"We're All In This Together"
A talk by Commonweal Institute Fellow David C. Johnson to supporters of public education, presented March 7, 2007.
A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about how to start this talk, when I came across this video clip from the Sean Hannity show on Fox News:
[Clip of Fox News, Hannity & Colmes, with Neal
Boortz saying that teachers unions are more dangerous to
I’m showing you this because it illustrates something that we increasingly have to deal with. I’ll talk about how this uncivil hyperbole fits into the overall pattern of what we as supporters of public education are dealing with. Then I’ll talk about what we can do about it.
What you just saw was on the most-watched cable TV news network just two weeks ago.
The host, Sean Hannity, is one of the most popular radio hosts as well. The guest who said those things – it doesn’t really matter who in particular HE is – and I’m not using his name because he is JUST an example. He’s just one more voice from opponents of public education who call themselves the “conservative movement”— trained, funded and widely promoted to say things like this. One more of hundreds. Yes, hundreds.
The Commonweal Institute report that I co-authored, Responding to the Attack on Public Education and Teacher Unions, was partly based on National Education Association (NEA) research. In it, I provided 9 ½ pages of examples of this kind of hyperbolic language, including its use in comic strips from my own local newspaper. Allow me to summarize those pages in one sentence:
“Collectivist government schools, run by greedy big labor bosses, betray and brainwash our children, promoting a hidden homosexual and socialist agenda.”
And that is the polite stuff.
In Appendix 3 I compiled 9 more pages, all demonstrating how a coordinated, framed message is repeated – word-for-word – by people at every level of the conservative movement, from the ground up to the very top leadership – the President – going out to the public through multiple channels. Hold up your hand if you have heard the framed message: “Children trapped in failing public schools.”
Let me read you a bit more from the guy you saw on the video clip. In a widely-distributed column titled “Child abuse in government schools” he wrote,
“These institutions are no longer schools. They are government indoctrination centers, owned and operated by government and staffed by government employees who have every reason to teach dependency on government and no reason to produce a generation of children who have learned how to depend on themselves. The single most prevalent form of child abuse in this country is the act of sending a child to a government school.”
This guy is not some fringe character. In 2001 he co-wrote a book with a Member of Congress – on the subject of getting rid of taxes. That book – like another of his books, titled, The Terrible Truth About Liberals – doesn’t talk about schools.
Instead it follows another script you hear every day: “Liberals are bad and conservatives are good.”
How many of you have heard variations of that script?
Let me play that clip again.
It’s not just fringe ideologues who talk like this. Do you remember two years ago when Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the NEA a “terrorist organization?”
They may sound like the fringe to you and me, but by definition the Secretary of Education isn’t the fringe.
No, this is pervasive. If you turn on the radio you hear it all day, every day on shows like Rush Limbaugh’s. Don’t dismiss that – Rush Limbaugh’s is by far the most listened-to radio show in the country. And as I said, Sean Hannity, the host in the video, also has a widely-heard radio show.
Radio is one of the media through which most regular people get their information. Cable news is another. And comic strips are another. So there are these messages – placed in all the places where most people get their information.
It is a political tactic. By putting these radicals in front of the public, the conservative movement moves the national discussion WAAYYY over in their direction.
The guy in the video clip I showed talked about “government schools.” But think about this – that isn’t an anti-school message until people have been turned anti-government. His “government schools” message can’t resonate otherwise. And he understands that. So like the others in the “conservative movement” he also writes anti-government, anti-tax and anti-“liberal” books and columns as well.
Similarly “Labor Bosses” isn’t a negative message until the public’s appreciation of labor is eroded. So before they can attack schools and unions using those terms, they have to “prepare the ground” – they have to do the messaging work to erode the public’s appreciation of government and labor.
And this brings up a key point that I want to make tonite -- There are things people have to care about before they can care about public education. There are things people have to care about before they will care about the right to have a union.
Those in the conservative movement understand that public appreciation of community and government are the underpinnings of support for these and other target issues. So by first working to erode public support for government and community they can effectively leverage their efforts and erode support for all of their targets at the same time.
The guy in the video clip attacks public education – but he does it as part of a larger attack on what he calls “liberals.” “Liberals” is the shorthand name for their enemy but it is really an attack on community and government. Some of you here may not think of yourselves as “liberals,” but because you value public education this puts you in that enemy category as far as THEY are concerned.
WHO is doing this?
