A Hard Day’s Debate Night

Photo by Dylan Collette on Unsplash

If you care about the United States of America, it’s a hard time to be a retired professor.

Just this week, the POTUS, who appears to be the President of the Vladimir Putin Fan Club as well as the United States, was asked to respond to Putin’s recent statement that “Western-style liberalism is obsolete.” It was the kind of remark you might expect from a successful autocrat who has discovered how easy it is to manipulate elections to attack the European Union and the U.S. without firing a shot. It also showed that Putin knows something about the broad progress of thought in the academic discipline called political science.

Mr. Trump proceeded to display the kind of cringeworthy ignorance that would make persons with any national pride regret that the question was asked in Japan. Putin’s remark had plainly whooshed over his head, and Mr. Trump gave an answer that conflated classical liberalism — the philosophical basis of all modern democracy — -with the social liberalism that marks the distinction between Republicans and Democrats, the coasts and the heartland. It was particularly humiliating to be on foreign soil when the POTUS was asked a question about John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo and he answered with a criticism of the Berkeley City Council.

He was similarly clueless when, in the same press conference, he was asked a question about busing in the context of the Democratic candidate debate and he answered as if the question were about transportation rather than public school integration.

At least the frustration on the Democratic side was not about matters covered in the freshman political science curriculum in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and if Putin’s remark was any indication, the Soviet Union. The Democratic problem involved history and policy formation. The latter is also taught in political science but in upper division courses and the former only comes when the survey courses are completed for context and students are offered courses on areas of their interest — in this case, the U.S. civil rights movement.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was able to demonstrate that former Vice President Joe Biden may be too old for the job, but perhaps by elevating stagecraft over substance. She left an opening that Biden was not nimble enough to exploit by disregarding a fundamental rule: you cannot base public policy on anecdotes.

The issue was forced busing to achieve public school integration and the anecdote was powerful. Harris talked about a small child whose education, she claimed, was vastly improved by what lay at the end of a daily bus ride and (get ready for it because Harris was) “I was that little girl.”

It was powerful stuff that Biden might have defused by verbally patting Harris on the head, complimenting her intelligence and grit, and explaining to her what was going on nationwide at the time he staked out his position against forced busing. It would be too much to ask that he parse the arguments of both sides in evaluation of what busing orders accomplished while they existed, but that would be overkill anyway in a debate where seconds count.

Instead, Biden did not even make eye contact with Harris as he mounted his high horse and ticked off many of the issues where he was on the same side as the civil rights establishment. Sometimes his support was politically inconvenient. Apparently, the voters were being invited to weigh the one time he bucked the major civil rights organizations against the many times he backed them in the face of the Dixiecrats’ ire.

The result was what the game theory gang calls lose-lose. Biden was made to appear a doddering old man and Harris bought into another toxic campaign issue, the first one being whether her health insurance plan would do away with private insurance.

She finds herself in rooms that want to hear that private health insurance is a goner but she knows the voters do not want to hear that, so she waffles.

Busing is the same. Most of the rooms in which she speaks will want her to be in favor of busing, but there are reasons why busing went away that are not directly connected to racism. Back in 1972, Gallup had white people opposed to forced busing to integrate schools by 77 percent. No surprise there, but 47 percent of black people were also opposed.

There are many reasons blacks might be opposed. There was the Detroit fiasco, where a school district already in debt was asked to dig the hole deeper for school buses, or the Kansas City fiasco, where they built all manner of magnet schools and no white people took the bait — -or it could be what a black activist told me back in the seventies: “We just get tired of sending our kids to chase white people around.” She was reacting to a specific proposed plan that had black kids bused to white schools, but her point was that the black kids always seemed to draw the inconvenience straw.

But the big deal is that the Supreme Court has said federal courts have no power to require that school district lines be redrawn to accomplish integration. If that is the case — and it is — it really makes no difference if a black child’s test scores can be improved by sitting next to a white child.

The Fair Housing Act has made some differences at the margins, but housing patterns are probably more segregated now than they were during the busing controversy. In those neighborhoods where housing is not segregated, neither are the schools.

Since the school districts are drawn at the state level, that would appear to be where the most likely remedy will be found. Can you imagine what an inveterate liar like Mr. Trump would do with this playing field? Why in the world would the Democrats choose this hill on which to die when there is so much riding on not dying?

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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