The Trouble with Service Liberalism
Teach for America and City Year are undermining trust in government.
Perhaps no type of public policy initiative attracts such universal enthusiasm as service, especially when done by the young, and especially when required or supported by governments. Encouraging Americans, especially American youth, to volunteer or work for a few stipend-funded years in the trenches of an inner-city neighborhood or dilapidated school is practically uncontroversial at this point. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which greatly expanded federal funding for service programs, passed the House and Senate last year by veto-proof margins and was signed into law little more than a month after its introduction. When Barack Obama and John McCain appeared before a forum on national service in 2008, they offered equally effusive praise for the concept. Establishment commentators like David Brooks and David Broder have characteristically deemed the push for service an example of bipartisanship done right.
But before becoming a cross-partisan dogma, the ideology of service started as an effort to save liberalism by cloistering it from the American political climate. A look at the histories of its principal exponents—City Year and Teach for America—is revealing. In the wake of the Reagan administration’s evisceration of what remained of the Great Society–especially in cities– those dropped from the rolls or operating with more limited funds suffered. A drastic liberal reaction was in order, but with the Democratic House too weak to prevent the cuts to begin with, rejuvenation of the welfare state was clearly not going to happen anytime soon. It was in this environment that Alan Khazei founded City Year, which provides after-school programming to inner-city children, in 1988, and that Wendy Kopp founded TfA, which places recent college graduates into classrooms in poor school districts, in 1990. If the government was not going to step up, private citizens were more than justified in making an effort to serve as a stopgap, fulfilling the role a more humane government once did.
Far too quickly, however, service became an easy out for liberals, a means to seem sympathetic without risking appearing like spendthrifts. Bill Clinton’s enchantment with service started even before his presidency, with a visit to a City Year Boston site. He pushed through a bill during his first year establishing AmeriCorps as a means of expanding the program and ones like it. By the end of his presidency, he was heralding the program as the culmination of his vision of politics. If one wants to be optimistic, this was all so much legacy-stroking from a president whose one real attempt at expanding the welfare state–the 1994 health care effort–had ended in failure. More disturbingly, Clinton could have actually believed it.
It is this second possibility that disturbs me about service liberalism. It is all well and good to respond to a crisis like the one Reagan’s cuts had created by supplementing government with civil society. It is quite another thing to claim the expansion of non-governmental institutions as a good in its own right, and indeed, to laud the replacement of government institutions as a positive step.
In this way, service liberalism and its institutions have become the ground army of Clintonesque neoliberalism. In the words of its intellectual founder, the Washington Monthly’s Charlie Peters, neoliberals, “in our search for solutions that work…have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative." Service liberalism’s rhetoric embraces this impulse–-to dismantle liberal, government-based solutions and put private sector-based policies in their place. Taking service seriously, service liberals assert, involves allowing it to replace the government. “The government's role should continue to change from being the primary deliverer of services,” Khazei declared in a manifesto at the Huffington Post last year, “to one of setting big goals, establishing the rules of the game, conducting oversight and regulation, and using incentives by growing what works, and eliminating funding for programs that fail.” Khazei’s “pragmatism” about making programs “work,” like that of Peters and neoliberals more generally, always seems to lead to the conservative solution to the problem: privatization.
The problem is that conservative solutions tend to come from conservatives for a reason. Whatever one thinks of Clinton’s welfare reform bill, it was easy to predict that it would provide little spending for transportation or childcare for the beneficiaries it forced into the workforce. It was, after all, a conservative idea, and the Republicans pushing it never had any interest in alleviating urban poverty–or as much interest as they had in vilifying city-dwelling black women, in any case. And in the course of defending these programs, neoliberals tend to see as their enemies not the apathetic right, but traditional liberals and social democrats. “I can't help but suspect what conservatives (and voters) have always suspected of paleoliberal welfare experts who call for public jobs,” wrote noted neoliberal Mickey Kaus, debating reform skeptic Peter Edelman. “You want the jobs, but in the crunch you don't actually want to require anybody on welfare to take them.” As conservative arguments get more appealing, neoliberals begin to wage war on traditional liberals.
