Nicole Hemmer & Will Bunch

Who Broke American Education?

Air Date: October 31, 2022

Historian Nicole Hemmer and columnist Will Bunch discuss the politicization of the U.S. education system.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guests today, authors of new books, both. Nicole Hemmer, author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She’s also a scholar at the Obama Oral History Project. And Will Bunch. He is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the new book “After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Divided the Nation – and How to Fix it.” Welcome to you both.


HEMMER: Thanks so much for having.


BUNCH: Yeah, thanks Alex. I appreciate it.


HEFFNER: Let me start with you, Nicole, and then I will ask Will the same question precisely, so we are establishing a foundation here. When you think of the thesis of your book and what precisely you mean by partisans or partisanship revolutionizing who is making American politics, I don’t think you just mean whom remade it, but who is still remaking it. What is the underlying thesis of who, how, why, in your mind, they remade politics?


HEMMER: So in “Partisans” I talk about these figures in the 1990s in particular who are taking advantage of two changed conditions, in American politics in American society. And then as the end of the Cold War, which fundamentally changed the underlying logic of the conservative movement and a new media environment that allowed for a kind of blending of entertainment and politics and that really favored a kind of partisanship, a kind of extremism and shock-value that had found its way into politics in other places in the past, but in the 1990s really moved to the fore of American politics, particularly on the right. And so that combination of the new geopolitical conditions and the new media environment allowed, especially on the right, for a new form of extremism and punditry that created the partisans that I write about.


HEFFNER: And now to Will, the thesis of your book, seemingly connected to Nicole’s, insofar as one of the victims of that partisanship and that vitriol has been the educators: higher education, public education. You are making a point about the ivory tower and your thesis is in effect, what?


BUNCH: Well, you know, we we’ve seen college become the real fault-line in American politics. Whereas, you know, today in 2022, the Democrats are seen as the party of college-educated elites, more and more. And Republicans are seen more and more as the party of the working class, especially the white working class. You know, so my book explores how that happens. And it’s, it is interesting. There is an interesting overlap because the 1990s, I think was a time where it really started to come into focus because higher education, college in America had gone from being almost a public good, during the heyday of college, which was the forties, fifties, and sixties, where you saw this schematic expansion. And by the 1990s, we saw this privatization of college. And opportunities became more limited, but especially for people in the working class, as either the cost of college or the increasingly low rates of admission, you know, left college out of reach for people.


And I think what this triggered is resentment, you know, people who were shut out of college you know, struggled on the job market, but also, they felt there was a lack of respect. You know, that if this country was going to be defined as a meritocracy, and if these people didn’t have the primary badge of merit, which was a college diploma, then people seemed to be looking down on them for not having that badge. And you know partisans who came along in the 1990s were very good at stirring up those resentments.


HEFFNER: Yet to Will’s point, and of course, your point in “Partisans,” Nicole, the predecessors of Donald Trump and the Turning Point’s movement, right, there is a strong foundation that was building on. I know, I think Pat Buchanan’s on the cover of your book.


HEMMER: Yeah. He is.


HEFFNER: The idea of demonizing education, was that something that Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan and others, you know, got in a smoke-filled room and said, you know, this is how we’re going to do this? Because that does seem to be the foundation of some elements of Trumpism and conservatism, as we see it in its more extreme forms today.

HEMMER: Well, while there were certainly some behind-the-scenes coordination and shenanigans that were going on during the 1990s, in this case, that kind of grievance politics, especially around education, that would become so central to politics in the American right. First of all, it had been there since the 1960s and 1970s. I mean, this was something that fueled organizations like Young Americans for Freedom. There was in fact, a book called “The Left Leaning Tower.” There was a column in National Review that was all about universities. So some of that was already baked into the conservative movement, but this idea of the Democratic Party being led by white college educated out-of-touch elites, that really moves to the fore in the 1990s. And it’s not a coordinated thing. But it is a place where the grievances kind of zero in, that colleges are the place where your children are taken and they’re brainwashed; that you’re looked down upon, especially as the Republican party is beginning to try to woo the white working class even more. I mean, it’s starting in the Nixon-era with the Hard Hat Riots, but by the 1990s, it has become a core component as grievance politics moves to the moves to the fore. It’s a little different than in the 1980s when somebody like Reagan, even though he tapped into some of that, was so focused on trying to sound optimistic and upbeat about America and America’s future, folks like Pat Buchanan and even Newt Gingrich don’t necessarily feel that way.


