Paul Peterson has an excellent interview of Mo Fiorina on Education Next regarding Mo’s new book. This new book, like several earlier works by Fiorina, makes the case that America is not coming apart at the seams, despite appearances. Based on a careful analysis of public opinion polls and his extensive knowledge of American politics, Fiorina argues that Americans are no more divided on political issues now than they have been for many decades. Most Americans remain moderate in their politics and rarely embrace extremist views or movements.
The reason things feel more divided is that political parties have become more homogenous internally and more distinct from each other. Gone are the Southern, conservative Democrats, like George Wallace or even Sam Nunn, and the liberal, Northeast Republicans, like Nelson Rockefeller and Edward Brooke. The Voting Rights Act ended one-party rule in the South and other regional issues have given way to parties with uniform, national agendas. Parties have also become more responsive to national donors, who fund campaigns and drive the agenda in local races throughout the country. This has made the country more partisan, but not more divided, since people have just been sorted more clearly into distinct parties.
Paul asks Mo an excellent question: how come one of the parties hasn’t moved its positions closer to the middle to capture all of those moderate voters and ensure greater electoral success? Mo answers that parties are no longer primarily about winning elections. They are primarily concerned with articulating and promoting the more extreme views of their donor and activist bases. Paul and Mo were my graduate advisors and I served as a teaching and research assistant for both, so I am always inclined to believe them. Despite my prejudices, however, I think Mo makes a persuasive case that has implications for the ed reform movement.
What if ed reform foundations and organizations are not, for the most part, really concerned with winning? What if, like political parties, they are just trying to articulate and promote the worldviews of their donors and activist bases? Thinking about ed reform foundations and organizations like Fiorina thinks about political parties would explain a lot. It could explain why foundations and the organizations they fund have pursued a series of reforms whose failures were easily predictable, from Measuring Effective Teachers to Common Core to Portfolio Management to reforms that focus narrowly on the most disadvantaged. It could also help explain why people at foundations and reform organizations almost never experience consequences when the ideas they back fail. Ed reformers are so far removed from accountability that Tom Vander Ark was even pushed out of Gates for backing a strategy that succeeded.
Maybe many ed reform foundations and organizations are not actually about reforming education as much as they are about appearing earnest in support of things elites consider to be good. This would help explain the disproportionate amount of energy devoted to posturing on social media and making speeches to each other at conferences.
Of course, it’s easy to become too cynical about ed reform, just as it is too easy to despair about the nation’s political divides. But Mo offers a parsimonious theory that not only explains why parties have not moved more to the middle but also why ed reform appears stuck with a string of political failures.
I think there is a lot to this, and not only in education. Backers of Heritage or Media Matters don’t care about winning policy battles, they want megaphones for their worldviews.
Mo Fiorina’s greatest contribution to the field came during the 1990s methodenstreit over rational choice. Replying to critics of the field’s reliance on the RC paradigm, he proposed Fiorina’s Law of Wingwalking: “Don’t let go until you have something else to hold on to.”