Earlier I mentioned my Commonweal Institute report on the attack on public education. I want to mention another report I helped prepare for the Commonweal Institute. That report, called “The Attack on Trial Lawyers and Tort Law” was about a similar attack – but on the civil justice system, The report detailed a well-funded, widespread, coordinated strategy attacking trial lawyers and tort law.
Here’s the thing: that attack involves many of the same think tanks and organizations and pundits and others – like the guy in the video clip – as the attack on teacher unions and public education. Many of the financial backers are the same. The tactics are the same. Their messaging goes out through the same channels. It even utilizes the same comic strips.
And if you talk with the trial lawyers, or the environmentalists, the leaders of the mainstream religions, unions, etc, you will find out that they are all facing vicious attacks from similar organizations using similar techniques to those used against public education.
There are many others saying similar things to what this video clip and the Secretary of Education said. They are not just attacking public education – and the NEA – they are also attacking other groups, and they all have in common these attacks on what they call liberals.
Most of the public constantly hears this drumbeat of anti-government, anti-community, anti-tax, you’re-on-your-own, free market, and personal responsibility mantra from the right. Many people now under the age of 35 have never heard the other side of the story.
After a few decades of this attack the public’s appreciation of social responsibility has eroded. Civic participation has eroded. They have been replaced by consumerism, greed, and instant gratification.
Quoting something else written by the guy in the video clip, praising greed:
Greed: A word commonly used by liberals, low achievers, anti-capitalists and society's losers to denigrate, shame and discredit those who have acquired superior job skills and decision-making capabilities and who, through the application of those job skills, achieve success.
You and I see this for what it is. But does the general public see this for what it is?
And now, after decades of this kind of attack – mostly unanswered, often because we think it isn’t worth answering – labor unions are seen as special interests rather than as representatives of working people, fighting for the well-being of those who work for a living—the majority of the adult population. Public schools are portrayed as just another special interest group – they’re just the front for power-hungry, greedy teacher unions.
Many of us do not understand how widespread this attack really is – each of us only sees our own piece of the equation, each of us is busy fighting back against the attack on OUR issue or group – so it is hard to see the bigger picture and take steps to counter it AS a bigger picture.
The ongoing assault on public education is paralleled by similar ongoing attacks on so many other traditionally valued institutions in our society.
Did you know that there are related organizations working to split the Episcopal Church and other mainstream religious denominations?
…Organizations funded to attack community-oriented philanthropy?
…Organizations funded to attack environmental groups and prominent environmental spokespersons like Al Gore?
There are even fully-funded sister-organizations with the mission statement of discrediting science itself!
The organizations may have different identities but they share leadership and resources and people and communication channels. And they attack the common enemy – government and community – in a common way, until the public’s understanding of, and respect for, that enemy is undermined, and then they tie targeted issues like public education and organizations like the NEA to the common enemy.
If you haven’t heard these sorts of thing before, you may think that I’m one of those dreaded “conspiracy theorists.” Consider, though, that one source of data for my research was the 1998 NEA Report titled, The Real Story Behind Paycheck Protection, The Hidden Link Between Anti-Worker and Anti-Public Education Initiatives: An Anatomy of the Far Right, which discussed several of these same well-funded organizations that are working to bring about privatization of schools. Our Commonweal Public Education report expanded into a look at their strategies and methods, and based on that made recommendations for how to counter them.
And many other studies as well have examined the interlocking structure of the “conservative movement” showing how the leaders and so-called scholars move from organization to organization. Their books are published by the same publishers. Their articles are promoted through the same network of magazines, online sites, and radio and TV outlets. They have interlocking leadership and common funding sources.
Each of the organizations, along with their books, and their reports are promoted by all of the other organizations until it seems like there is widespread public acceptance of their ideas and values.
Different identities. The same people. The same message.
Using the SAME tactics against the targeted groups and their issues.
This is not an ISSUE fight – it is a VALUES fight. This is why it works.
- Different identities, giving the impression of a variety of voices in support
- A common attack using a deeper, underlying message, then tying it to the target,
- Multiple channels to reach targeted demographics.
To give you a picture of the conservative movement’s use of long-term strategy I will describe one of their methods, called The Overton Window. The Overton Window is named for Joseph P. Overton, who was a senior vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank that is one of the leading proponents of what they call “school choice”.
The Overton Window is a sophisticated tactic to help move the Right’s self-described “unthinkable” ideas all the way to becoming policy.
The strategy is to make radical ideas seem acceptable and comfortable.
They describe a “ladder” of steps – degrees of public acceptance. They say they work to walk the public up this ladder step by step.
