by Shaun Kenney
Carl Schmitt isn’t precisely a household name. The German political theorist was a deep reader of Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes, whose evolution of thought occurred during the fratricidal tumult of Weimar Germany in the 1920s.
One of Schmitt’s particular insights was the totalitarian nature of political parties, namely that the adjudication of power is both an authoritarian act and a totalitarian demand on the consciences of those who participate in it.
Consider for a moment those who waver on any particular piece of Republican orthodoxy — tax cuts, the right to life, the Second Amendment, immigration, supporting our police, or a robust national defense posture. Or on the left with the presence of a social welfare state, abortion on demand, gun control, open immigration policies, defunding the police, or a liberal internationalist order.
One could be an avowed communist, but if that person also happened to be pro-life? The Democrats would savage that individual. Conversely, consider a Republican who was rock solid on every issue except life. Would most Republicans vote for that person? Probably not.
Like the backdrop to an opera, Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy continues to haunt the West. For as much as we might laud our open and free elections, the very fact of the matter is that elected officials have very little true power to change much of anything in the face of the institutions.
In the United States, we have seven institutions — five of which are held in thrall to the political left, one of which is being actively contested, and the other resistant to ideological change by the nature of what it does.
Let’s start with education, or more accurately the public education system in America. Not only are conservatives locked out of public education, the institution remains hostile to any mention of the word reform, whether it is textbooks or student vouchers to help improve the system. No small wonder that the entire system is proud to strive for mediocrity as it remains one of the worst products in the G20.
Follow this with academia, where even if parents manage to instill their values in their 18-year-old children, this work is swiftly undone by the soft sciences in a matter of weeks.
One of the more damnable influences is entertainment as an industry, where the sexualization of young children happens at an alarmingly young age, and where innuendo and sometimes not-so-obvious political indoctrination occurs repeatedly in our sports, film, games, music and fiction.
The influence of the media is pernicious enough. Even with the presence of parallel institutions such as Fox News or The Wall Street Journal, the fact of the matter is that the legacy media is more propaganda than information. Rather than fulfill the promise of freeing us from the gatekeepers, social media has only served to create more fog and disinformation than clarity.
Then there is the pernicious influence of the bureaucracy — that unelected fourth branch of government whose sole purpose is its own existence. One can sin against God, it is said, because God will forgive, but one must never sin against the bureaucracy — and by its own design, bureaucracy limits human freedom until it becomes a law unto itself.
The contested realm at present is religion and other places of faith, both sacred and secular. The breakdown of mainline Protestantism and the old integralism in favor of a new integration of secular religious values — and you don’t need a god to have a religion — with lawmaking has had a deleterious impact on the sacred, with definitions of life, marriage, and even sexuality (all routinely defined as sacred for thousands of years) now finding themselves integrated into the new secular paradigm. Pockets of resistance remain and are intellectually robust yet continuously find themselves trampled under by the Leviathan state.
The one that continues to present the most difficulties for the political left is the military, or rather the entire apparatus of defense — contractors, law enforcement, first responders. One will note that these individuals are the centerpiece of the ire of many a leftist, ironically against an apparatus of which they are in near-total control. Yet unlike the other institutions, those who participate in the public defense do not have room for error. Media have ombudsmen, academics have peer review, and entertainment fails at the box office. Soldiers and police officers have funerals when they get it wrong, and as a consequence are more ontologically grounded than their peers.
Which brings us to the peculiar case as to why no one wants to work in public education anymore. Defenders of the status quo will wave their arms to the horizons and tell us that the crisis isn’t limited to education. Most employers are having a hard time finding employees willing to work for pre-pandemic wages.
Yet in public education the problem is more acute. Teachers are hobbled by any number of factors that will not be resolved by simply paying them more. The culture is wrecked; the gatekeepers are intransigent and well-fed. Parents aren’t involved, students pretend to learn, administrators pretend to care, and as a result teachers pretend to teach and pass on one set of failures to the next teacher, who repeats the process.
Meanwhile, students learn to produce grades. The standard for passing a class is an A and it doesn’t matter if they can produce critical thinking skills, write an essay, or even take an interest in the subject itself. “What do I need to get an A in this class?” is the refrain from many a student because it is what the culture demands.
For those teachers who insist upon holding students to higher standards, any number of excuses come to the forefront — first of which are mental illnesses. ADHD, mild-yet-undiagnosed autism, family issues, COVID, vacations with family or (even worse) the presence of plagiarism and outright cheating. Teachers are then blamed for the higher standards by parents, administrators, students and society. Or worse, teachers are blamed for the most cardinal of all the sins: insensitivity. As if facts and knowledge care about feelings?
Here are some inconvenient facts. The reason why no one wants to work for public education is because no one wants to work for an institution that hates our values as Americans. Does that sound obtuse and hyperbolic? Who among us is willing to sit in a classroom and discuss the merits of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in a history classroom? How’s about a calculus classroom? Physics? Chemistry?
Or worse, if students misbehave? There is literally no recourse. Drug problems, violence, bullying and misbehavior are routinely excused by administrators who seek to preserve a public image while covering up what has ultimately become an asylum for the lowest common denominator.
As for the product? High school educations are as meaningless today as college undergraduate diplomas. Students embalmed by such processes come out as sclerotic, rigid, and intolerant of the world as their teachers and professors — all of which is backed up as they find meaningful work in the institutions that matter to the left: media, bureaucracy, and entertainment. Or if they are very good, return to education or academia and repeat the cycle.