HEFFNER: Will, I thought I saw you thinking something.


BUNCH: Yeah. No, I just wanted to add, I mean, I agree with everything Nicole said, and I agree with her that it wasn’t so much an organized thing. But one of the points that she made about the new forms of media that came along in the 1990s. You know, one person who emerges in my book who I think is an important figure is Rush Limbaugh because he was an expert at exploiting the culture wars because when you go back and look at those early Rush Limbaugh shows when he was really cashing fire in the early 1990s, he often, he often zeroed-in on things that were happening on college campuses. You know, which is just the idea that people who go to colleges are obsessed with taking down the hierarchies that conserve, that mean so much to conservatives in this country, particularly, you know, the patriarchy; and particularly the racial hierarchies that have existed in years. You know you know college education was increasingly seen as a threat to those hierarchies. And I think, you know, talk-radio and Fox News became venues for channeling that outrage.


HEMMER: It’s so interesting that you mentioned Rush Limbaugh because people like Pat Buchanan and Danesh D’Souza, who would become big figures in the 1990s, they were college-educated. Somebody like D’Souza really cut his teeth at a college newspaper. But especially in radio, people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, they didn’t have college educations. And they wore that as a badge of pride when they were doing their show, right? That we can be successful in America. And we can speak to people without a college education because we ourselves washed out of college. We tried college, it didn’t work for us. And there was a better path for us here in America.


HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you, this Will, how much of what you’re focused on is a result of Republican propaganda or specifically extremist propaganda of the kind that you and Nicole are talking about. How much of it is that and how much of it is a victim of an inequitable, undemocratic system when we’re talking about higher education? Because when I read you and think of your thesis, I think a lot about Thomas Frank another one of our favorite guests here on The Open Mind. And I say that in the most favorable sense of you identifying the complicity of liberals or liberalism in perpetuating inequities in, you know, systems that they tout as democratic when maybe they’re not, you know, in not engendering the values that they say they are. But with specifically with college, how much of it is what those allegations of Republicans or the conservatives on talk-radio, how much of that is sort of what is causing the ivory tower to break and how much of it is actually liberals’ own fault?


BUNCH: That that’s a great question. And I think you’re looking at two things that just feed upon each other in kind of a constant cycle, you know. No, there really are massive problems with the cost of college in America, you know, with access with who, who has opportunities to get a higher education in America and who doesn’t get those opportunities. And it’s complicated now. I do feel that to some degree, Republicans, conservatives started the backlash against higher education, you know, going all the way back to Ronald Reagan who was the first person to really raise the idea that maybe low tuition for young people wasn’t a good idea. That he famously said that taxpayers shouldn’t be underwriting the intellectual curiosity of young people. And you know this philosophy led to real-world budget cuts, you know, in state houses for public universities. And I think that’s a key factor that started this cycle of higher tuition, and college getting out of reach. But at the same time, I think, you know, when you know, when rank-and-file people on the right, you know, when people who live in the rust belt in these rural areas, you know, when they complain about elitism and they complain about cosmopolitan college types looking down on them, they’re not wrong. You know, I mean you know, I mean there really is a sense that they get that that they’re seen as something less, because they don’t have a diploma. That the people that they have interactions with on a daily basis, like government bureaucrats, or journalists from the hometown newspaper that these or schoolteachers, you know, they feel that these people have different values from them. And it’s, it’s a legitimate, it’s a legitimate cultural feeling. It’s not something that’s just whipped up out of thin air by…


HEFFNER: Nicole. How much of this do you see now as the intent of the partisans of the nineties, not just to malign college or universities? I mean, even if you started from a more objective footing and saying, look, there’s certain professions in the American system that don’t require higher education, they might require technical schools, they may not, but that’s not in and of itself a controversial or malignant sentiment. But what has happened is the politicization of higher ed has now become the politicization of education in general, especially high school and that’s ground zero now for these debates about school board leaders. And if you go into the history that you did, knowing where we are now, that Turning Points and other conservative organizations are targeting public education as much as if not more than higher education, not just high school grade school, elementary school. Does that seem like the sort of, their initial intent and design of the movement that you write about in “Partisans?”