According to the Overton Window concept, when the public FIRST hears ideas like getting rid of public schools, they consider them unthinkable, but with time and repetition, these ideas begin to be considered only radical, then with familiarity they become acceptable, and eventually sensible and worth putting into policy.
This is the Mackinac Center’s description of the Overton Window “Education Continuum.”
Let me read from the Mackinac Center’s own description of the education ladder continuum:
Let's start by developing a continuum of educational states, from the desired extreme of total freedom, to the undesirable extreme of total statism. It might look something like this:
THIS is how the Right depicts the continuum of public school privatization. You can see how they feel about public schools, and you can see where they want to take things.
This (above) is where they felt they were when they began their efforts.
THIS (above) is where they feel they are today. Look how much they feel they have accomplished – and look where they are heading next.
NOW we can understand the role of people like the guy from the video clip. He is out at the extreme – on the right side of the see-saw. Anything LESS extreme sounds almost moderate by comparison – in the window of “thinkable.” THIS is why they say those outrageous things. They’re walking people up the ladder. It’s part of the long-term strategy.
This long-term, systematic effort to undermine the public’s understanding and appreciation of public education has already made it difficult for many members of the general public to appreciate the value of public schools. They hear every day that parents need to rescue their children from FAILING PUBLIC SCHOOLS, are entitled to tuition tax credits, and must have SCHOOL CHOICE in the form of home schooling and vouchers.
In this context, it will be an uphill battle to get the public to embrace the NEA’s message that “great schools are a basic right of every child.”
WHY are they a basic right? Why do we need public schools at all? The foundation of understanding of the basis for that right – COMMUNITY – has eroded. Without that understanding people won’t understand why public schools are a “basic right.”
Here are some examples of the Overton Window in action: Beyond privatizing schools and Social Security the Right is also talking not only about making abortion illegal, but even about going back to making birth control illegal. (Some of you might remember that it used to be illegal in several states.)
They are talking about eliminating all environmental regulations. They are talking about eliminating zoning laws. California and a few other states had a ballot initiative last year that did both of those – it almost passed – and Oregon actually passed it a few years back.
And they are talking about eliminating national parks. Public libraries. Taxes. Even public involvement in government.
The Right has Overton Window strategies in operation for all of these efforts and more.
So you see, it isn’t JUST YOU. It isn’t JUST about SCHOOLS. Numerous other groups and their issues are also under attack.
We’re all in this together.
The bad part of this larger values-based attack is that you can’t respond just by promoting public education. It will be seen as little more than another interest group promoting your own interest, not the public’s.
But it also means you are not in this on your own. You are not alone against this attack.
We’re all in this together.
This means there is a natural alliance to join with others who are under similar attack to work to reinforce the common underpinnings that support public schools AND support the right to sue AND the right to organize AND the right to health care AND the right to live in a clean environment AND with every other group that has been strategically attacked, split off and marginalized.
And what is the foundation for of all of these rights?
COMMUNITY: WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
What can we, as supporters of public education, do about this?
The supporters of public education must join with their natural allies -- the trial lawyers and the environmentalists and reproductive rights organizations and others and begin to talk to the public with a COMMON message that says WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER because we are a COMMUNITY. Only after people come to understand and appreciate this philosophy of community again, will they begin to understand and appreciate the value of public schools.
The Right pushes an ugly message that we are each on our own, out for ourselves to get what we can, in a dog-eat-dog world. But in truth, we are really ARE all in this together, not only as being on the receiving end of similar attacks, but also because we can work together to help each other. We can work to counter the Right’s message by restoring the public’s understanding and appreciation of COMMUNITY and the value of responsible government.
How can we do this?
As I’m sure you know, frame and message development and testing are complex and require skilled professionals. Messaging efforts on behalf of public education will have the greatest effect if linked to broad frames that are developed across sectors, frames that support the value of community and government. And the messaging that supports these values will be most effective if it is delivered by multiple voices, third-party voices that are not strongly identified with public education and other interest groups. It must be coordinated with a long-term strategy.
The NEA’s work on messaging about public schools can be a starting point for the Foundation's own message development work.
I am a Fellow of the Commonweal Institute, a multi-issue think tank that is set up to help create issue-bridging alliances and messaging efforts that are needed.
We conduct research, provide resources, bring together groups to work together, and do training.
Public education is one of several areas in which we have worked.
Based on our experience and understanding of the situation in which public education finds itself, I suggest that the NEA Foundation consider how it can begin to develop cross-issue alliances, and address the need for framing and language research that can identify and promote those underlying values on which public education rests.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!
I will be glad to answer any questions you may have.