz Saenz and according to his recounting of his personal story, was well liked by all but sadly fought courageously but lost his life. 

For some unknown reason, Simón Gonzales' body was never repatriated to the U.S.  Of course the bodies of so many others remained as you can see from this image that doesn't even come close to capturing the thousands that lay silent and to some extent "unmissed and unremembered" there today.  And this despite the literally thousands of American bodies returned home upon request by their families. What we do know is that this issue of repatriated bodies was a hotly debated issue since it also made sense for some for them to simply remain on the sacred ground for which they fought so hard. More research on all of this needs to nevertheless be done in order to know why specific individuals like Simón Gonzales lay silently on the bucolic slopes of this cemetery, "Americain." 

Perhaps most striking and interesting for me was to contemplate on this day, the 98-year anniversary of "the shot heard round the world"—the killing of the Duke of Serbia—that even in France where the stakes were exceedingly high has subsided into the deep recesses of memory to the point of little, if any, noticeable recollection of this momentous event on such a day like today.

If the dead could speak, my guess is that they would ask us for their sacrifice to have meant something to us and for us.  Of course, we all know at some level what it meant, however, I think that they would have liked for it to have been a more personal memory or thought process regarding the war that Luz Saenz and others hoped would end all wars.... 

I can certainly say that reading Emilio's book and coming here—and doing both simultaneously today—resurrected a painful, albeit collective, memory that brought healing to a wound that I myself didn't quite know I had.

Angela Valenzuela


Let's not let Trump get in the way of remembering World War I

Let's not let Trump get in the way of remembering the incredible sacrifice made by so many during World War I.  

I re-post this June 29, 2016 blog that reflects on what was supposed to have been "The War to End All Wars," one of the names given to the war. Too bad that it wasn't.

If you're ever in France, I strongly recommend visiting the U.S. cemeteries where thousands of loved ones are buried.  They are so incredibly moving.  And for Mexican Americans, do consider reading and following, like Emilio Zamora and I did, the well-documented story and trail of Jose de la Luz Saenz via his written, published account that with Emilio's many years of hard work, culminated in a translated war diary that leaves us with a connection to the past that helps explain and give rise to the struggle for civil rights today.

-Angela Valenzuela

The French countryside near Montaville, France

Enjoying the evening, the French countryside, far, far away from Texas near a village named Montaville whose peaceful, scenic views belie its history of unspeakable horror during the First World War.

As per the World War I Diary authored by Jose de la Luz Saenz (and translated by Emilio Zamora [see previous post]), the town was obliterated by the Germans with 12 large projectiles.

Shortly thereafter on Monday, September 2, 1918, "Luz"—as he referred to himself—and the other U.S. soldiers that accompanied him from the 90th Division discovered 50 German supply horses—yes, 50.  With the aim of thwarting their usefulness to the nearby German army, French forces mercilessly bombed them, decimating them all.  At least up until that point in his war diary, Luz described this as one of the "ugliest, most difficult scenes" that unfolded before their very eyes. 

After this, a 150-millimeter cannon began to bomb Luz and his fellow soldiers with him writing his concluding thought that day:
It was a horrible day for the soldiers. The shells were flying over our heads, howling like souls from hell. (p. 195)
Without a doubt, Luz was an extraordinary person.  He voluntarily joined the military in order to be able to return home and make the case for civil rights for Mexican Americans, having paid with others the ultimate price of wartime sacrifice on behalf of the homeland.

Particularly between September and November, 1918, they endured the fiercest fighting in this territory of northeastern France where thousands of American—and of course French, British, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh—soldiers lost their lives.  

The relative few like Luz that survived, endured the cold, rain, gas warfare, bombs, sniper fire, sleepless nights, and hunger as a result of their continuous strategic movements against the unrelenting German army that sought to reach Paris.  

Yet Luz managed to write on napkins, paper, and and whatever he could get his hands on in order to produce an intimate record of the war that not even the French of this very area are likely to have.  Or if any survived, it would still be a different one from another perspective.

Luz was a former school teacher with a critical consciousness and social justice ethic. He sought to leave a record that Emilio Zamora has miraculously recovered.  

Even as we trace Luz' steps through this theater of war, we discuss and ponder its larger significance in our lives and in our history as Mexican Americans in the U.S., as the progeny of a subject people whose ascendancy—however uneven, incomplete, and ever evolving—was purchased with the sacrificial hardship and blood that was shed on the battlefield in places like Montaville and beyond.

