Part 2—The Culture of Liberal Indifference: Last Tuesday, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama made an important proposal.
“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” the president said. Columnists swung into action.
Last Friday, David Brooks praised the proposal in a well-reasoned, information-strewn column. As he closed, he apologized for being rude, but he explained the potential gain for the nation in Obama’s proposal:
BROOKS (2/15/13): This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.We wouldn’t put it exactly that way, though we don’t think Brooks was being rude. But as everybody knows by now, children who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds tend to be way behind their middle-class peers by the time they’re three years of age.
President Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way...
Later in life, society pays the price, in various ways, if these children fail to thrive. More fundamentally, those children deserve the best chance to succeed, to the extent that we know how to provide it.
(Refresher: To see Damien Fowler, 4, “playing a memory game with his teacher,” just click here. Our young scholar happpens to live in a state which is spending to give him good preschool.)
Brooks wrote an intelligent column. One day earlier, Gail Collins pretty much clowned. On the bright side:
In various unintentional ways, Collins gave us a grisly look at The Culture of Liberal Indifference.
In her column, Collins pretends to explain why our 4-year-olds don’t have quality preschool right now. She takes us all the way back to 1971—to a veto by President Nixon.
After Obama’s State of the Union, Collins spoke with Walter Mondale. It was Mondale’s bill which Nixon vetoed back in 1971.
Long ago, Nixon votoed Mondale's bill—but how can that possibly matter now? In this passage, Collins provides the basic outline of her column:
COLLINS (2/14/13): Nobody was happier [about Obama’s proposal] than Walter Mondale, the former vice president. “This is going to be wonderful,” he said in a phone conversation. His delight was sort of inspiring. If I had been down the road Mondale has traveled, my mood would have been a little darker.In this column, Collins reworks part of her 2009 book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. In that book, Mondale’s bill is largely treated as day care legislation; it isn’t clear that the bill was designed to provide “quality preschool education.”
In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the Congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family’s ability to pay.
And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing “communal approaches to child rearing.” Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.
Day care is an excellent goal, but it isn’t the same as quality preschool education. But so what? In her column, Collins fudges this distinction, producing a pleasing history in which our modern-day lack of quality preschool is all Nixon’s fault.
Collins achieves an improbable task in her column. She outlines the history of American preschool without ever saying the words, “Head Start.” Let’s offer a bit of background:
The Head Start program was enacted in 1965, at a time when liberals and other reformers didn’t know how hard it was going to be to equalize educational opportunity and outcomes. Just six years later, Mondale’s bill passed the Congress and was vetoed by Nixon.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Mondale’s bill really would have made “quality preschool education available to every family in the United States.” As Collins manages to note, Nixon vetoed Mondale’s bill 42 years ago.
At no point does Collins really explain how a 1971 veto can explain the lack of quality preschool education today, in the year 2013.
In fairness, Collins runs through a parade of horribles designed to please liberal readers. She quotes Pat Buchanan, who helped write Nixon’s veto message. She says the defeat of Mondale’s bill “was one of the earliest victories of the new right.”
That may be true, but what happened next? In her column, Collins offers this truncated history, in which she skillfully fudges and smudges The Culture of Liberal Indifference:
COLLINS: After Gerald Ford became president [in 1975], the early childhood education bill’s supporters tried to resurrect the plan. They had hardly done anything besides agree that they probably ought to wait until after the 1976 election, when they were hit with a political tsunami. Members of Congress started getting hundreds and hundreds—sometimes thousands and thousands—of hysterical letters accusing them of plotting to destroy the American family.Liberals may find that history pleasing. According to Collins, crackpot pushback came from the right; Mondale is quoted dinging this as the true start of the Tea Party. A revival meeting was even involved!
This was before constituent e-mail, when that kind of outpouring was shocking, particularly since a number of the writers seemed to believe that Congress was plotting to allow children to organize labor unions and sue their parents for making them do chores.
“That was really the beginning of the Tea Party. The right wing started to turn on this thing viciously,” said Mondale. “They said it was a socialist scheme. They were really pounding the members of Congress and a lot of people got cold feet.”
