Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece by Jonathan Martin on Common Core, the initiative setting voluntary standards for math and English education. Framing Common Core as a wedge issue in the coming election, Martin focused on growing conservative opposition to the standards, which the right derides as “Obamacore.” For months Glenn Beck has been incubating these arguments in his studios, warning his audience that Common Core was “evil stuff.” “If it’s allowed to be in our schools in any form and become the Common Core of America’s next generation,” he told listeners, “it will destroy America and the system of freedom as we know it.”
If Martin’s article is any indication, Common Core is on its way to becoming the new Obamacare: the focal point of Republican opposition to the Obama administration. (Leaving aside that the administration did not design the standards, but merely encouraged their adoption.) And as the racket on the right ratchets up, Democrats may find themselves growing increasingly fond of the new standards. After all, one of the surest ways to convince Democrats that you have a good idea is to get a phalanx of Republicans to oppose it. Nothing cemented Democratic support for the health care law more than Republicans’ 50-odd attempts to repeal it. A Gallup poll from earlier this month bears this out: the best predictor of whether a person supports Obamacare is her party ID.
Call it the “partisan crouch”: when under attack by the opposition, partisans fortify their positions and hunker down. But while the partisan crouch makes political decision-making easier – Republicans, for instance, only need to learn Obama’s position in order to calculate their own 180-degrees away from it – it also makes the outcome of political decision-making a lot worse. Look at the mess it’s made for the GOP in foreign policy, where neoconservative saber-rattling predominates because it offers the clearest alternative to Obama’s foreign policy realism.
Is the Common Core really headed down the path of Obamacare, though, or is Martin practicing the sort of political journalism that favors – and thus feeds – the polarization narrative? By framing Common Core as a Republican wedge issue, Martin downplays liberal opposition, which he relegates to a “to be sure” paragraph near the end of his piece.
Yet liberal opposition is no small thing when it comes to the new standards. Currently it flows from two sources. First, despite early support for Common Core, some teachers’ unions have been highly critical of the program’s implementation and evaluation methods. Second, many liberals oppose the Common Core because of its origins in the business community, arguing that it is part of the corporatization of education, designed to make students better workers (but not necessarily better thinkers) and to enrich corporations at the cost of better public education.
Martin may simply be charting the coming partisan crouch. After all, in the run-up to the midterm elections politicians have a vested interest in finding wedge issues and dramatizing the differences between the two parties. But journalists play a role in this as well, often giving into the temptation to frame politics in terms of polarization as part of the horse-race narratives that crowd out deeper analysis during election season. That's why highlighting the substantial liberal opposition to Common Core is so important: it reminds us that political issues don’t break down so cleanly between right and left, and that polarization isn’t the only form politics can take.