Angela Valenzuela

John Leguizamo’s Latin History For Morons’ Provides Plenty Of Lessons You Won’t Find In A Textbook

John Leguizamo is stirring things up with his one-person showcase on Ethnic Studies, if you will, on Netflix.  We need this and more.  But why call it "Latin?"  
Thanks to Greg Pulte for sharing.

John Leguizamo’s Latin History For Morons’ Provides Plenty Of Lessons You Won’t Find In A Textbook

His previous one-man shows showcased Leguizamo’s wide range of characters and caricatures, most culled from his own childhood growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens. Here, he’s on a search for anyone in the annals who might serve as a true Latino hero for his middle-school son to admire.
His journey takes him back to his own eighth-grade history class, where Mr. Flynn told young Johnny “Gizmo” that the only contributions Hispanics had made to American culture were “drugs and violence.” Visits with his therapist in present-day only reinforce the failed relationship between Leguizamo and his own father, putting more pressure on him to deliver for his son now.
While history textbooks don’t provide much encouragement, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at least allowed Leguizamo to take pride in his ancestor’s connections to the origin of tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco and more, including all of our sexiest dances.

John Leguizamo had a long history with HBO.
Not quite as long as the timeline from the Mayans of 1000 B.C. to “the age of Pitbull.” But still. You get that it’s a big deal for Leguizamo would choose to broadcast his sixth one-man show on Netflix, because the televised adaptation of his Tony-nominated Latin History for Moronsshould reach as many Latinos (and morons) as possible.
As the saying goes, 
”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And that saying was first said by a Spaniard, philosopher George Santayana. You may not have remembered that. Leguizamo goes on to explain over the course of 90 minutes covering 3,000 years, there’s a lot more about the natives of the Americas that our history books have neglected to mention.
In a three-piece suit with a chalkboard at the ready, the celebrated comic actor has to exert his professorial authority from the get-go, admonishing the audience’s cheers: “No, no. Settle down, settle down…We got a lotta work here to do tonight.” He continues: “I gotta undo your whole education and the entire way you think, and it’s not gonna be easy because that shit’s in there deep.”
But Leguizamo’s lesson plan serves up as much of a condemnation of Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors who followed, as it does for Donald J. Trump. He even links the two: “Columbus was the Donald Trump of the New World.” And finds that throughout the five centuries from 1518-2018, time and again the white Europeans have wiped out the ancient Americans; from Spanish conquistadors exterminating the Taino, Aztecs and Incas, to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, to Herbert Hoover’s repatriation of Mexican-Americans, deporting them in 1930, to Trump’s current and ongoing anti-immigration and threats to rescind birthright citizenship once more.
“How dare he, when we’re so American it hurts!” Leguizamo asks.
Question is whether we’ll learn from this history, or be condemned to repeat it once more.

Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Legislators, NAACP leaders and educators at signing of ethnic studies law

This is big.  As of July 10, 2018, Ethnic Studies is now the law of the land in Indiana.  Love this statement from this piece titled, "Educators and NAACP persuade Hoosiers ethnic studies benefit everyone."
“If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” said teacher Hilda Kendrick after Indiana passed an ethnic studies law. “It was an astonishing and historic victory, given Indiana’s history of racism and Ku Klux Klan activity.”
I like how the Stanford study (by Thomas Dee and Emily Penner) made a difference for advocates, especially the NAACP in Indiana, as it has elsewhere, including in the context of the victorious TUSD-Mexican American court case that I've blogged about already (search this blog with keyword "Ethnic Studies").
That said, what also has to be considered is that this is a legacy agenda that minimally tracks back to the late 60s and early 70s during the Civil Rights Movement, albeit with roots that go much deeper.  Actually, the entire historiography of Ethnic Studies has yet to be written.  This would be a great educational history topic for someone's dissertation.  None of this, however, minimizes the fact that our communities have been calling for cultural and linguistic inclusion into the curriculum for way more than a half century.
A related takeaway is that research is definitely helpful to the Ethnic Studies movement and agenda—even if our families and advocacy community always knew....
With all the other crazy news dominating the news cycle, it's hard to keep up with some of the really great things happening in public education right now.  Below is the specific announcement of this course elective by the Indiana Department of Education.  
Way to go, NAACP!  Way to go, Hoosiers!
-Angela Valenzuela

Legislators, NAACP leaders and educators at signing of ethnic studies law

Legislators, NAACP leaders and educators at signing of ethnic studies law

Indiana Department of Education Announces New LandmarkEthnic Studies Course and Standards

Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Adam Baker
Press Secretary
(317) 232-0550

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) announced today a new landmark ethnic studies course and standards for Indiana schools. Per recently passed legislation by the Indiana General Assembly, beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, all corporations will be required to offer ethnic studies as a one semester high school elective course at least once per school year.
“As the educational leader of one of the first states to mandate a curricular offering focused on the study of the rich heritage of ethnic cultures in the United States, I am excited for students to have the opportunity to be taught historical perspectives, respect, and responsiveness of a diverse population,” said Dr. Jennifer McCormick, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “I want to recognize and thank the leaders who realized the importance of such an opportunity and acted accordingly.”
As an offered course, ethnic studies will provide Indiana students the opportunity to broaden their perspectives concerning lifestyles and cultural patterns of ethnic and racial groups within the United States. IDOE created the new ethnic studies standards in partnership with educators and local cultural awareness leaders throughout the state.
For more information regarding ethnic studies standards, including resources and support for educators, please visit:

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Latino Studies Fellowships by CMAS and the Latino Research Initiative (LRI) at UT Austin

Fellowship Applications are open. 

Apply by November 30. 

The Center for Mexican American Studies and the Latino Research Initiative at The University of Texas at Austin are now accepting applications for early and advanced career fellowships. 
  • Stipends up to $75,000. No teaching obligations.
  • Reside in Austin, TX for academic year of appointment. 
  • Work with leading scholars in an intellectual hub for Latinx culture, art, community activism and more. 

Applications are due by 11:59pm EST on November, 30, 2018. 

Latino Studies at The University of Texas at Austin consists of three interconnected units that provide cutting edge research, rigorous teaching, and public programming on the Mexican American and Latina/o communities of the Americas. The Center for Mexican American Studies, the Latino Research Initiative, and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies work independently and collectively to advance the academic, intellectual, and social agendas of the UT campus and broader community.

Image: Diego Rivera. From Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central. 1947.

Copyright © 2018 Latino Studies, all rights reserved.

Latino Studies | Gordon-White Building (GWB 2.102)
210 W. 24th Street | STOP F9200 | Austin, Texas 78712

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Excellent read in The Atlantic to Trump's ironic contribution to what truly is an openning up of the political process.