Service-liberal institutions have fallen victim to this same disease, waging war on traditional liberal institutions that ought to be their allies. Teach for America is the guiltiest party here. More than simply a service organization, TfA is the single most effective neoliberal education lobby in the country. It undercuts unions with a viciousness that would make Henry Frick flinch. TfA carved out a contract with the Boston schools that privileged TfA teachers above trained union members and allowed the Boston schools to hire TfA members even as it laid off prepared teachers. When the union inevitably complained, TfA, of course, sided with the administration. Exploiting teacher layoffs is to be expected from conservative opponents of education funding, but not from a group that makes any claim to care about public education.
The group is no less aggressive against its intellectual adversaries. In her memoir, Kopp depicts the highly respected education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, whose research highlights TfA teachers’ underperformance, as a personal enemy hell-bent on destroying Kopp’s career. While this reading seemed paranoid, Darling-Hammond would have been right to be concerned in late 2008, when Kopp and Teach for America launched a successful campaign to prevent her from getting a position in the Obama administration. Darling-Hammond’s policy aims–which center on huge funding increases to close the achievement gap and train more good teachers–represent a vision of a educational safety net that liberals ought to embrace. It is telling that rather than try to work with Darling-Hammond and her allies to build such a safety net, TfA went on the offensive. As with the neoliberal assault on welfare advocates, TfA’s grudge matches indicate that rather than viewing conservative apathy about education as the enemy, the program sees traditional, government-and-union education as its primary foe. From a welcome supplement to a too-weak government, then, service liberalism has become an institutionalized opponent of the welfare state.
And it has a posse, especially among elites. Thirteen percent of Harvard’s class of 2009 applied to Teach for America, along with sixteen percent of Yale’s. City Year’s applications, which, like TfA’s, are selective, more than tripled from 2008 to 2009. While research suggests that participation in these programs will not result in a lasting commitment to service, they intend to instill their own values in the corps members who pass through them. Kopp speaks of using the “leadership of alumni” to sway the national education debate, and Khazei describes his work with his most recent project, Be the Change, as attempting to “leverage … national service alumni” to enact “systemic solutions to our nation's problems.” The implications of this strategy for welfare-state liberalism should be clear enough. In Kopp and Khazei’s ideal world, civic leaders and titans of industry will share their own worldview: one which views traditional liberalism and its institutions (such as unions) with suspicion. These leaders will focus on solutions “that work,” which to Kopp and Khazei invariably means private-sector solutions–solutions which these students will usually pursue in the private sector, to boot. They will drive the last nail in the coffin of a liberalism that takes government seriously.
While service liberalism of this variety found favor with the Clinton administration, Barack Obama for his part appears conflicted. At the same service forum where he found common ground with McCain, he emphasized the need to make government work attractive. “When a hurricane strikes, as it did with Katrina, we have to have a FEMA that works,” he noted, “which, by the way, means that we should be encouraging young people, the best and the brightest, to get involved as civil servants.” Obama understands the importance of a robust public sector, but fails to get that the service liberalism establishment lacks his faith in government and stands in opposition to reinvigorating public-sector service.
Furthermore, Obama’s campaign proposal to grant a $4,000 tuition tax credit to students who engage in service is borderline disturbing. The liberalism I know does not regard education—higher or otherwise—as a privilege to be parceled off only to those who merit it. The credit was eventually implemented, in limited form and—thankfully—without the service component. The key test for Obama is whether he will let the bill continue working for all students, or resurrect the connection to dues paid through service. If he lets it stand, he will demonstrate that he is serious about making government work and protecting the welfare state from the threat posed by service liberalism. If he does not, it could signal that American liberalism has turned against government for good.