Joe should go back to school

Here’s how the new president can unite the country — and pick up votes

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Joe Biden won by a hefty margin, amassing the highest number of votes ever cast for a presidential candidate in a feat that surpasses Donald Trump’s achievement of attracting the record number of ballots cast for an incumbent — a blue wave crashing into a red wave.

Yet this won’t bring much cheer to the Democrats, whose party high-ups have already been holding post-mortems into why they performed so dismally. Allowing Trump to rack up such a huge number of votes is one thing, but to actually go backwards in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, losing five seats, took some doing, and the Democrats might yet fail to take the Senate.

Overall, it was calamitous considering the tailwind the Democrats enjoyed: a raging pandemic, a tanking, partly shut-down economy and a Republican president feared and loathed by everyone except his extensive fan club. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans, business people and economic liberals sense an opportunity.

They were never reconciled to Trump’s relentless assaults on free trade and immigration in the first place. Now they see a vulnerable president-elect and a humiliated Democratic Party that might best reinvigorate its prospects by defying its “progressive” wing to advocate their kind of pro-choice and free-market solutions in vital policy areas.

This would also give real substance to Biden’s oft-repeated, but characteristically vague, claims to bridge the profound cracks in American society. Biden says he wants to heal and can accomplish a little of that just by not being as nutty and provocative as his predecessor. But if he really wants to stay true to his word and govern on behalf of all Americans he could, and should, go further, and give something to the Republicans. He may well win back some voters in the process too.

Regardless of the educational merits of charter schools, of which more later, Biden has political incentive to build a consensus around them

Where to start? With school choice, and in particular charter schools. These are set up by local communities with federal funds, beyond the reach of the self-serving and statist educational bureaucracy and teaching unions. The schools are analogous to the “free schools” set up by Michael Gove when he was education secretary in David Cameron’s government. At a recent (virtual) meeting of the Atlas Network meeting of free-market and libertarian think-tanks around the world, the American participants were impressively unanimous in plumping for charter schools as the place where Biden might begin to build consensus.

The reason is simple. Regardless of the educational merits of charter schools, of which more later, Biden has political incentive to do so. Belying pretty well every pundit in this incendiary year of Black Lives Matters, the Democrats performed lamentably among ethnic minority voters. The proportion of blacks voting for Trump rose from 15 per cent in 2016 to 18 per cent. Of Latino voters, 32 per cent backed Trump — up from 28 per cent last time around.

Among these often highly aspirational voters, charter schools are extremely popular, viewed as the essential passport to economic and social advancement in America. They are also extremely popular among Republicans; Trump made much play on them during the election, claiming (falsely, as usual) that a Biden administration, in hock to the teaching unions, would destroy them. This undoubtedly fed into the general fears of “socialism” often expressed by Latino voters, and ushered them towards voting for Trump. Hence Biden coming out in support of charter schools would allay their fears — as well as being excellent for their education.

Blacks and Latinos have good cause to love charter schools: they do very well out of them. Whereas blacks, in particular, perform poorly in the generally underperforming public system, they can prosper in charter schools. A remarkable example of this is the tale of post-Katrina New Orleans, a city where blacks make up about 60 per cent of a population of about 400,000, one of the highest percentage of any big city in the country.

Following the devastating hurricane in 2004, the state of Louisiana took the opportunity to close nearly all the existing schools, took an axe to the old bureaucracy and embarked on one of the most radical and ambitious education reforms in America’s history. Rather than operating schools itself, the state became merely a regulator, commissioning independent operators to open and run schools instead. The results were startling. Before the reforms, across the core subjects New Orleans students performed well below the state average, often miserably so. Now they have caught up.

Unsurprisingly, in a poll conducted two years ago, 70 per cent of parents reported that charter schools had improved education. Most on the left of the Democrat party are ideologically opposed to charter schools: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders campaigned to cut off their federal funding amid a feeling that Democrats need the support of the teaching unions. What of Biden? As usual, he has zig-zagged.

The president-elect let slip while campaigning that he was no “fan” of charter schools, a nod to his base, yet he declined to throw any more red meat their way with, for example, promises to defund. This gives him plenty of wriggle room. He should make charter schools a signature policy of his presidency; children will be better educated, Republicans buttered up, divisions reduced and voters gained. Wake up Joe, you can do this.

Biden might also remember that this is good centrist Democrat policymaking. The Clinton administration pioneered charter schools and Barack Obama supported them too, arguing in 2012 that they “give educators the freedom to cultivate new teaching models and develop creative methods to meet students’ needs. This unique flexibility is matched by strong accountability and high standards, so underperforming charter schools can be closed.” It is also true that after almost a year of enforced home schooling and “distance learning” parents and educators are probably open to rather more flexibility and experimentation than usual once the pandemic come to an end.

Biden has to find a way of prising Republicans out of the ideological echo-chamber that is Fox News

How else might Biden woo Republicans? He should ensure that all the encroachments on personal freedoms and civil liberties necessitated by Covid-19 are rolled back as soon as the immediate health crisis has passed. Many economic liberals strongly suspect a Democratic presidency might retain, and even enjoy, the sort of government over-reach we have witnessed over the past year. Some mutter darkly that America is on a latter-day Road to Serfdom, with the current lockdowns sliding seamlessly into a wider collectivist takeover.

Everyone will be happy to throw off the present restrictions; there is no earthly reason to keep them more than a minute longer than is absolutely necessary. But in doing so quickly and decisively Biden would belie some of the more gloomy Republican expectations and win some grudging admirers. Finally, Biden has to find a way of prising Republicans out of the ideological echo-chamber that is Fox News and back into the mainstream of political debate. This is more complicated, but vital. Emily Ekins of the right-of-centre Cato Institute conducted some very revealing polling a few months before the election around the question of why so many American are “scared stiff” to talk about politics.

Despite all the political clamour and rancour this year, she still found that a full 62 per cent were afraid to express their political opinions, rising to 77 per cent among Republicans (as against just 52 per cent of Democrats). Tellingly, her polling showed that only “staunch progressives”, aka left-leaning Democrats, feel free to speak their minds. Among the more highly-educated, those with postgraduate degrees, 60 per cent of Republicans are fearful of expressing their political views, as opposed to just 25 per cent of Democrats.

This is an appalling indictment of the shrinking public square. Many, and one side in particular, feel intimidated into silence. No wonder that these people flocked to the loudmouth Trump in such numbers and hunker down on the sofa with Fox’s Tucker Carlson. They feel safe there.

John McCain had the courage to push back against those supporters who vilified his presidential opponent Barack Obama. Will Biden show similar courage in facing down some of his own supporters, thus encouraging Republicans back into the public square? Or will he take the easy route and simply indulge those who dismiss all those 70 million Trump supporters as witless “deplorables”?

On that question hangs his presidency.

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