HEMMER: Well, certainly in part, because this attack on institutions and particularly this attack on publicly funded institutions has been a core part of conservatism, since it emerged in its contemporary form in the 1940s and 1950s, especially when you think about schools as sites of desegregation, as places where, by the 1960s, mandatory prayer was no longer allowed; as sites of sex education, bilingual education. The idea that these elementary and high schools were also places where liberal ideas were being indoctrinated but were also kind of the building-blocks of a publicly funded society. That made them a real threat to the conservative project more broadly. Now you weave into that these culture wars that Will has mentioned, around issues of political correctness, but also the history wars in the 1990s, these wars over whether we should be teaching a critical history of the United States or whether we should have a history of the United States that glorifies the past. I mean, these are very contemporary arguments that we’re having, but they were there in the nineties as well. And they were fueling a lot of the politics of the day. And so I think that it’s this mix of both ideological, this mix of ideological and cultural and economic arguments, all flowing together. And the schools are such a powerful space for those arguments, especially elementary and high school, because not only do you have all of those issues, but now we’re talking about people’s children. And that adds a layer of emotion and passion and in some cases, fear, that makes it such a potent political issue.


HEFFNER: Yeah. I don’t know if you recall, Will, during the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Justice Jackson. But Ted Cruz, I think most notably, and you probably wrote a column on this that I might remember. But he most notably was attacking a particular book that was assigned at a private school, that the Justice sits on the board of. But when you thought of it, you know, the concept was, the Justice had to decline, you know, abstain from even basically identifying that that’s not the way she would have taught, you know, color blindness or, you know, the history of segregation or racism, but that she had to refrain from even saying that basic point: that we ought to, we need to teach the history of racism and, you know, being and, and how to be ethical, you know? And so the reason I’m mentioning this is it’s in sort of in the context of school board decisions that are being made about whether to teach the history of racism in this country anymore. And I’m wondering how that fits in to the degradation of education in general, not specifically the ivory tower.


BUNCH: Yeah, no, it’s, it’s a great question. And it’s something is funny is as a columnist I’ve been focused on and a lot this this year, it’s a little bit outside of the scope of my book, partly because we’re talking about something that’s really accelerated, I think, in the last, you know, six to nine months after I finished writing the book, frankly. But you know, I think initially the conservative concern about education was heavily focused on college. Again, you know, starting in the sixties, because that’s where you saw the action, you know, that’s where you saw the big protest against the Vietnam War and against racial segregation and in other issues. And I think we hit a big pivot point with the George Floyd protest in 2020, because I think conservatives were horrified by those protests, by the size and the scope of them, where in a number of midsize and even small towns in the rust belt, in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016, or even in 2020, you had hundreds of people turn out for Black Lives Matter marches in 2020. And I think it sort of was noticed that a lot of high school kids took part in this. A lot of high school teachers took part in this, in addition to college kids. And in fact, and I do quote this in the book there was a study of the George Floyd, some of the bigger George Floyd protests in DC and New York that spring found that 82 percent of the people who took part in these marches were college graduates, which is just mind, I means it’s more than double the rate of the American population overall. And so I think just to bring the point full circle, I think conservatives right now are terrified that education, that schooling is making people you know, turn against the system of white privilege.


It’s making them turn against the patriarchy and other gender norms that are so important to the conservative movement. And what’s changed is I think it used to be traced to what was happening in college. And I think now conservatives are panicked that this is happening as early as grade school. That by talking about race or by talking about LGBTQ issues in grade school, that kids are growing up to reject conservatism and thus it’s going to end their movement. And I think that’s why you’re seeing such a focus on education right now.


HEFFNER: Let me just ask you this both as, as a kind of closing transitional question here. You say in your last part of the book, Will, about prescriptions, how to fix the problem. And I want to hear how you think we fix the problem right now. Because it has to be more than tolerance for folks who don’t want to be college educated. That not a real prescription. Although, you know, having interviewed recently a number of Republican governors for a new thing that I’m working on, I that’s definitely part of what they embody, this feeling like I’m representing constituencies, who, you know, want to feel affirmed by their lack of a college education, not denigrated for it.


