David Rothkopf

All local politics are global

Once again, America’s political pundits got it wrong in their analysis of this week’s primary elections in the U.S. They immediately sounded the alarums regarding the big Tea Party wins, focusing on two of the most bizarre and extreme candidates to recently win victories — Delaware’s anti-masturbation advocate Christine O’Donnell and New York’s porn-loving gubernatorial ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Once again, America’s political pundits got it wrong in their analysis of this week’s primary elections in the U.S. They immediately sounded the alarums regarding the big Tea Party wins, focusing on two of the most bizarre and extreme candidates to recently win victories — Delaware’s anti-masturbation advocate Christine O’Donnell and New York’s porn-loving gubernatorial cartoon Carl Paladino. In so doing, they missed a far greater threat to the U.S. that was imbedded in the election results — the success of the teachers’ unions in defeating Washington, D.C.’s reformist mayor Adrian Fenty.

The unions didn’t like his tough schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her policies holding teachers accountable for their students’ performance. So they poured money into the campaign of Fenty’s opponent, D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. The spin on the election was that Fenty lost touch with the city’s black voters, but behind the scenes it was another victory for special interests that care more about their job security than they do about America’s economic future. The side that seems dedicated to ensuring that the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries in academic performance — and thus in terms of competitiveness, growth and by extension, national security, scored a big victory … if anything so cynical and counter-productive could actually be called a victory. Sadly, within hours of this setback for education reform in the nation’s capital, it became clear that another courageous reformer — with Rhee, one of the two or three most notable in the country –, New York City’s Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, was also under growing pressure to suspend some of his trail-blazing accountability practices. The argument the critics made was that some New York City students were underperforming on one measure of English and Math proficiency, even while they conveniently overlooked a wide variety of national and state-level achievement gains made under Klein’s stewardship. They also ignored the fact that the areas in which the setbacks occurred were ones in which standards were only this past summer revised upward (as Klein himself had urged for a long time).

Tom Friedman had it exactly right in his New York Times column last Sunday. The United States is at a juncture at which it needs to work harder and harder to compete. Nowhere is this truer than in terms of education. We need longer school days, longer school years, higher standards, tougher testing, a national curriculum, and an attitude that embraces innovation  allowing us to use distance learning to connect world class teachers with students across the country, rather than limiting their educational inputs exclusively to those the local school district can afford and lure to their communities. We also need much higher pay for teachers — there is no question about that — and if the teachers’ unions would focus on that and stop resisting changes that would make their profession more effective, they would be playing a much more useful role in the national debate.

Of course, as Friedman pointed out, a big part of this is parents assuming responsibility for their children’s performance too. What might do the trick is a glance at unemployment statistics that show that college graduates have four percent unemployment, while the rest of the country suffers at a real rate of perhaps four times that high — and some inner city areas suffer at a rate perhaps eight or nine times as high.

Certainly, the world is not waiting around for the U.S. to get this right. Students in Asia and Europe work harder, longer and at a higher set of standards. On standardized math tests, students in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, and Britain do much better than American fourth and eighth graders. (Some states do pretty well — like Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Kansas, for example — but others, like D.C., do especially badly; D.C. students perform at the level of students in Ukraine.) My father, who has spent his career as an educational researcher and is an emeritus professor at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, pinpointed one element of the problem when he makes the comment, as he sometimes does, that if you asked an American and a Chinese parent what made students successful at math, the American would say "talent" and the Chinese would say "hard work." They get it, and are setting today’s standards while we are falling farther and farther behind.

It may not sting as much right now because the ones who are losing out are still blue collar Americans — whom politicians talk about but don’t really live with and among. But all that’s starting to change. The new trend in outsourcing is not manufacturing jobs; it’s white collar work like accounting, reading, interpreting x-rays, and legal support. Perhaps when better educated Indians and Chinese start doing the jobs once done by the men and women who actually contribute to political campaigns and live next door to politicians, they will start taking this seriously.

The Tea Party is a great story because it is so full of kooky characters and it stirs up emotions. But there have always been protest movements in American politics and with any luck, there always will be. (Like them or not … and I’m no Tea Party fan … we benefit from the debate and the wake-up call they provide for the complacent.) But the story with truly international implications, one that touches everything from economics to national security to the distribution of geopolitical power, is the failure of the United States to recognize how it must change to compete.

The central issue in the November U.S. midterm elections is jobs. The defining geopolitical trend of our time is the rise of new powers in the world and the relative decline of the U.S. While both are linked to the usual subjects we discuss in publications like Foreign Policy — deficit reduction, defense budgets, military entanglements and diplomacy — they are more than anything based not on what America is, but on who Americans are. Are they better prepared? Do they work harder? As I’ve said before, the biggest problem we face as a country is not the level of our entitlement programs — it is our sense of entitlement.

As Friedman implied in his article, the students we produce today will not lead the world because their grandparents were members of the Greatest Generation. They must re-establish themselves and their own greatness, or cede the mantle of leadership to the many others whom will be more than willing to step up — and who will be well-prepared to claim it.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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