Democrats, the Future is Populist: Teacher Strikes Provide Model for Liberal Success

After the 2016 election, I stopped reading The New York Times — not because I disliked the writing or disagreed with its opinions, but rather the news it chose to emphasize left me with a bad taste. Every morning, the front page featured a photograph of President Donald J. Trump and his latest scandal, or a picture of someone loosely related or affiliated with his presidency, whether it was former F.B.I. Director James Comey, U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

I’m not saying that news about Trump doesn’t matter; after all, he is our president. But for the average American trying to make ends meet, is Russia seriously the most important issue? To mainly focus on Russia when so many other things were going on in the world, conveys a certain sense of disconnect not only from the Times, but from the brand of mainstream liberalism it represents, one that panders to elite interests along the coasts, like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Few at Emory talk about it, but there is one story running alongside the pages that I see as the better path for liberalism today: the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. These states all went red in the 2016 presidential election. It started with West Virginia, when teachers protested low wages and poor health insurance and won. On February 27, West Virginia’s Republican Gov. Jim Justice agreed to a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and created a task force to address rising health insurance costs. Next, teachers in Oklahoma, the state with the lowest average teacher salary, went on strike. This prompted legislators to give teachers an on-average $6,000 raise this year and add nearly $500 million in education funding. Teachers in Kentucky and Arizona joined next, and are making significant progress.

These strikes recaptured the power of populist grassroots movements and demanded something better at a time when organized labor is at a low. Only 34.4 percent of public sector workers and 6.5 percent of private sector workers are unionized. Many, including U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have criticized the teachers for being selfish and leaving kids out to dry, but in their self-sacrificial and important role in society, how can we expect teachers to adequately serve kids without proper pay and job security?

Let us acknowledge a bit of hypocrisy first. It wasn’t too long ago when liberals were firmly opposed to teacher strikes. In 2012, Chicago teachers protesting low wages earned the ire of many liberal commentators; “Nightline” Co-anchor Terry Moran tweeted, “I wonder if the Chicago teachers realize how much damage they are doing to their profession — and to so many children and their families.” Moran was not alone in his criticism.

Former Times Education Columnist Andrew Rotherham added to Moran’s insult in saying that, “Part of this strike, it’s pretty clear, is that the union needed to have some theater for its members, let them blow off some steam, and that’s increasingly obvious.” Both of these quotes from left-wing commentators reek of nothing less than elitist superiority and being hypocritically out of touch.

This movement of historically Democratic, populist Midwest states that voted for Trump presents a better path for liberals to re-establish the party’s mission as the party of the people. There’s a reason that these states tend to overwhelmingly vote red, and while it’s convenient to attribute that to the stereotype of Trump supporters as bigots, what about the disillusionment with the Democratic party?

It’s difficult to call the Democratic Party the party of the people when the working class doesn’t vote blue. The party is not paying attention to issues at the core of its ideology — education, health care reform and organized labor — it seems to be fixated with anti-Trumpism. Last year, House Democrats released arguably the least inspiring slogan of all time: “I mean, have you seen the other guys?” This slogan epitomizes the criticism of liberals being disconnected from the average American.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said this to honor the West Virginia teacher strikes on March 3: “Today, the teachers of West Virginia are carrying on that brave tradition. There is no more important work than educating our young people. The teachers of West Virginia, and teachers throughout our country, deserve decent salaries and affordable health care. I stand with the teachers of West Virginia in their fight for justice and dignity.”

The surprising success of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has changed the conversation, so liberals should pay attention to this populist wave and how they have altered our discourse. We should follow the teachers’ path because they’ve shown us how to persevere and find common ground in red states. We should follow the teachers’ path because they’ve started a cascade of strikes that can catalyze real national change. We should follow their path because they’ve shown us how to succeed where we have failed.

Ryan Fan is a College junior from Stony Brook, N.Y.