Many liberals hold the view that on “culture war” issues, they can simply wait out the conservatives. Inevitably, younger people who grow up around openly gay people, for instance, will be more accepting of homosexuality, while the more conservative older cohort will eventually just die off. Any step forward on liberal cultural issues is welcome, but none is a make or break — victories reinforce the inertia that is already working in favor of the liberal position, but no particular victory is ever strictly necessary.
This view doesn’t seem to be entirely unjustified. There are many examples of a forcible reassertion of “traditional values” throughout history, but the extreme measures required in those cases highlight the strength of cultural inertia. Barring a radical Christian junta seizing control of the United States and imposing “biblical law” or something, liberal confidence in the power of inertia seems reasonable.
A similar calm confidence attends another cultural presupposition of our time: that all of life should and inevitably will become a market. Those who hold this position can afford to “wait out” any opponent, whose actions can often seem like a desperate acting-out. Take, for instance, education reform. We all know that the entire enterprise is a joke from an educational standpoint — the “school choice” movement has consistently failed to deliver the promised results. This would be a decisive objection if the goal of education reform were to improve education as such, but we are long past the time when market structures used to have to justify themselves for extrinsic reasons. Here as everywhere, the point isn’t to impose market-based reforms because it will deliver better outcomes, but simply because education will then be a market.
Unequal outcomes are a feature, not a bug — the “school choice” system is designed to reward the most talented while leaving the mediocre behind. We would know this if we simply listened to the compassionate liberal view of the issue, which held that inner-city schools are impossible to do well, more or less by definition, and that we have to figure out some way to give talented and motivated students a way out. The assumption that inner-city schools always have to be soul-crushing warehouses where intellectual curiosity is destroyed and students focus on practicing for when they go to prison — that is never questioned. As in health care, a “one size fits all” solution is always envisioned as a grim dystopia of deprivation. Given that public school are always by definition going to be squandering human potential, what alternative is there to figuring out some way to sort out the most promising students so that at least their potential won’t be squandered?
That is a powerful narrative that has been building for decades, and I personally know many left-wing people who buy into it. Even if the Chicago Teachers Union meet their goals in their current strike — and I fervently hope they do — that won’t be enough to displace the powerful cultural inertia working against them. Thankfully, they seem to be well aware of that and have developed a robust positive agenda [PDF], one that many parents have bought into.
It’s hard for me to avoid fatalism. It’s hard for me not to assume that any victory will be temporary and will only delay the inevitable. Perhaps Rahm Emanuel will prove to be enough of a political animal to give up on this issue for now and live to fight another day — but it’s essentially impossible that any Chicago Democrat with actual power will give up on the “education reform” agenda, much less work to reverse it. After Emanuel leaves office, the next person will set to work again.
Yet that’s precisely why a victory is so important now, because it sets a precedent for unions to act as an independent power base, which seems like the only way to build a new cultural consensus that would cash in on the forces built up by capitalism and gradually phase out the market as a dominant force in our lives.