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Monday, November 16, 2020

Monday, November 16, 2020

Higher Ed After the Election: Facing the Democrats' Intellectual Crisis

As soon as the Biden-Harris victory was confirmed, the media pivoted to a ritual rediscovery of "Democratic Divergence" between their moderate and progressive wings. This very obvious fact about a coalitional party, visible to all by1968, shouldn't distract us from the 2020 reality that the lifelong moderate Joe Biden campaigned for president as a progressive, and that every kind of Democrat gave him and Kamala Harris the largest popular vote in U.S. history. I note this as a reason not to be complacent.

There's a silver lining in the mixed results overall. Democrats lost part of their majority in the House and failed to flip seats in competitive Senate races in Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. If they don't win both Georgia run-offs on January 5th, then Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will continue to function as Washington's co-president, elected by 1.23 million voters in Kentucky, where he will control judicial appointments, environmental investment and fiscal policy, like his non-existent Covid-19 stimulus.

The silver lining?  Democrats have the chance to dig beneath their manifest differences to rebuild their intellectual foundations for the 2020s.  My goal for them is that they hold power as a center-left party that can protect more radical movements from the wholly toxic and destructive Republicans. But they can't do this unless they get the intellectual act together.

On the terrain covered by this blog, I noted last time that higher ed has internal contradictions and a weak overall narrative that, if not fixed, will keep it on the sidelines of the Biden Administration. The same is true for the Democrats on higher ed.  Their power is limited by the close election and Republican dominance in a majority of states, where public college funding is controlled. Longer term, their intellectual scope is limited, and not up to steering the economic and social forces currently in play. Though most of the great thinking being done about education is being done by people who at least vote Democrat, the Democrats as a party don't have a strong or even coherent tale about what higher education does. 

This might be okay.  The party itself may not be so relevant to a "scene that is irreducibly multiple," as Amanda Armstrong-Price reminds us about U.S. politics more broadly. But the major higher ed movements of the decade--student debt cancellation and free college--came about as partnerships (or collisions) between activists and national Democratic politicians.  This kind of synergy is useful and probably necessary in a country as dispersed and divided as the U.S. But real synergy will require intellectual transformation.


Taking him as he is, we can see Joe Biden doing a lot for higher ed with the executive branch. He can soon replace Betsy de Vos with someone much better (like former teacher-of-the-year, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT), pictured above).  Most of Trump's damage to higher ed can be undone with executive actions (see the WaPo's good roundup of the coming "series of reversals" in K-12 and postsecondary federal policy; and also Michael Vasquez's overview of the higher ed portion in CHE). Biden can also do significant student debt reduction with executive actions. Congressional Democrats can push towards the version of free college that Biden supports.  Hope has been placed in the fact that the incoming First Lady, Jill Biden, is a working community college professor who was teased by Michelle Obama for grading papers on diplomatic trips.

And yet the Democrats' underlying narrative about higher ed isn't good.  It has allowed the party, over the decades, to participate fully in creating the student debt crisis, the student food and housing insecurity crisis, the faculty adjuncting crisis, and the crisis in core educational funding. I'll review a bit of this weakness as an example of what is required to enable Biden's effectiveness--and winning real Congressional power in 2022.

On the debt crisis, the government professor Suzanne Mettler showed that Democrats helped the Republicans erode the value of Pell grants as far back as the 1980s.

The compromises between [Democrats and Republicans] did not decimate the grants, but they took the entitlement option off the table and left benefit rates dwindling in real terms and falling well behind average tuition costs. Politicians in both parties found common ground instead on the expansion of student loans because that only required them to lift borrowing limits and waive restrictions on who could borrow. (Degrees of Inequality, 199)

35 years later, Biden has proposed the doubling of Pell grant ceilings that his party had previously managed only to tweak. But the deeper intellectual problem remains. The Democrats gave up "the entitlement option" that tied them to their only meaningful conceptual paradigm of the 20th century, in which people accessed relatively equivalent public goods like education with no reference to their personal market power.  The systemic racism built into the New Deal and Great Society programs starkly violated the universal entitlement, and in contrast built a legacy of white entitlement which damaged Black and brown lives and also U.S. democracy. But social rather than market allocation of essential goods remained a  distinctive conceptual lineage, one that the Democratic accommodation with Reaganism buried within the party. The parliamentary Democrats (elected officials and their managerial and financial apparatus) helped push ideas like free college out of its status as an established norm and widespread practice in the postwar period to a Left insurgency on the party fringes, from which it was rescued largely by Bernie Sanders in 2015. 

