Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Rhee, Astroturf, and Small-d Democracy

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Ari Melber owes Marshall Ganz an apology.

Last week the Huffington Post broke a story  about changes at based on leaked internal documents, because the company apparently was not going to make these changes public.  As Melber notes, the changes include ” accept[ing] ‘corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns’ and conservative political sponsorships.”  He suggests this is framed by critics as a betrayal of the sites founding mission (it’s quite clear it’s a pretty radical shift). In the abstract, I can see the point  (although I disagree) of suggesting that providing access without respect to political orientation has value, although even if I concede that the secrecy cannot be defended. Yet even so, that change is only one part.  But Melber’s not offering a ‘here’s what the two sides said’ story here.

If you apply a traditional coalition paradigm, the story is that began by teaming up with a loose coalition of liberal groups, found success, and then left them behind as it grew into a something that looks more like a self-sustaining global technology company than a progressive meetup. That is the story of betrayal and “selling out.

But you can also apply an open-source paradigm, where the value of the system is defined by who it empowers and how it works, rather than any pre-set ideological objectives. Think of Wikipedia, or the bottom-up organizing models of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. Under this view, is simply expanding its civic services, and the more open, the better. While the open source view has loyal adherents, it is not a conventional ideology. It is a belief in a system.

Navigating a battle between partisan, progressive organizing and decentralized petition drives is, at bottom, like trying to choose between the Democratic Party and democracy.

Did you catch that? What on earth does any of that have to do with “corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns”? Isn’t that the complete opposite of the “open-source paradigm” or of “small d democracy” or “bottom-up organizing”?  And how does progressive values equate with Democratic Party?

The original HuffPo story argued that this move was in response to the controversy over Michele Rhee and Students First, although Melber doesn’t mention it. leadership met in San Francisco this summer to hash out its new advertising policy following a public uproar in July over the site’s partnership with Michelle Rhee, whose organization works in opposition to labor unions. “[W]e looked long and hard at our client policy in the context of our vision. This was the most difficult part of the weekend, but after many hours of discussion and edge cases we ultimately agreed that the current closed approach is simply not feasible,”’s founder and CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff, which was also leaked to HuffPost by [Campaign for America’s Future’s Jeff] Bryant.


Labor and progressive organizations, which make up a sizable base of’s client list, threatened to pull out over the Rhee situation. After reports that was dropping Rhee and another controversial anti-union group as clients, the site continues to run her petitions.

What better illustration of the problem.  Rhee’s astroturf group uses progressive rhetoric to attack public schools and teachers’ unions, with massive corporate backing. made promises to it users about its relationship with the group, which it failed to make good on, presumably because the relationship was lucrative and was valued above progressive principles.

All this makes a mockery of the sort of organizing the Ganz has championed – and of small-d democracy.

h/t Mike Conrad.

Written by David Kaib

October 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm

No, Jeb Bush, Schools are not Like Milk

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[Update 7-3-13 Steve Hinnefeld addresses Albert Hirschman vs. Milton Friedman and education reform. “Here’s another way of saying it: The contempt that school choice advocates commonly express for public schools is, at its root, contempt for democracy itself.”]

At the GOP convention, Jeb Bush argued in favor of voucher and school choice using the frame of civil rights.  Bush, brother of failed president and education reformer George W. Bush, went further, offering an even more inapt metaphor.

“Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose,” he said in a prepared version of his remarks sent to reporters. “Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk— chocolate, strawberry or vanilla – and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.”

“Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?” Bush said.

This perfectly encapsulates what’s wrong with the corporate ed position.  It conflates something as important, complex and far reaching in its consequences as an education with milk, a simple consumer good.  That frame justifies turning public education into a profit making opportunity.  It supports the deprofessionalization of teachers.  It focuses our attention on individuals instead of the ways we systematically provide a different quality to education based on class and race.  Choosing 2% one week and whole milk the next is no problem, but shifting your child between schools even once is a huge decision. The choice of milk depends purely on taste while education is a skilled profession.  While the analogy has surface appeal, its implication are gross and  most people would recoil from them it they were made explicit.  Most people, that is, who believe that providing a quality education to all is a basic requirement in a democratic society that is committed to the idea that all people are equal.

How can you say on the one hand that education is a civil right and at the same time it’s like shopping for groceries? Read the rest of this entry »

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