August 16, 2016

As Jim O’Sullivan reports in today’s Boston Globe, the charter school issue is dividing the Democratic Party between two important constituencies: unions versus poor and minority residents. That prankster Charlie Baker is giving the Democrats a serious wedgie.

The prank involves more than placing a wedge between Democratic constituencies though. It puts into conflict notions of equality and promotes free market privatization versus the role of government.

The Democrats are the party of equality and of using government to promote equality, so they find themselves in a bind. Some portion of the attendees at tonight’s meeting of the Democratic State Committee have bought into charters, accepting the argument that such schools offer the promise of academic progress for poor and minority children. That promotes equality.

But that notion of equality undermines unions, specifically here teachers unions. It isn’t all that hard to depict the contest simply as poor kids versus the entrenched interests of unions. But it has deeper implications. The union movement is the only counterweight outside of government to the astounding amounts of money that are overwhelming our politics – to vast inequality in politics. As Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University points out in New Conservative Strategies to Weaken America’s Public Sector Unions, it has been a goal of conservatives for decades to weaken public sector unions, the better to dominate politics. They’ve largely been successful.

The privatization argument also elevates market based solutions over problem solving through government. Thus when the dark money group Democrats for Education Reform or similar organizations promote market oriented candidates over more traditional Democrats they contribute, if only slightly, to moving the Democratic party in Massachusetts away from unions and to the right. Never mind reviving a grass roots Republican Party in this state. If you’re a conservative, nudging the Democrats to the right over the long term is a much more realistic goal.

Meanwhile Governor Baker, wearing a Cheshire cat grin, sits back and enjoys the Democratic spectacle with nary a soul calling him on the fact that the ballot measure he fronts is fueled by millions in dark money. We’ve got a sense where some of this money is coming from – Republican (mostly) millionaires and at least one billionaire from Massachusetts, and a small group of hedge fund billionaires from out of state who feel nearly as strongly about charters as they do about shrinking government and keeping their own taxes low.

Equality is never that simple.

Massachusetts Democratic party, dark money, Charlie Baker, teachers unions

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