Trump Made Socialism Great Again

The president has disrupted democratic complacency, and that’s a good thing

The election of Trump — and the populist upsurge he helped encourage — has confirmed that politics is no longer the art of the possible, but the improbable. If Trump can win the highest office in the land, then why can’t the rest of us run for something, too? Why shouldn’t a 33-year old Egyptian-Americannamed Abdul run for Michigan governor? Why shouldn’t a 28-year old, who was only a bartender a year ago, defeat a Democratic establishment stalwart? And why shouldn’t that person say, without shame or apology, that she’s a socialist?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary-election victory, coming on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, has thrust “socialism” into the center of the American political conversation. Ideas once dismissed as radical are now gaining a hearing. Fights are raging within the Democratic Party, and on the political left. And that reinvigorated debate — and the other political conflicts Trump has inflamed — may be one of Trump’s more unlikely and ultimately positive contributions to American democracy.
Few people would say that conflict is a thing to be embraced. The usual assumption is that conflict and polarization undermine democracy. We hear paeans to civility, unity, and coming together as a nation. But conflict, or at least the threat of it, can be a powerful motivator.
If a government has no fear that the poor might one day revolt, then it will have few incentives to check the excesses of the rich. If elected leaders have no fear that they might lose the minority vote, they will have little reason to take racism as seriously as they should. If established parties have no fear that populist parties might take their place, they will have little reason to rethink their basic approach to politics. Without pressure from populist challengers, centrist parties will avoid addressing sensitive issues, instead postponing them until crisis hits. And crisis almost certainly does.
This confusion around the desirability of conflict makes it difficult to assess how well or poorly the world’s most established democracies are faring, now that nearly every one of them has been significantly affected (with Portugal being a notable exception). As some would have it, America, along with large chunks of Europe, is on the verge of dictatorship from which it may never recover.
If you view the very election of Trump — to say nothing of what he’s actually done in office — as an “extinction-level event,” then alarmism is precisely what’s called for: the more, the better. But I, for one, do not believe that Trump is anything more than damaging and destructive — as bad as that is. Two or six years from now, America will emerge with considerable damage, but intact. And by then, the experience of having lived under Trump will produce other consequences, some of them positive. In fact, it’s already producing them.
Trumpism — or some variation of the populist-nationalism that has proved so compelling from Italy and Poland to Israel and India — will survive Trump. The ideas of this visceral but vague populism — obsessed with demographic change and trafficking in proposals that only 4 years ago would have been beyond the pale — are almost entirely unconcerned with the norms of what was, up until 2016, a somewhat narrow mainstream consensus.
Peter Pomerantsev’s bookNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,popularized a bleak aphorism that encompassed the surrealism and absurdity of living in Putin’s Russia. In the United States, though, that everything might be possible, when it wasn’t before, means that the range of acceptable opinions is being broadened, whether that means democratic socialism, unabashed Catholic integralismpost-liberalism, or even something as silly as the notion that billionaires are well-suited to run for office.
As Ben Judah wrote recently, a door has been opened: “Because by embracing everything about Donald Trump, [the Right] has embraced the idea that something is terribly wrong with America, and that the country needs big, beautiful solutions for terrible, awful problems. When the Right becomes populist, embraces deficits, dunks on free trade, and rails against elites, it suddenly becomes a lot tougher for it to ridicule a populist Left that is credibly offering more.”
Where Trump told voters that he (and only he) would “make America great again,” Hillary Clinton countered by saying “America was already great.” America is already great, but the problem with making that the theme of a national campaign is that it promises only minor variations of the status quo. Clinton — and so many of the center-left and center-right candidates hoping to forestall populist challengers — offered voters stability in a time of instability. Experiencing Trump on a daily basis tends to help one appreciate the prospect of once again being bored by politics. But stability, particularly in the long run, is an overrated political good that can actually forestall the kinds of deep changes that every society needs from time to time.
Another way of viewing it, and probably the easier way, is to see Trump as an accident of history and not something to ponder too deeply. Since the results could have easily been otherwise — had, say, James Comey not issued his letter in those final, critical days — there is no particular reason to shift our view of politics or democracy. To view Trump’s election as an extinction-level event is to argue, in effect, that the solution to Trump is self-evident: his removal from office. Politics can then return to at least some degree of normalcy. If Trump, however, is a product of a political order that is fundamentally broken, then the need for radical, unusual, or at least out-of-the-mainstream proposals becomes just as necessary if and when Trump loses — or even if he hadn’t won in the first place.
Civility and consensus are only possible in homogeneous societies with a strong, shared national identity, something that the United States and most European countries can no longer claim. In diverse societies, where citizens no long agree on the common good, conflict and polarization are unavoidable. Like conflict, the word radical is usually used pejoratively, signifying chaos and disorder. But like conflict, radicalism isn’t necessarily bad, particularly if it allows a larger number of citizens to feel they have a stake in their own society. It also leaves open the possibility that ideas that were once considered unacceptable can be accepted. Some unacceptable ideas are unacceptable for a reason. Some, though, are not.
Today, ideas that were once considered radical and even politically suicidal, like same-sex marriage, are now so culturally pervasive that it’s hard to remember that they were once only held by a small minority. (As recently as 2009, President Barack Obama, despite his seeming private openness to gay marriage, was unwilling to endorse it publicly). It’s precisely through radical voices that the bounds of what’s politically and socially possible expands. At one point in American history, for example, the abolition of slavery was seen as outside the bounds of what was possible or acceptable. Through Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy, the idea of single-payer universal health care became normalized, shifting the entire debate around health-care provision onto what many Americans would consider a more moral foundation. (Of course, many other Americans see it as an unacceptable intrusion on the part of the state.)
To find a silver lining to this disruption of political complacency is not to excuse Trump. The families torn apart at the border; those who have lost their healthcare; the communities that will be polluted by environmental disaster; or the millions of people abroad who have suffered from Trump’s unashamedly pro-dictator foreign policy would have been better off had he never run for office. But even without Trump, disruption and conflict were coming; he was merely the catalyst. This — whatever this is exactly — is a universal phenomenon, emerging in dozens of incredibly different national contexts, across varying cultures, regions, religions, and levels of economic development. It may be hard to define, but what we are seeing is nothing less (or perhaps nothing more) than a rebirth of politics, with all the conflict that that entails.
The point about radical ideas is that some of them may be good, but there’s no way to know, definitively, whether they are, until they’re debated openly and freely. And, today, that’s precisely what’s happening. That’s a good thing, and we may have Trump to (partly) thank for that