BUNCH:  Well, you know, I think, I think we need to get back to the, somehow to the spirit of the forties and fifties and sixties of, you know, where higher education is seen as more of a public good and not a privatized responsibility. And because college was really the American dream back then, you know, that people, you know, the public trust and public faith in our university system was off the charts back then. And it’s really plummeted in the last few years. And I think making college more affordable again and giving people more opportunities and it doesn’t, you know, getting to those complaints from the governors that you interviewed, it doesn’t have to just be traditional college. You know, we need, we need free trade schools in this country. You know, we need more apprenticeships and internships and opportunities like that. And, and one thing I’ll mention really quickly is, is I talked in the book about encouraging a universal gap year where millions of young people at age 18 would do a year of national service. And that would bring, that would bring people from, from country and people from these cosmopolitan cities bring ‘em together to work on, you know, preventing wildfires and, and working in schools and disadvantaged communities. There there’s a lot we can do if we acknowledge that this is a core problem. And if we take it seriously.


HEFFNER: And Nicole, I want to give you an opportunity to sort of reflect on the book, your book in, in this prescriptive, constructive climate of what to do about the extremism. We know it’s here. We know it’s metastasized with Infowars and Alex Jones and all these, the rest of it. But, but to Will’s point like, it has been for some time taboo to say, let’s revert to this time when folks associate that with less you know, equality, or at least racial equality. When in fact, if you look at the economics, it was in the Kennedy and Eisenhower years that the tax code was you know, astronomically fairer. There, there are certain things that were just fairer. They might not have been fairer for all people. But I wonder if, if you have any sense of that, of that history, because then, you know, you start to date yourself and that whole period gets associated with Vietnam instead of good, you know, higher education, good public education that you know, is a stark contrast to the extremism that that was metastasizing in the nineties and has still been metastasizing.


HEMMER: Yeah. I mean, I think that there are limits to both what economics and education can do to thwart extremism. Extremism is almost certainly always going to be part of the American political system. And right now it’s incentivized in a lot of ways. But I do think in thinking about the fairness of the forties and fifties and sixties, we know enough now, right, that we can marry the economic fairness with a fairness long racial and gender lines as well. And if you can build a robust system, and this includes great unions. Unions that are focused not only on fair wages, but on equitable hiring that create those kinds of opportunities. So that if you have a college education, you have the opportunity to get a good, well-paying job. If you don’t have a college education, you have those same opportunities and that those opportunities exist for everyone, that they’re not just limited to one type of person; that they’re not just limited to college grads, and they’re not just limited to white people or to men. There really are ways to marry different types of fairness in a system. Now getting political agreement on doing all of that is an extremely difficult thing to do. It will be a political fight on a number of fronts, but that I think is a great place to start investing some energy.


HEFFNER: And Nicole, Will, you, we, all three of us are political junkies where we think we’re relatively well educated in politics. You both have been doing it a little longer than me possibly Will, but what is one thing from your book that you think people who follow politics closely, it would confound them, or, you know, it’s the most salient thing. If it’s just an individual fact that, you know, you want people to take away from your book or you want them to continue reflecting on or working to correct. And we’re nearly out of time, but if you each have 30 seconds or so on this and starting with you, Nicole.


HEMMER: So I would say that people often think of the nineties as a decade of polarization. And I think it would be more accurate to say it’s an era of radicalization and to understand how that radicalization emerges from a period of time where it looked like anything was actually possible. We didn’t have to become more partisan. It’s the era of Ross Perot, and the highest third-party vote in nearly a century. So embracing the messiness of the nineties and then making sense of how politics of today emerged from it.




BUMCH: Yeah, you know, one factor for my book, there was a UCLA did a massive survey of a year of college freshmen. And in 1969, 82 percent of college freshmen said that the reason of going to college was to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. And that number plummeted in half by the mid-eighties and by the mid-eighties, the number one answer was to get myself in the position to be well off financially. And you know, again, you know, this question of what is college for, you know, we need to make college more affordable and more accessible, but we also need to integrate it with how do we produce better people, people who will have an appreciation for climate science instead of buying into climate denial. People, people who won’t be susceptible to conspiracy theories like, like QAnon or like the big lie that led up to January 6th. And you know, and, and we can give people those education and, and doesn’t even have to be in a college classroom, but we really need to be thinking about how to, how to produce a better informed and better educated, populous.


HEFFNER: Yeah. Well, both important insights. Will, Nicole, thank you so much for your time today.


HEMMER: Thanks Alex.


BUNCH: Thanks Alex. I appreciate it.


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