On the short list of opinions to be considered in the public square is that of the inestimable Jim Bacon, who points to a more direct culprit, that being student behavior in the classroom:
Now comes a survey of teachers in six Midwestern states who have resigned or will resign before the start of the 2022-23 school year. Among the 615 respondents, students’ “classroom behavior” is hands-down the biggest issue.
Key findings: “319 of the 615 responders listed student behavior as their biggest reason to leave the classroom, followed by 138 for ‘progressive political activity’ and 134 for ‘salary is insufficient.’”
The survey was conducted by the Chalkboard Review, which was founded in 2020 to provide a “heterodox outlet” for news and commentary from educators. By emphasizing diversity of opinion, it is safe to assume, “heterodox” is roughly synonymous with “non-Woke.” So, one must take into account the possible biases of those conducting the survey. (See the description of the methodology here.)
Of course, as if to belabor the point, while progressive ideology came in second place, the entire reason that such introspection is required is that the institutions themselves are utterly incapable of doing this on their own accord.
Bacon drills down into some numbers provided by the Virginia Educators Association which are worth perusing in full.
Yet one suspects the problem is far deeper than the mere symptomatic response of student behavior. One should consider that progressives have taken umbrage with the state of public education as well, insisting on changes that have unfortunately amounted to a mere pat on the head but by no means indicate a willingness of the liberal left to share power.
Meanwhile, the quality of our educators has precipitously fallen as the education major continues to predominate the system itself. While by no means is it an indictment of the entire teaching profession, the system itself rewards a certain type of teacher willing to cope with mediocrity. Ergo, the best and brightest leave for other professions in their fields. How many teachers in the field of physics, math, chemistry or English have left for professional fields to earn twice as much money with half of the disrespect? How many bad teachers remain behind?
That single question right there — that yes, there are bad teachers — is the question that dares not be raised.
Yet the problem runs deeper than this. Culturally, most parents are not wedded to their children’s education in the way they ought to be. Most households no longer even sport a bookshelf of over 100 books. We expect to produce a literate culture this way? Smartphones are more ubiquitous than books. Credentialism has replaced education. Outrage replaces ideas. Feelings replace reason. Football replaces church on Sunday.
Even with semi-generous bonuses of $2,000 to $4,000 from local school districts and above-average starting salaries, who in their right mind would want to babysit a pile of 8th graders who don’t want to learn, in an environment where excellence is degraded and mediocrity praised, among parents who blame teachers, and administrators who blame teachers, among other teachers who probably shouldn’t be teachers ? Can anyone in the public education system truly blame the public writ large for refusing the opportunity to take all the responsibility without giving teachers the latitude to actually teach?
Of course, private and parochial schools have the advantage of firing the student (or the teacher) should they misbehave. Not so with public schools, which are under state constitutional mandate to provide a free and quality education to each Virginian student no matter what their background.
Yet the wider question remains as to whether public education as an institution wants to actually be reformed?
The answer to date is an intransigent and defiant refusal, not just in the face of conservative critics who make up precisely half of the body politic but against a progressive left whose complaints against the liberal-held institutions are remarkably similar.
In short, these institutions are not working for the rest of us, and in fact are inimically hostile to the core values of most Virginians, and impervious to any meaningful reform. Why on God’s green earth would anyone choose to participate in such a system much less support in with federal and state tax dollars?
Swapping out the elected officials? As we have seen, the institutions themselves have no elected officials. They can resist the will of an elected body, whether it is Governor Glenn Youngkin or a Republican-led General Assembly for a requisite two years until the next election. Or a conservative school board, Board of Supervisors, or City Council. All for the simple reason that elections can change their opposition in a way that time cannot change these unelected institutions.
Being aware of the deeper problem is something conservatives need to address writ large. More important than local elected officials are the county administrators, city managers, and school administrators. More important than the General Assembly — and it is a necessary first step — are the new hires in public administration. More important than the Board of Visitors are the presidents of our colleges and universities. More important than media and entertainment are the types of media and entertainment we allow ourselves and our children to consume.
Liberals who take umbrage should look around and inside their institutions and ask precisely how many conservatives actually work inside of them. Liberals who insist that by holding the institutions they are holding fast against both progressives and conservatives should look at the unwillingness of people to work for the institutions with alarm. Pluralism in the truest sense of the word serves the public far better than a rigidity turned brittle in the face of criticism.
If our liberal institutions intend to survive, the best way to hold power is to let it go. By embracing pluralism rather than attending to ever-increasing authoritarianism, we can avoid the threat of one side or the other engaging in the form of ideological totalitarianism Schmitt warned against.
Liberals should be meticulously careful about including opposing viewpoints and dropping the ideological pedagogy as a weapon of coercion. Otherwise, in the pursuit of making our opinions the only opinions, the other side takes careful notes. Parallel institutions can exist in the media, education, academia, entertainment and religion — but they cannot survive in either defense or bureaucracy.
Nor are parallel institutions desirable in any of the institutions. Free press should mean free press; free minds should be free minds; free ideas should mean the freedom to explore ideas — and we should be jealous in that defense of that public square because that is America or at least the hope of what we could be as Americans.
More than illiberal democracy, we should fear the presence of illiberal institutions which remain intransigent in the face of reform. That they hold so much of the public discourse — and dare I say, our future — in their hands would shock the Founders, I suspect. It should trouble us that much more.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. This column has been republished with permission from The Republican Standard.