In the days since House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that he will not seek reelection this year, much of the commentary has focused on his failures. Barring a sudden bout of legislative productivity, Ryan will relinquish the speaker’s gavel with a deficit-exploding tax cut for corporations and the rich as his only significant achievement. Fortunately, his career-defining goals of privatizing Social Security, converting Medicare into a voucher system and dismantling the safety net remain unfulfilled. And then, of course, there is his humiliating failure, dating back to the 2016 campaign, to stand up to President Trump.
Ryan’s legacy, however, is far bigger than any single policy or political battle. He has spent his career advocating an ideology that divides Americans into “makers” and “takers” and pushes the economic interests of the former at the expense of the latter. By putting a friendly face on punishing, plutocratic policies, Ryan hoodwinked a credulous media establishment into believing that he was an earnest wonk instead of the cruel reactionary he really is. And although his ideas have mostly stalled at the federal level, they have thrived in Republican-controlled states around the country — to devastating effect.
Recently, the consequences of Ryan-style conservatism have provoked a growing backlash, demonstrated in the teacher demonstrations in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona. In Oklahoma, where teachers this month staged a nine-day walkout, tax cuts for the wealthy in 2004 were followed by deep cuts to spending on public services. These cuts deprived public schools of about $350 million per year, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, contributing to low teacher pay, large class sizes, deteriorating textbooks and four-day school weeks in much of the state. Before teachers began planning the walkout, which ended Thursday, state lawmakers had not merely neglected these pressing issues for years; they’ve exacerbated them by passing additional tax cuts for the rich and renewing a massive tax break for oil and gas companies.
Many states are facing similar funding challenges. Twenty-nine states now spend less per student on K-12 education than a decade ago, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A number of these states have also cut income taxes, including Oklahoma and Arizona. Notably, the nine states that have experienced the largest percentage decline in spending per student all currently have Republican governors and legislative majorities.
The ongoing wave of teacher-led activism in red states is heartening for several reasons, not least of which is that the teachers are achieving real victories. Last month, striking West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent raise, among other concessions. Oklahoma lawmakers approved teacher pay increases funded in part by higher taxes on the oil and gas industry, although they failed to provide additional funding that is still badly needed. Meanwhile, the groundswell of support that teachers have received from students, parents and activists is further evidence of what progressives have long known — that the Republican Party’s devotion to gutting public services is deeply unpopular, including with many of the party’s own voters. As one Arizonan mother who supports the teachers told the New York Times, she normally votes for Republicans but “would switch party lines” over education funding.
The key question, in these states and elsewhere, is how to effectively counter the ascendant right-wing populism that has enabled Republicans to retain power despite their policies. One promising model can be found in the Working Families Party, which recruits progressive candidates to run in Democratic primaries and mobilizes grass-roots activists in 19 states. (The WFP made headlines this weekend by endorsing Cynthia Nixon in the New York gubernatorial race.) One of those states is West Virginia, where the founder of the state’s WFP chapter played an active role in the recent teachers’ strike. Last year, the WFP supported more than 1,000 candidates in state and local elections, nearly two-thirds of whom won their races. Randy Bryce, the leading Democratic candidate to replace Ryan, is also a longtime WFP member. And the group recently announced that Maurice Mitchell, a veteran of the Movement for Black Lives, will become its national director, sending a strong signal about the WFP’s commitment to advancing multiracial progressive populism across the country.
Political scientist Corey Robin has suggested that the red-state teacher protests could mark a turning point similar to California’s passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which helped usher in the Reagan revolution. He may be right. But it’s up to those who oppose Ryan’s ideology to offer working people who are fed up with Republican policies an alternative and inclusive vision that transcends race, region and partisan affiliation. As Mitchell recently told the Nation, all working Americans deserve “a real political home.”
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