NJEA and the Politics of Resentment

N.J.’s big education news is our kids’ sharp rise in proficiency levels on this past Spring’s state standardized test called PARCC — districts will release scores tomorrow —  but you’d never know it by looking at the papers. Instead of focusing on improvements in student learning, the trending topic is NJEA leaders’ desperate attempt to unseat Senate President Steve Sweeney because he acted in a statesmanlike manner and made the astute decision to pull back a referendum on an amendment that would require the state to make $20 billion in pension payments over the next five years. (See here for background and context.)

Yesterday Tom Moran wrote, “in their long-shot attempt to kill Sweeney, union leaders are spraying bullets like a crazed drug dealer in a drive-by shooting, hitting Democrats all over the state.”

Today Chase Brush quotes liberal progressive Senator Loretta Weinberg, who says that NJEA’s  “unfounded” allegations against Sweeney have “caused her to lose some respect for its leadership.”

“Really to me it’s against Democratic progressive values,” Weinberg said. “They can phrase this anyway they want, but they are working against a centrist to progressive Democrat, a leader who has done a tremendous amount, from marriage equality to supporting a $15 minimum wage to protecting union rights to a whole long list of progressive causes.”

We’ve heard NJEA leaders’ logic: they’re spending $600,000 in member dues in hopes of replacing Sweeney with a little-known councilman named Fran Grenier who aligns himself with Trump and advocates for a school funding formula — every student gets $6,559 regardless of need — that would decimate teacher ranks and hurt kids, especially those of color and those who live in poor districts. But NJEA’s grudge isn’t on behalf of teachers or kids: this is a personal betrayal.

This mentality is sometimes called the “politics of resentment.”

Leon Wieseltier (one of my favorite writers) last year ascribed Trump’s rise to the acrimony of those whom he calls “the white aggrieved,” epitomized for him in the film “Deer Hunter,” those who — for all sorts of legitimate reasons like economic instability and addiction and decreased life expectancy — are “prisoners of their own experiences,” so much so that they would choose “Trump, always and forever an authoritarian boor” who “exploited the issue without knowing to do anything about it.”  And as prisoners — “pain has no special access to truth” — the white aggrieved, spinning within their myopic reality, exercise the politics of grievance

Wieseltier writes,

The prestige of anger in our politics has grown disproportionately to anger’s justifications and exceeded them, so that voting appears to have become more an explosion of feeling than an expression of thought. (It is the voters, after all, to whom demagogues owe their ascendancy. The wisdom of crowds!) Valid grievances have turned poisonous and welcomed intolerance and untruth into their orbit. Outrage, a fine political emotion, has degenerated into resentment and hatred.

Now, NJEA chief Ed Richardson would never pass for Christopher Walken (star of “Deerhunter,” young’uns!) and the majority of Trump supporters would swoon at NJEA’s  $4,037,750 contribution last year to its superPAC that supports the campaign of Grenier and debases Sweeney. Yet the union higher-ups are so insulted by Sweeney’s betrayal, so hurt and disrespected. These dynamics harness anger, as well as a tolerance for untruth, and have led to an endorsement decision based on an explosion of feeling rather than an expression of thought.

Those who pay the price for this distorted version of identity politics are NJEA’s members and the children they teach.

Wieseltier ends his essay, “no grievance, however true, warrants the fouling of American politics by the bigotry and the brutishness peddled by Donald Trump. Either he wins or America does.”

Our teacher union leaders have forced us into a zero-sum game. Either Sweeney wins or Grenier wins.. To NJEA executives, it’s a grudge match. The rest of us — those invested in public education — can only sit back and watch this most recent befouling of New Jersey ego-driven politics.

What do you think?

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