It is March, and one of our nation’s historically great political parties is still on track to nominate a lying, bloviating vulgarian with authoritarian policy proposals, a penchant for re-tweeting quotes from Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini , and a reluctance to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. For many months, political pundits have consistently predicted his campaign’s demise, and his campaign has consistently refused to match their predictions. What has been truly astonishing has been the silence of the Republican donor class, a group of billionaires who have, until this race, been able to command the obsequiousness of politicians seeking the Republican nomination. The New York Times recently reported that as long ago as the last Fall, when Mr. Trump’s candidacy was showing far more staying power than was assumed possible, that an anti-Trump super PAC was proposed to help make the candidate unpalatable to voters – but not a single donor stepped forward.
To be sure, getting caught in the line of Mr. Trump’s fire can be catastrophic for regular people. The Times also highlighted how Trump’s prolific use of Twitter focuses his ire on targets at all levels. Cheri Jacobus is a Republican strategist and contributor to a number of media outlets, and when she criticized Donald Trump for failing to participate in the last debate before Iowa, he unloaded on her – and was quickly followed by a swarm of his followers who relentlessly attacked her for days. In the same report, editor of The National Review, Rich Lowry, admitted that even the top Republican donors are afraid to take on Mr. Trump out of fear of his ability to send a tidal wave of negative publicity at them.
It would appear that the donor class, by and large, are cowards.
I can sympathize with a figure like Ms. Jacobus who, despite her reasonably influential political perch, has to fend off social media attacks on her own. That is no doubt time consuming, highly disruptive, and, worse, stressful given the attacks ranged from merely nasty to outright sexist and vulgar. But what, exactly, does a man like Sheldon Adelson fear? Or the Koch brothers? Or Paul Singer? People like this have spokesmen for their spokesmen, yet the fear of being mocked on Twitter drove them away from even trying to oppose a man whose influence on the Republican Party they loathe? More likely, they fear too much attention focused on their quiet, behind the scenes, roles as Kingmakers and agenda setters within the political system. Daniel Shulman, who has documented the nearly 40 year long effort by the Koch brothers to change American politics via foundations, grants, and backing candidates for office, wrote in Vanity Fair:
One thing that has held the Koch network back so far, in addition to the Trump backers within their ranks, is the concern that taking on Trump would inevitably draw the thin-skinned tycoon’s legendary invective, which it almost certainly would. If the Kochs go after Trump, rest assured that he will take every opportunity to highlight how he’s being attacked by a cabal of billionaires seeking to control the outcome of the election. And this more or less explains their caution to this point. By taking on Trump, the Kochs risk lending credence to his claims of being an outsider who is battling against a corrupt political system rigged by the elites.
Does this sound familiar to supporters of public education today?
It certainly should. While education reform has been played out in public, the financiers of those efforts have been less fond of the limelight on the whole. Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University has frequently called them as “The Billionaire Boys Club” originally referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundations whose efforts coincided over various aspects of education reform in the past 15 years. That “club” has many more members now, all working in various efforts to transform school via a combination of common standards and high stakes testing, breaking workplace protections for unionized teachers, and pushing for the expansion of school privatization via vouchers and charter schools. While some journalism has examined the role of big money in education reform, most of these “reformers” prefer to stay out of the spotlight, channeling money through foundations and 501(c) 3 groups, creating astroturf organizations to pose as teachers genuinely interested in corporate reform, buying politicians who force through laws and budgets favorable to their agenda, and hiring public spokespeople to launch splashy legal and web based campaigns to break teachers’ unions.
But the billionaires backing all of this and using the leverage of tremendous wealth to circumvent democratic processes do not, generally speaking, care to do all of this for themselves and go well out of their way to shield their efforts from public scrutiny. It is hard to forget the scene of former CNN anchor Campbell Brown going to Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show to tout her campaign against teacher tenure – and steadfastly refusing to even hint at who was funding her efforts. Her rationale? Protesters might bother her benefactors:
CB:Yeah, we are raising money.
SC: And who did you raise it from?
CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…
SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]
CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…
SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…
CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.
Just to be clear the “people who were out there earlier today” was a small group of mothers and teachers with hand made signs:
This pattern is hardly isolated to Campbell Brown’s efforts either. While hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is less shy than most about openly explaining his goals of influencing Democratic politicians to adopt privatization goals, his organization, “Democrats” for Education Reform funnels large sums of cash and influence from a variety of sources, mostly groups like the Walton Family Foundation. When education reform’s paid advocates found that they had trouble responding to public education supporters on social media, former Obama administration DOE official Peter Cunningham was simply granted $12 million dollars to found the “Education Post” to “create a better conversation” but also, in his own words, to create “the ability to swarm” on social media and to “hire” and “subsidize” bloggers. While Bill Gates is far more visible than most financiers of education reform, one of his biggest efforts to date was managing to organize 45 states and D.C. to adopt the Common Core State Standards without most parents or teachers realizing it was happening – by aiming almost entirely at power brokers and foundations in between election cycles.
Wherever you turn in education reform today, you find a think tank, or 501(c)3, or astroturf group, or pseudo-media outlet being paid handsomely to create the public impression of organic support for reformers’ ideas. Direct and natural engagement with the public is not one of their stronger skill sets. Which loops back to Republican donors and their unwillingness to confront Donald Trump. On the one hand, it looks ridiculous that some of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential individuals are so afraid of negative public attention that they dithered for months, but on the other hand given how successfully they have influenced public policy without having to bother with actual democracy and given how bipartisan majorities of American voters already think the system is rigged in favor the ultra-wealthy, it makes sense that those most blatantly manipulating the system would hesitate to step out of the back rooms and into the public’s view.
The good news for advocates of public education is that Trump’s level of ignorant bullying and outright vulgar bigotry is hardly necessary to make education reformers uneasy about scrutiny. For Campbell Brown, a few teachers and mothers with Sharpies rattled her ability to lie about teachers’ workplace protections on behalf of her donors. Peter Cunningham needed $12 million in foundation cash to pay bloggers to counter the efforts of working teachers with blogs and on social media who are defending their profession for free. The vast sums of money spent by Bill Gates to prop up and support the Common Core State Standards have not prevented dwindling support among parents and teachers as they grow more familiar with its impact on schools. Helping to keep light shining on how the donor class is pushing policy without the public’s consent goes hand in hand with the how harmful those policies have been. They’ve repeatedly shown that they dislike scrutiny.
We have no reason to oblige them.