My point here is that non-market, rights-based allocation of educational goods isn't an inherently progressive position to be contrasted, as the media does, with centrist positions. It was the mainstream party position when the Democrats were in power, and it formed its only distinctive--and popular--conceptual frame.  (Its Dixiecrat segregationist base was popular but not distinctive.)

Democrats thought they'd invented a winning new paradigm after Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, but that helped create the problems we're facing now, starting with wholly unresolved white racism, inadequate public health systems, and economically dysfunctional, ethically indefensible economic inequality.  The New Democrat paradigm rested on attempts to get public benefits via the private sector, with the privatization of public revenue streams as the mechanism. A continuous side effect was the combination of higher costs and reduced and/or unequal services, that is, cuts in quantity and quality, usually both.  Democrats endlessly agonized over the legitimacy of health and welfare programs that did basic things like reduce childhood hunger, mostly because Republicans categorically denied it.

The private insurance-based health system is the most famous result of this ongoing history of cutting the private sector in as a provider, gatekeeper, and market allocator of public goods. It was preserved with Obamacare, improving an unpopular and exclusionary system in the classic New Democrat way--with higher government subsidies funneled through private firms so that the results of an unchanged system are more humane.

Putting their confused private--public good narrative into practice as standard Democratic coalitional compromise policy, the party got a reputation for not really solving the public problem at hand. As Biden's victory became more assured, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote powerful analyses of the damage these policies have generally done to racial justice and to the public fabric of society.  Cottom demanded full accountability for Republican damage--not bipartisanship--which would include restoring the status of professional analysis. Taylor recounted the damage that Democratic management has done to Black communities, among others.  The Democrats, she writes, must deal with

the depth of the bipartisan failure to address the tangled roots of racism, poverty, and inequality. . . . [T]he overwhelming majority of Black voters backed Biden, but the fact is that millions of African-Americans experience the daily failures of Democratic officials to respond to the poor conditions of their public schools, the lack of affordable housing, rampant police harassment and brutality, and usurious loans. The answer to these legitimate grievances can’t simply be to say that they are Republican talking points.

What Taylor correctly describes as chronic policy failure is also intellectual failure. Both follow from corruption in more than one sense.  Focusing on the aggression of the progressive wing against the center (or vice versa) is a total diversion from the intellectual condition of the Democrats as a whole.  


A good place to study the thinking of this coalitional Democratic party is California, where it effectively rules as a one-party state.  The Democrats have a nearly 2:1 voter registration advantage over Republicans, who have fallen from a third to a quarter of registered voters over the past 20 years.  Both legislative houses have for years been near or above a 2:1 Democratic supermajority (the Assembly is currently 3:1).  This month, Biden-Harris beat Trump-Pence by a nearly 2:1 margin. The same ratio appeared, this time within the Democrats, in the 2020 presidential primary. Sanders and Warren together got about half the votes, and Biden about a quarter (with Bloomberg picking up another 12 percent). Okay there goes the 2:1 margin, but progressives by any measure are a majority of California Democrats. Color-coding in this Wikipedia chart nicely captures the extent of Democratic control.

This is the same period in which California became the fourth most unequal state by income (after New York, Connecticut, and Louisiana), acquired the highest poverty rate (geographically adjusted), and made housing unaffordability a permanent problem. By 2000, the California Democratic party had embraced the low-tax Proposition 13 framework and focused on deficit reduction and safety net programs that left business alone.  Parliamentary Democrats accepted that, beyond safety-net maintenance that the private sector won't touch, public goods would be defined and shaped (though decreasingly funded) by the private sector.

In the domain we follow here, higher education, the Democrats allowed the most diverse college student population in U.S. history to suffer a massive decline in real per-student public funding.  Here's the UC case, explained in detail in this post.

As the white share of UC undergrad enrollment fell, state investment fell in lockstep.  For ten years, Democrats said, "well, if we send you less tax money your studnets can pay you more tuition," then felt political heat for that, so they froze tuition, but without restoring the lost state funds.  In short, after two decades of liberal Democratic control of state government, UC has between 40 and 60 percent of the total per-student net revenues that it began the century with.  

