Lessons from November


Hope and change finally arrived in the United States this month, however late and unexpected. And no, I don’t mean Barack Obama’s reelection. Putting aside for the moment the president’s victory over the hapless and horrendous Mitt Romney, the 2012 election offered a resounding rejection of the modern Republican political agenda, itself built on a foundation of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the spurning of science and basic human welfare. For this, we should be heartened and thankful.

Even the far right is acknowledging the changed social terrain of American politics. Speaking with the New York Times just after the election, R. Albert Mohler, Jr.—president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY—noted, in a remarkable moment of candor that “Millions of American evangelicals are absolutely shocked by not just the presidential election, but by the entire avalanche of results that came in. It’s not that our message—we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong—didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed,” he said. “An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

Let’s be clear, however. The progressive victories of Election Day—increased numbers of women in the Senate, the defeat of troglodytes like Todd Aiken, gay marriage in more states, and drug legalization in Colorado—in no way suggest that we can expect a second term Obama presidency to govern from the left as some have suggested. Far from it. While Mr. Romney and the president may disagree on matters of social policy, Democrats and Republicans have reached consensus on deeply conservative economic and foreign policy agendas. Regrettably, mainstream liberals seem to have ceded this territory entirely to conservatives, preferring to treat politics purely as an electoral game of poll numbers and predictions enjoyed from the comfort of home rather than doing the heavy-lifting of understanding why the status quo has failed so miserably for so many and fighting for real change in the broader community.

Thus, the Obama administration if, err, left to its own devices, will continue to advance the interests of neoliberal economics (described beautifully in the Greek context by Kristofer Petersen-Overton in this issue and the last), on the one hand, and a foreign policy that sustains and extends the very worst holdovers from the George W. Bush era, on the other. To wit, just hours after securing his reelection, President Obama ordered drone strikes against suspected Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, extrajudicial attacks that left an unspecified number of people dead and injured. Of course, it goes without saying that the Obama administration can hardly expect to avoid political harrying in its second term—there’s still the lunatic congressional House to contend with for at least the next two years.

Nevertheless, and despite what will undoubtedly be unrelenting pressure from the right, it’s equally important to acknowledge that space has begun to open up that could force elected officials and others within government institutions to govern to the left. The president nodded in this direction himself in the speech he delivered after securing reelection in which he signaled openness to progressive reforms on issues of immigration, women’s and gay rights, and most surprising of all, global warming (an issue terrifyingly absent in the general election, but the focal point of J.A. Myerson’s essay on page 13). For the fact remains: Beyond the welcome news that Americans, or at least the US electorate, is inching toward a better place on social issues as the country matures, the real lesson of this past month has been the reminder that people are more important than money, and that the power of informed, organized citizens still trumps everything else in the United States. Witness Wisconsin and Ohio.

What got largely lost in the orgy of electoral map fetishism driving network and cable coverage of the election Tuesday was the fact that President Obama’s victory in states like Ohio and Wisconsin represented less a win for the White House than it did an unambiguous defeat of capital’s influence over the ballot box at the hands of organized labor and young people. The endless oodles of cash that creeps like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson poured into battleground states ultimately shriveled in the face of incredibly well-organized union campaigns and unprecedented voter turnout amongst the young. While Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, for example, invested money in candidates—running for the House and Senate, as well as the presidency—with only a meager 6 percent return rate of success, union-backed candidates won office 70 percent of the time. And according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, swing state electoral outcomes hinged almost entirely on youth voters.

And then there was the hurricane. One of the most immediate political effects of Sandy’s devastating landfall in the United States was the stark relief into which the ideological divide in this country was thrown. Suddenly, again, the reality of a world where markets would be first responders to disaster was clearly presented to the imagination of millions of Americans in the person of Mitt Romney, and by and large the public didn’t like what it saw. In times of crisis, Americans were reminded, and despite its myriad problems, the state might not be that bad after all.  But Hurricane Sandy also laid bare the incompetence and dysfunction of the state. Here at home, the city’s response (which included limiting the purview of humanitarian relief organizations) left gaping holes of suffering and need. Seemingly out of nowhere, organized citizen brigades—most notably those spearheaded by Occupy—organically developed and deployed to distressed communities across the city to salve the worst of the damage.  The lesson here is simple enough: if government is not able or willing to respond, the organized public can effectively take direct control and care of itself.