Nobody really knew where it was all coming from. A reporter for The Houston Chronicle traced the hysteria back to a man in Kansas who had written the leaflet, based on information he’d received from a revival in Missouri, which he told the reporter he had since learned was almost all completely wrong.
But that was it. Later, people would begin proposing modest preschool programs, particularly for the offspring of poor women who were required to work after the repeal of welfare entitlements in the Clinton years. But there would never again be a serious attempt to guarantee all American families access to quality early education and after-school programs.
And then, “that was it.” Suddenly, we find ourselves “in the Clinton years,” with modest proposals being offered. That said, the Clinton years started in 1993. Just like that, twenty years have disappeared as Collins tells her story.
Was Mondale’s bill mainly about day care, or did it really propose “quality preschool education?” For current purposes, it doesn’t matter. We don’t doubt that pushback came from the right, and that much of the pushback may have been ill-informed, even zany.
But that was the early 1970s. Where is the subsequent effort from us high-minded folk on the left? How did all those years go by without an attempt at further progressive action? Skillfully, Collins forgets to ask such questions in her column. This lets us enjoy a pleasing tale, in which a good, kind man of our own noble tribe is defeated by the other tribe's crazies.
Collins pens a pleasing column. But in her book, as she closes Chapter 11, she provides a franker history of what happened after Nixon’s veto. We’ll start in 1977, with Carter in the White House, Mondale by his side. By now, the crazy leaflets have come and gone—but the liberal world has agreed to submit.
Remember, the revealing narrative which follows was published in 2009. Rep. John Brademas was Mondale's partner in the House on the 1971 bill:
COLLINS (page 290): Although Jimmy Carter did bring Democratic control back to the White House, with Mondale as his vice president, the new administration had little interest in creating expensive new governmental programs. Brademas, who had become part of the Democratic leadership in the House, was busy on other projects. And, as [Brademas aide] Jack Duncan said, nobody really “wanted to go through that again.” Although Congress would keep fiddling with preschool programs to help poor children, there was never another serious attempt to create a national answer to the problem of who took care of the kids in an economy that now depended on women to work.As you can see from that passage, Collins’ book mainly treats the Mondale bill as an attempt to provide day care; it isn’t clear that this bill was really about “quality preschool education” at all. But either way, the appalling history described in that passage defines The Culture of Liberal Indifference—a culture which is never discussed in columns by people like Collins.
“I still hope we can get ourselves organized,” said Mondale recently, not sounding all that hopeful. “I tried everything.”
How did we get from Nixon to here? Here’s how:
After the liberal world got its ass kicked in the early 70s, nobody really “wanted to go through that again,” Collins quotes Duncan saying. Result? According to Collins, “there was never another serious attempt” to address the needs addressed by Mondale’s bill. Instead, we liberals sat around and tugged on our dicks and pretended to care, producing the situation Collins describes in her pleasing but misleading column.
“I tried everything,” Mondale said in 2009—referring to an effort he made 38 years before! Even in her book, Collins shows no sign of seeing how absurd that statement was.
So typical! Almost forty years later, Mondale said he still hoped that we liberals and Dems could somehow “get ourselves organized!” But that comment appeared in Collins’ book; last week, readers of her column were shielded from such strange remarks. In Collins’ column, we were told about Nixon’s veto—and about a revival meeting featuring the crazy new right. We weren’t encouraged to wonder how leaflets from the early 70s could explain the lack of quality preschool today.
Why do low-income children lack quality preschool, except in states like Oklahoma? The answer to that is blindingly obvious, though liberal columnists will never discuss it. By the mid-1970s, it was clear that equalizing educational outcomes was going to be very hard. In some cases, there would be opposition from the right—and low-income children were farther behind that anyone had supposed, in ways which were hard to address.
At that point, the liberal world quit on low-income kids. In her column and in her book, Collins directs our attention away from that part of this history. We’re asked to think about Buchanan and Nixon instead. Our massive liberal indifference is skillfully disappeared. Within the pseudo-liberal world, it has to be Dick Nixon’s fault. By law, it can't be ours.
Collins erased four decades of liberal sloth. But another problem was raised by Obama's address.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama mentioned two red states which are leading the way in this area. Just like that, a Cable Liberal tried to make that disappear.
Tomorrow: But Oklahoma can’t be OK! The Cable Liberal's tale.