As a result of Democratic underfunding, the state university systems encountered the Covid-19 pandemic without enough funds to operate absent new debt (UC took on another $1.5 billion in the summer, on top of overall institutional debt that has doubled in the past ten years). Neither Cal State nor UC could afford to open safely, even for a partial student body. 

There were two more reminders of the constant grinding shortfalls last week. The Legislative Analyst's Office reported that most campuses in both systems have enough uncommitted reserves to cover only a week or two of operations.  And materials for the upcoming UC regents meeting identify $25 billion in facilities needs through 2026 that have no identified funding source.


There's one more Democrat policy area I want to discuss, where the economy and higher education meet.  The Democrats wholly committed themselves to human capital theory, which among other things defined bachelor's degrees and their student debt through the wage return on a financial investment. Non-monetary and social benefits were downgraded or completely ignored.  Human capital theory was always flawed. I wrote about this in The Great Mistake (Stage 8), and will have more to say elsewhere (this week I'm reading what looks like a major intervention, The Death of Human Capital?, as part of ongoing research on a new political economy for education.) 

Though it sounds odd to say, human capital theory entails the privatization of work itself.  It treats individual capabilities as a private good rather than as something that is created through social processes and is always interpersonal; it sets wages and working conditions with no regard for their political and social conditions or effects.  (See Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos for a definitive analysis of these.) Executive pay and founders' fortunes reflect, in reality, their beneficiaries' institutional and social power, not an objective valuation of a true contribution.  

Human capital theory has had many practical effects. One is that Democrats agree with Republicans on seeing capital gains, real estate, and very high net worth as entirely private goods, which makes them very hard to tax, even at the rate of wage labor. Another is that Democrats have participated in converting employees, entitled to benefits and legal protections, into contractors, without these benefits and protections. In this model, contractors voluntarily enter into private contracts as entrepreneurs of their human capital.

This Democratic confusion played out in several propositions up for a vote on the California ballot. There were three notable anti-progressive outcomes in the midst of a 2:1 Democratic majority vote, all of which implicate the university.

Proposition 15: Taxing commercial property at its market price.  This was another unsuccessful attempt to qualify Prop 13 from 1978, which tied property tax assessments on all property, commercial and residential, to the original purchase price and capped the tax rate at 1 percent of that value (plus a 2% annual increase).  California property owners keep the full value of the difference between purchase and sale price (doubling and tripling is not unusual if you stay put for a while), and don't have to share those gains with the state on an annual basis, though schools and other infrastructure, which must be funded annually, contribute to the property's value).  In the residential market, tying today's taxes to the prices of yesterday benefits the old over the young, who are doubly penalized by paying the newer, inflated purchase prices, which subsidize the capped taxes of the old.  Older homeowners are whiter, so racial injustice is also unofficial state tax policy. The artificially-lowered property tax dopes property values, letting asset price inflation sustain a housing crisis.  The situation with commercial property is even more irrational, and Prop 15 focused only on that, but it lost anyway. I've heard lots of tales of why--the hypocrisy and individualist selfishness of Californians is always a popular one. My candidate is the limit to Democratic thought that I've been discussing, which prevents it from advocating a public-investment model of private property that would allow proper taxation. 

Proposition 16 (to restore affirmative action).  This measure came from legislative Democrats, was oddly worded, appeared late, and had little money behind it, so faced an uphill battle (such was the KQED Forum verdict). I'd also point out that Democrats were unable to move from what I'd call the Level 1 justification for affirmative action to Level 2. Level 1 is that affirmative action is needed to breach an exclusionary white majority lock on an institution.  But in California, the most visible sites of contestation over race-conscious affirmative action--college admissions---now have minority-white student bodies (see the chart above). Voters might assume that on the goal of racial diversity, it is mission accomplished. The Level 2 justification for affirmative action is the persistence of both racism and racial inequality, very much including graduation gaps, student debt gaps, wealth gaps, and income gaps.  But these are issues that human capital theory (and the neoliberalism that rests on it) place in the private realm, as not a matter of public policy. Thus it's been decades since Democrats in any numbers espoused racial equality of outcome (proportionate admissions, income and wealth parity, etc.) as a vital goal. So party members would have no reason to turn out in force for affirmative action.

