That's the leading question of this recent NYTimes article. Strange that the NYTimes should ask such a question when, as I've noted on this blog on many occasions, the paper has often been among those leading the attack on teachers. But this recent spout of articles expressing some limited sympathy with teachers is instructive. Why now?
We're in a different political conjuncture now, with a surge in struggle against austerity and union-bashing. What this shows is not that our political establishment was progressive all along- what it shows is that collective struggle matters. We can't underestimate the effects of the growing resistance in Madison, which has not gone unnoticed by international media from Al Jazeera to the Guardian. Of course, that battle is still up in the air. It could go either way. But this is already a small victory. A couple of months ago it was nothing but SUPERMAN, Charters, Bill Gates, evil (lazy, greedy) teachers unions, etc. Now, this is contested territory. It shows that struggle matters and has the capacity to shift the conversation to the Left in certain circumstances.
The only way to fight the brutal assault on working peoples' living standards is to organize movements capable of waging collective struggles. As we've seen, the Democrats are every bit as zealous as the Republicans to crush teachers' unions. Obama's re-vamping of NCLB as "Race to the Top" is arguably more conservative and "market based" than its Bush-created predecessor. So, if tides are changing, we have to note that it did not come from the Democrat establishment. Change, now as always, grows out of struggles from below. If Democrats such as those in Madison are liable to show support for progressive causes when there is a movement pressuring them to do so, this should not be understood as evidence of their underlying "progressive credentials". No, what this shows is simple: they are only progressive to the extent that there is a movement pressuring them. They are, in certain cases, susceptible to pressure from the Left. But absent such pressure, we know what we get from Democrats: corporate give-aways, tax breaks for the ultra-rich, escalated war efforts, austerity, union-busting, etc. etc.