International Democracy

  • Where Are My Shanker Knights?

    The fourth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    Those of us who had the privilege to work with labor leader and progressive giant Al Shanker can attest to his deeply held sense of justice, his urgency in the fight for fairness, and his composure in the face of both personal and professional battles that would have left many of us undone.

    For me, Al Shanker was a friend, a leader and a mentor. Shanker believed every worker deserved dignity, respect and a shot at the American dream. And when it came to paraprofessionals, he used his influence as AFT president to organize us into the union, thus giving us a voice in the classroom, dignity in the school building and the wages necessary to take care of our families. Back then, many paraprofessionals, like those of us in Baltimore, were seen as just the help and weren’t given a voice or chance to work in an equitable environment. Many of us were black and brown mothers, heads of households.

    But, thanks to Al Shanker and the AFT’s organizing efforts, paraprofessionals saw better times, stronger collective bargaining agreements, higher wages, more dignity in our workplaces and greater love from the community we served.

  • Remembering Al Shanker

    The third author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Herb Magidson, who, before serving as an AFT vice president for 28 years, was an assistant to Shanker when he was president of the UFT. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    During these last few tumultuous months, I’ve thought many times about Al Shanker. How would he have reacted to the chaos now afflicting our nation? How would he respond to a new president who is so dismissive of the basic democratic principles on which the United States was founded more than two hundred years? And what counsel would he have given us as we seek to deal with this challenge to our very way of life?

    At a time when authoritarians throughout the world appear to be gaining strength, I think of Al, above all others, because what was special about Al was his unwavering commitment to freedom; his dedication to the belief that support for a vigorous public school system, and a free trade union movement are integral to a robust, open society where workers from all walks of life can prosper.  This 20th anniversary of Shanker’s death comes, therefore, at a moment when it is helpful to be reminded of the contributions of this hero who celebrated freedom and dedicated his life to its promulgation.

  • In Search Of Tough Liberals In The Age Of Trump: Remembering Al Shanker

    The next author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). You can find the other posts in this series here.

    I met Albert Shanker in September 1995, just a year and a half before his untimely death.  I made an appointment to interview him for a book I was writing on affirmative action policies in college admissions.  My father, who taught high school, used to clip Shanker’s columns in the Sunday New York Times and share them with me.  So I was excited to meet the man whose writing on education, labor, civil rights and democracy spoke to me so profoundly.

    Shanker cut an imposing figure.  He was 6’4” with a deep voice and his office at the American Federation of Teachers had an impressive view of the Capitol.  He wasn’t one for small talk so we got right down to business.  On the issue of affirmative action, I strongly identified with Shanker’s position – wanting to find a way to remedy our nation’s egregious history of racial discrimination but simultaneously wanting to avoid a backlash from working-class whites, who also had a rightful claim to special consideration that racial preferences failed to acknowledge.

  • Public Intellectual: The Legacy Of Al Shanker

    Twenty years ago today, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, died. To mark the occasion, we have asked a number of individuals – some who knew and worked with Al and some who have studied his life’s work – to reflect on the continuing relevance of his ideas and his principles. We did so out of a conviction that Shanker’s ideas and principles are not simply matters of historical interest, but of real contemporary value at a time when public education, unionism and American democracy itself are in a state of profound crisis, under attack in unprecedented ways. Beginning today with this post, we will be publishing these reflections (you can find the full series here).

    For a half-century, Al Shanker labored as a teacher and educator, as a unionist and as a democrat. In each of these fields, he was a political force to be reckoned with, shaping public policy and thinking in significant ways. Yet unlike most important political actors on the American scene, Shanker was a public intellectual who relished vigorous debate and reveled in the world of ideas. He brought an open mind and a penchant for critical analysis, a fierce commitment to rational discourse and logical argumentation that relied on evidence, to all that he did. His political engagement had a deeply intellectual cast.

    As the executive director of the institute established by the AFT to honor Shanker by carrying on his life’s work as an engaged public intellectual, I have often thought about Al’s example. What strikes me most about Shanker the thinker was his refusal to become entrenched in his views or to allow his beliefs to harden into inflexible dogmas. One story in particular comes to mind.

  • Not Our President

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    Last Friday, Donald Trump took the oath to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.

    Civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke for many when he declared that the Trump presidency was not “legitimate.” He was right.

