October 27, 2021
We are an unsettled nation. The issues we are struggling with may not be new, but the way we seem to be approaching them is. Our nation’s structural racism, growing wealth gap, frayed social safety-net, and environmental crisis have remained unresolved for decades and longer. Each has no painless answer. Each challenges basic assumptions that we, as a nation, have built our nation upon. Each poses the need for difficult societal realignments. But none of this is new.
We are seeing state governments, local school boards, the US Congress, and more official entities embroiled in violent disagreements that are less about competing solutions and more about the problems themselves. These head-to-head battles have disrupted meetings, resulting in the January 6th insurrection, and they feel different. They leave little room for discussion and understanding. They are binary, win-lose in nature.
If once we shared a vision of the future with an agreement that helped ease the inevitable disagreements about strategy and pace, we now have two diametrically opposed visions with little that is common ground from which to build. When there is less and less common ground, each disagreement becomes more about personal worth and dignity. Fact, logic, and knowledge are overridden by fear and hate.
Too often it now seems that one side of these conflicts has rejected their stake in our national future as a collective enterprise, one in which the interests of their neighbors is as important as their own. It is not that we have the wrong policy to deal with the pandemic but that we have a local, state, or national policy at all. It is not that we need a different approach to combatting racism, we should have no policy at all. One side sees a problem and the other sees none. One side now views everything from a solely personal perspective and bridles at any sense that we have the need for collective action. Personal decisions are the priority. For one side government represents collective interest and for the other government is the enemy, threatening personal freedom.
Consider this from a recent letter from 26 organizations to school boards in Southern California: “CRT (Critical Race Theory) and its pleasant-sounding derivatives — diversity, equity and inclusion, anti-racism, racial sensitivity, racial healing, critical pedagogy, critical awareness, social-emotional learning and so on, are underlined by a common thread of placing race, racism, and racial struggles at the center of our national dialogue and public institutions. The doctrine paints a grim, inaccurate, and discordant picture of our history and present, challenging the very foundations of the liberal order, distorting our basic virtues of equality and merit, and purporting to dismantle free markets. Perpetuating this bankrupt ideology in real life leads to perverse discrimination, disempowerment and victimhood by virtue of race.”
Change the subject to containing the pandemic or helping those who have been left out of the nation’s economic success and the argument remains the same. Deny the reality of the problem and there is no need for actions that might upset feelings or status. We are asked to accept a relativism that sees no fact or truth and replaces it with opinion. All are equal and everyone has the right to decide what is true. In this context the historical reality of German atrocities, the Holocaust, is just a matter of opinion, every issue has multiple co-equal perspectives.
So why are we at this place now? Is there something unique about this moment? Are the folks I met in Laramie, Wyoming who will not wear masks and the parents in New York who threatened their school board members over CRT and diversity, or the January 6 insurrectionists just isolated people acting independently? Are we getting too conspiratorial if we think they are connected and that there is a common force-feeding and nurturing them toward a common end?
Fueling this situation is an ever-expanding list of nonprofit organizations that put themselves forward as groups acting in the public interest and speaking for the “grassroots.” It is easy to form a new organization when a new battleground appears. It is easy to claim nonprofit status so that donations can become tax-deductible. The patina of respectability, of noble intent, that non-profit status can convey can make politics seem to be community service. Their Nonprofit status also makes it easy to hide who is paying the bills and pulling the strings of these organizations.
In my mailbox last week this I found an email from one of the groups that had been protesting CRT in southern California, Parents Defending Education. The email asked me to join them in protesting “ U.S. Department of Justice’s mobilization of “FBI against parents … for standing up for their own children!” They describe their organization as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas and fighting against indoctrination in the classroom — and for the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids. We are also standing with parents like you who are troubled by what’s happening in our schools today.”
But who are they? They are not so grassroots in fact. They are like so many of the organizations that now claim to speak for the grassroots, for the average citizen. They are the product of an infrastructure built by wealthy “conservatives” dedicated to preserving their own wealth, status, and power. An infrastructure that has for decades preyed used the fears that systemic change creates to protect their special interests.
Parents Defending Education was established just months ago as a tax-exempt (501c3) nonprofit organization, but one that could quickly generate the resources to hire at least nine well paid staff members and mount what they describe as a national campaign “ to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.” Blogger Mercedes Schneider dug into how the CDE’s drew both money and talent from wealthy conservative “donors.”
This is “dark money” in action. Using the anonymity that our tax code provides it is easy enough to create organizations that depict themselves as being there for the public welfare but serve as a vehicle for political action in the self-interest of the secretive donors rather than the public as a whole. It provides a way to quickly pivot as new opportunities present themselves for fomenting anger and upset. The goal is to maintain the status quo and divert attention from root causes. The technique is to play upon the fear of change to build a political force that can oppose actions designed to address the root causes.
The interests acting under the cloak of “grassroots” organizations have year by year changed the nature of the dialogue. They have given up on the need to provide an alternate solution; just saying no is now enough. They have found it easy to build on the fear of change to deny the existence of the problem itself. It is a manipulative strategy that uses the reality that we face difficult problems that require difficult changes if we are to solve them to protect the self-interest of a small group of very wealthy men and women.
And it seems to be working. It has made passing anything but tax cuts almost impossible. It has made taking on the challenge of climate change almost impossible. And it has been able to make it seem that it is just a battle between one grassroots constituency and another. It is not.
It has made the political atmosphere of our nation ugly and toxic. That has been the goal. Without heroic action, it is going to succeed.