"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds." So begins "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a classic work that the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964, another time of deep division and mutual suspicion.
In that essay, he traced the roots of an American style that goes back at least to the late 19th century, when a plethora of mass movements kept finding new candidates for the source of all our troubles. It might be International Bankers one year and the gold standard the next as older scapegoats -- Catholics, immigrants, Masons -- gave way to new ones. Till they in turn were replaced by still others: munitions makers, Wall Street, foreign conspiracies that had infiltrated the very top levels of our own government ... you name it.
As an example of this paranoid delusion, the historian quoted a classic piece of demagoguery from Joe McCarthy, a senator whose very name became synonymous with conspiracy-mongering, as in McCarthyism.
Here is the junior senator from Wisconsin declaiming on the threat posed by traitors in high places:
"How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men...."
Now the conspiracy theorists are back (if they ever left) with a new source of all evil. This time it isn't communism but the Common Core, an innocent attempt to set up some national standards for American education. But you might not recognize it as such from this rant against it on the internet:
"Our children will suffer at the hand of a government controlled education system. They will no longer be able to have dreams and goals but only those that the government wishes them to have (UNESCO-A21). If this isn't Nazism, Communism, Marxism and all the 'ism's,' I don't know what is. The worst part is they are lying to parents and teachers about what Common Core really is and the effects it will have. Teachers don't even realize that their jobs are in jeopardy for, if they do not conform, they will be removed. But, then again, were not the people of Russia, Germany etc. all deceived until it was too late?"
This kind of hysteria isn't confined to certified nutcases. Fear of Common Core is spreading to perfectly reasonable people who wonder if there might be some real fire behind all this smoking rhetoric. That's how the lunatic fringe of a party becomes its whole warp and woof. Until even its respectable leaders hesitate to come out against this kind of thing, lest they Alienate the Base, which has become the cardinal sin for politicians out to win their primaries.
Just what is this bugaboo that's got these ring-tailed roarers on the Net so upset? Common Core is just shorthand for a set of minimal standards that would apply to basic education all over the country -- instead of the lazy, hazy patchwork of always changing goals set by every state and sometimes every school district in the country.
But all the usual suspects have formed an unholy alliance against filling so clear and obvious a need in American education -- the teachers' unions, the scaremongers on both sides of the political spectrum, the array of vested interests in the status mediocre quo ... and all the forces of inertia in general. Their aim: Dilute, delay and do whatever else they can to sabotage a common core of standards that would apply to all students all across the country.
Given a common core of uniform standards, American students could all take the same tests, and so the progress (or lack of it) of students in, say, Arkansas could be readily compared to how well those in New York or California or Iowa or any other state are doing. Which may be just what bothers those in the education establishment, or just the legion of kibitzers outside it: They don't want to make it easier to hold students, teachers, parents or administrators accountable.
It's so much easier for those in charge of the system to float along as they always have. No matter the result. Which is one reason the country spends so much on public education and gets so little in return.
The notion that every state, or maybe subdivision thereof, should set its own educational standards has some drawbacks -- like being duplicative, wasteful and ineffective. Just to start with. It's also a fine way to bring educational standards down to the lowest common denominator, if not lower.
Why should students in different states be held to different standards -- or be held to any standards at all? Why not just leave things as they unevenly are? Because that approach makes no sense. Does math, say, change every time you cross a state line? Does a well-written English essay in California become unintelligible when read in Maine? Why have different states set different standards for algebra? What sense does that make? Answer: None.
Yet we're told Common Core is some kind of nefarious conspiracy, a clear and ever more present danger to the whole country. The paranoid style is definitely back, and few politicians who want to move up the career ladder may challenge all this scaretalk.
But there's at least one well-known political figure who's an exception to this sad rule. He dares talk sense about Common Core even in these fear-driven times. And he hasn't even declared his candidacy yet for his party's presidential nomination come 2016.
His name is Jeb Bush, and when he's asked about Common Core, he speaks calmly, sensibly, moderately -- while others in his party, even the most respected, rush to misjudgment. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, who used to note that Common Core "will raise expectations for every child," has switched to comparing it with centralized planning in Russia. The same goes for once sensible GOP leaders like Marco Rubio in Florida and Rick Perry in Texas. The crazies in their party seem to have got them buffaloed.
Jeb Bush is different. When a savvy aide suggested he just avoid the whole touchy subject now that Common Core has become a hot potato, he wouldn't. "I respect those that don't agree with me," he explained. "What I don't accept are dumbing down standards and expectations."
The man's grammar may remain Bushian -- it seems to be a family trait -- but his principles remain intact. Or as he put it, "I just don't feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country." What's this -- a Republican politician with enough character not to pander to the zealots on his party's far right? Even as the far right comes closer and closer to capturing the GOP's center. Or at least intimidating it.
However well Jeb Bush fares in the quadrennial circus known as an American presidential election, he seems to have a higher standard than just winning an election: being true to himself.