    The democratic tradition captured in the words of the Declaration of Independence is unequivocal: It is the consent of the governed that provides a government with legitimacy, with its just powers. That consent is expressed through free and fair elections in which every citizen has the right to vote.

    The Trump presidency fails this test of legitimacy on four substantive grounds.

  • Trump And The Authoritarian Temptation

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE). He is also principal author of Democracy Web, a civics education curricular resource project of the Albert Shanker Institute. This article is adapted from a longer version that appears on IDEE’s new website.

    In 1976, the French political theorist Jean François Revel critiqued what he called the “totalitarian temptation” among intellectuals who attacked Western political democracy at a time of severe threat. Forty years later democracy is again under threat.

    Revel wrote when the Soviet Union was at the height of its military strength and international influence. In the West, Eurocommunist parties were rising in popularity and non-communist political parties on the Left were developing a strong anti-American sentiment, with some political leaders and intellectuals equivocating in their defense of NATO against the Soviet bloc. Revel, himself a socialist and humanist, argued that one had to be “inoculated to the virus of reality” not to see that communism brought only mass political repression and economic misery. He had a dark theory for his colleagues’ blindness: “Does there lurk in us a wish for totalitarian rule?” he wrote. “If so, it would explain a great deal about how people behave, about the speeches they make, and the times they remain silent.”

  • Putting The International Refugee Crisis In Context

    Tomorrow, the Shanker Institute and Jewish Labor Committee will hold an event on the International Refugee Crisis. In the popular discourse, the difference between the terms “asylum seeker”, “forced migrant,” and “refugee” is often blurred, causing confusion. It is therefore hard to pinpoint whether the recent upswell in negative attitudes towards refugees reflects anti-immigrant sentiments generally, dissatisfaction with the international protection system, or animus against specific ethnic or religious groups of refugees.

    Moreover, as the global refugee situation is rarely discussed, the general public is largely unaware of the issues related to where refugees are, relocation and resettlement needs, and refugee integration.

    The objective of this post is to clarify the main differences between refugees and other groups of migrants, and to describe the law as it applies to them. I will also summarize recent refugee movements to Europe, and then, in a subsequent post, discuss attitudes towards refugees and different migrant groups.

  • The Election, Our Schools, And The Power Of Words

    Our guest author today is David Sherrin, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate in New York City and the author of The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life as well as Judging for Themselves: Using Mock Trials to Bring Social Studies and English to Life. In 2014, he was the recipient of the Robert H. Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice.

    This election has led to confusion, and soul-searching, amongst many. As a social studies teacher, I find that even the most experienced of educators are scrambling to reassess our election pedagogy for this campaign. Every four years, we dust off a playbook in which we investigate candidates’ positions, political party platforms, and the workings of the Electoral College. This time, though, the Donald Trump campaign, especially its use of troubling language and the violence at his rallies, call for new teaching strategies to help students grapple with an emotionally-charged election.

    One powerful framework for learners to engage with this campaign is to consider the power of words. History is replete with examples of dirty campaigns, including charges of murder, rape, and adultery; indeed, elections in the 18th and 19th centuries were often surprisingly nasty. Still, it is noteworthy that GOP candidates Donald Trump and Marco Rubio chose to insult each other’s physical characteristics, with reference to their genitalia. It is also remarkable that a U.S. presidential candidate, such as Donald Trump, would actually encourage followers physically to attack opposition protestors. As when analyzing historical campaigns, we ought to help students see that (most) candidates select their words carefully just as authors do. When we ask students to close-read the use of political rhetoric, through Trump’s choice of words like “punch” and “knock ‘em out,” we add a nuance and depth to our political discussions.

  • A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

    At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

    It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

    The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

  • Why We Defend The Public Square

    The following are the texts of the two speeches from the opening session of our recent two-day conference, “In Defense of the Public Square,” which was held on May 1-2 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The introduction was delivered by Leo Casey and the keynote address was delivered by Randi Weingarten. The video of the full event will be available soon here.

    Remarks by Leo Casey

    We meet here today in “defense of the public square.”

    The public square is the place where Americans come together as a people and establish common goals in pursuit of our common good.

    The public square is the place where Americans – in all of our rich diversity – promote the general welfare, achieving as a community what we never could do as private individuals.

    The public square is the place where Americans weave together our ideal of political equality and our solidarity with community in a democratic political culture, as de Tocqueville saw so well.