So what does all of this have to do with CUNY?  Quite a bit, actually. As it turns out, the lessons of the election find analogues in the slow grinding crisis currently facing the CUNY community.

As readers of the Advocate are well aware, our university system—like the other public sectors that remain in our society—faces an existential threat from market interests and the neoliberal logic that forms them. The most recent manifestation of this threat has taken shape in Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s Pathways Initiative, a plan that purports to streamline the transfer process for students between junior and senior colleges, and looks to establish a “common core” curriculum that is uniform across the colleges. Without jumping back down the rabbit hole of details and debate over Pathways, a few observations are in order.

First, as with the nationwide elections at the start of November, it bears repeating that the most potent actor pushing back against the unrepresentative interests of those at the top has been organized labor. From the start, unionized educators in the CUNY system have been the first line of defense against the well-coordinated and occasionally coercive efforts to advance the Pathways initiative on the campuses of the university’s junior and senior colleges. Attempts at repelling the chancellor’s plan have gained momentum in recent weeks as increasing numbers of departments and other concerned groups (including the DSC) have resolved to resist implementation of the initiative throughout the system. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been so effective that administrators have resorted to outright authoritarianism in response (as in the case at Queensborough Community College described in detail on pages 5–6), a reaction that both undermines the chancellor’s claims to a fully democratic and transparent Pathways process, and one that is sure to fail in the long run.

Second, and unlike the elections, young people within the CUNY system have yet to mobilize effectively in defiance of the chancellor’s plan. This point is crucial. The chancellor’s office and its advocates have crafted the Pathways narrative around the central premise that the initiative is in undergraduate students’ best interests. This claim is not only untrue, but quickly disposed of upon even cursory examination.  And yet it has managed to stick, largely, one assumes, because it has not been brought to the direct attention of undergraduate students throughout the CUNY system. This shortcoming demands immediate remedy if opponents of Pathways hope to prevail.  The good news is that undergraduates in the CUNY system are currently better organized and more plugged into university politics than they have been in decades. Thus far, many of the actions taken by undergraduate groups across the system have been centered on tuition hikes and budget cuts, as they should be. The next step is to connect these grievances to the broader agenda of systemic change being engineered by the chancellor and his board of trustees, and to coordinate actions across campuses for maximum impact.

The grassroots response by Occupy and other groups to the devastation of Sandy highlights a third theme that has surfaced recently in the fight against Pathways, namely, that when the institutions of authority cease to operate in the name of those they are designed to serve, we must rebuild new ones that do. This is part of the spirit inspiring the Free University movement—which has challenged the dysfunctions of CUNY and other higher education institutions from the outside—as well as recent steps taken by English faculty members at QCC, which have challenged and reformed things from inside. That the department’s move this past week to jettison their chair in favor of more representative leadership was an act of courageous defiance is apparent on its face. Acknowledging that this move offers a new tactic in the broader struggle against Pathways is not as quickly understood, but no less important.  From this point forward, the precedent is set: faculty members in positions of authority can choose to side with their colleagues, or risk that authority by cuddling closer to power, a calculus that potentially reorders the balance of power—however slightly—in favor of those, like Bill Ayers (on page 11), who are interested in education as a Jeffersonian public good and not as a market commodity.

The fight against Pathways is already nasty, and will continue to grow uglier as time progresses. That said, we can take some comfort in reminding ourselves that the comparative advantages enjoyed by CUNY’s faculty and students in their fight against Pathways—the power of organized labor, the youth, and a willingness to adopt do-it-yourself approaches to defending public institutions when those institutions have been hijacked—do result in occasional victories—victories that allow us to move onto a new stage in the wider struggle.


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