Proposition 22. (excepting some tech companies' contractors from re-conversion to employees via Assembly Bill 5). This was put on the ballot by a few Silicon Valley transportation companies, including Uber and Lyft.  AB 5 had been an example of parliamentary Democrats deciding in effect to rein in human capital theory, which was allowing some wealthy companies to evade labor law and force drivers to bear the structural costs of their employment privately.  Prop 22's passage (reverting drivers to contractors) exposed yet again the issue of whether the Valley will be allowed to use tech to force workers to negotiate the value of their  individual capital with huge platforms, whose size will allow the latter always to win the argument.  Prop 22 succeeded in part because of the tech plutocracy's access to customers' apps and their $200 million ad spend. But it also succeeded because the Democratic party has no clear intellectual critique of the political economy of the "independent" contractor. 

For example, on a Forum discussion of the proposition, a caller named Nick from San Rafael said this:

I voted to allow workers to stay independent--I voted for 22. I did it with mixed emotions. I just fundamentally believe that AB 5 is bad law. The most charitable description is that it has so many carve-outs for anybody who had friends in Sacramento that it doesn't have any teeth. but the practical effect has been really devastating to a lot of my friends. I'm over forty and I work in marketing, and if you're over 40 and you work in marketing you're probably a free-lancer. And if you're a freelancer in California, you didn't get any work this year. It's been a bad year for everybody. So I felt, not why shouldn't these Uber drivers be independent: I thought why shouldn't everyone? And it really frustrated me the way the conversation has been framed  as these big bad tech companies are trying to get away with it, when the reality is,  it's so hard to do business in California.  And trust me, it's easy to hire freelancers and contractors in other states. My downside to Prop 22 passing is now there's no muscle to fight AB 5 in Sacramento. . . . it's a classic story of posturing politicians, and I'm worried about my friends who don't have the money to fund a Prop 23 for themselves.

Nick's logic is a bit death drivey--California contractors had no work this year, so everyone should be contractors.  And AB 5 shouldn't prevent them from underbidding competitors in lower-cost states, so they can't afford to live in California.  Sam Harnett, KQED's Silicon Valley reporter, shot back, "why isn't [Nick] an employee with benefits and protections"? This didn't seem to cross Nick's mind. Nick's comment about "mixed emotions" makes me think he's a Democrat, which is also why he has no systemic critique of contracting. 

Marketing is one of the major career paths of non-STEM college grads, which puts universities in the position of enacting a human capital theory that makes the precarity of their (usually indebted) graduates that much more likely.  Even the people who go to college for personal development rather than marketable skills expect the degree to lead to relatively secure work. That is no longer happening,  and yet graduates of any age cannot turn to the Democrats for a worked-out conceptual alternative to white-collar precarity.  Nick in fact directed his wrath at Democrats rather than at the tech companies the Dems were trying for once to corral.  One likely reason is that he didn't see an underlying intellectual case. 

Universities are damaged by all three of these trends. Majorities want to keep state-suppressed property tax rates, which makes housing unaffordable for most university employees and students. Majorities don't support the strong forms of racial equality that should be a core public benefit of higher education. Majorities don't support secure employment for either non-college or college workers--and many of the latter don't either.

The common theme of these failures is the Democrats' tendency to hop on and off and on the Republican bandwagon of low taxes, racial laissez-faire, and business sovereignty over employees. They share a human capital theory until it gets a little too cruel. The immediate problem isn't the gap between the Democratic party's center and left, but that the party as a whole has not, for many years, narrated a clear alternative to the Republican paradigm.

Democrats now have to explain that government isn't a safety net. It's a coordinator, creator, orchestrator of collective effort--both builder and purchaser of goods in common (health, knowledge, transit, safety, justice, collective change). Democrats have to teach everyone in reach that public spending cannot be replaced by private spending for a wide range of fundamental public goods. That includes private tuition for university degrees. 

Nothing is going to get better in the coming era without more collective construction of common systems. The systems we have now, dominated by the self-interest of various firms and sectors (Uber, etc), are inefficient and unjust. We need structures that can transform climate change, warfare, poverty, migration, and human ignorance into better forms.  The current policy mashup, hatched in the 1990s, won't work. Really sophisticated governments will be essential.  Anti-masker individualism is finished as positive force: it can only generate a long series of national setbacks.  Democrats need a real story line about all this.


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