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The Third Rail Switch

Summary:
For most of the last 40 years – at least since Tip O’Neill or one of his aides coined the term – the third rail of US politics has been Social Security. It is strange to think about. We are all MMTers now, after all, and what’re a few trillion dollars among friends? In 2021, entitlement reform is a third rail in the same way that a high-voltage power line is a third rail. Sure, it will electrocute you, but who is going to go through the trouble of getting to it? We didn’t stop talking about entitlement reform because people were too afraid of it. We stopped talking about entitlement reform because neither of the two parties has even the faintest interest in it. Yet even during its heyday, I would argue that Social Security was never really America’s third rail.

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For most of the last 40 years – at least since Tip O’Neill or one of his aides coined the term – the third rail of US politics has been Social Security.

It is strange to think about. We are all MMTers now, after all, and what’re a few trillion dollars among friends? In 2021, entitlement reform is a third rail in the same way that a high-voltage power line is a third rail. Sure, it will electrocute you, but who is going to go through the trouble of getting to it? We didn’t stop talking about entitlement reform because people were too afraid of it. We stopped talking about entitlement reform because neither of the two parties has even the faintest interest in it.

Yet even during its heyday, I would argue that Social Security was never really America’s third rail. Politicians talked about it all the time, even if half of their conversations consisted of calling it a third rail. A true third rail would be an issue or policy that everyone was too afraid to even bring up in that context. It would be a topic we were too afraid to discuss at all.

I think there are a handful of these topics. Teacher unions are one of them.

And that third rail status might be changing, if only for a short while.

The California GOP held its spring convention over the last few days. Now, hope springs eternal for the GOP in California in the same way (if far less credibly) that it does for Democrats in Texas. In a big state, there is always some narrative to spin about a huge population group that can be turned – or turned out – to shift historical voting behaviors. That is especially true if you’ve got at least one well-known hotbed of traditional opposition (e.g. anything north of Chico, or the People’s Republic of Austin, respectively) in the state.

In his address to the convention, Karl Rove expressed a typical flavor of this optimism. He argued that a diverse working class could be brought into the Republican fold in California. It was not too dissimilar from the arguments Donald Trump himself relied on in 2016. But this time, Rove and other speakers were light on mentions of former President Trump as a mechanism for achieving this electoral flip. Instead, they suggested the promotion of narratives around the various misdeeds and missteps of the San Francisco School Board, teacher unions and Thomas Keller superfan Gavin Newsom.

Politico covered some of this in an article over the weekend.

…The convention was largely devoid of any mention of the single biggest influence and driver of enthusiasm in the party’s grassroots over the last four years. Republican strategist Karl Rove failed to even mention Trump’s recent tenure in the White House — and suggested that the San Francisco School Board may be more on voters’ minds this year.

Now, I don’t know if Rove is correct. Speaking personally, I suspect that avoiding the mention of Trump in either a favorable or unfavorable light probably reflects more of a Roveian keep-your-options-open strategy than any kind of well-considered view on Rove’s part about what is going to matter to voters in any coming elections. At any rate, you don’t need me to develop your own opinion on the reality of how state GOP conventions are grappling with the World After Trump.

What I DO know is that in Narrative World, Rove isn’t entirely wrong. School boards spending time renaming Abraham Lincoln Middle School or something while many teacher unions oppose safe school re-openings and make fun of parents who ‘want their babysitters back’ absolutely makes for a powerful narrative. Is that narrative powerful enough to move teacher unions out of third rail status?

It is early, and the switches on this rail are very hard to throw.

On the one hand, the generally public sector union-friendly Democratic party has a decent control on power at the federal legislative level and in many states. On the other hand, you could observe that many of the same things are true about national media – and the narrative structure of teacher unions present in national media has changed over the last several months.

A lot.

To establish a baseline, we can take a look at just five years ago, in 2016. At that time, our analysis of linguistic centrality indicates that there were three distinct narratives about teacher unions: (1) unions in our area are fighting for a fair contract, (2) unions are joining the fight against testing obsession and (3) teachers and students alike are harmed by the underfunding of schools. While coverage obviously includes op-eds and editorials that were not always supportive, in general these were sympathetic, linguistically distinct, regionally cohesive narratives.

To visualize this in part, take a look at the network maps below, each of which roughly approximates our analysis of these narratives using the software from our friends at Quid. Nodes are individual articles about teacher unions in 2016. Bold-faced nodes generally represent those we have identified as being about a particular narrative, framing or topic. As usual, similarly colored clusters are very linguistically similar. Closeness and connecting lines also indicate dimensions of linguistic similarity. North, south, east and west have no meaning outside of distance and connectivity. The short of it is the same as above: these were generally central, distinct, internally cohesive narratives about teacher unions. When outlets wrote about each of these topics, they tended to use the same language, talking points and phraseology.

The Third Rail Switch
Source: Epsilon Theory, Quid

Through 2020, on the other hand, while there were distinct articles about each of these topics, in our judgment they had no influence on the narrative structure of teacher unions. In 2020 there was one narrative: “districts are discussing how and when to re-open schools.” That the nodes are nearly all in bold (i.e. that they are part of this framing) is not an accident. The topic permeated practically every discussion about teacher unions in 2020.

The Third Rail Switch
Source: Epsilon Theory, Quid

For the first 5-6 months of the pandemic, I would describe most of the coverage as sympathetic. By September, we think it can be observed anecdotally and subjectively that a meaningful change had taken place. We also think the data bear it out. Why do we think that?

Because there was no topic that became more about the role of teacher unions in American society than coverage of the resistance to re-opening put forward by the unions serving the Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia.

Because that topic, local as it was, became among the most central, most interconnected clusters of the coverage of teacher unions in 2020.

The Third Rail Switch
Source: Epsilon Theory, Quid

It is a small cluster, to be sure – after all, this is only one among thousands of school districts in the United States. But we think this debate framed how the narrative of teacher unions in the pandemic would shift in late 2020 into 2021. In short, by Q4 of 2020, we think the narrative began to transition from “districts are discussing how and when to re-open schools” to “why are teacher unions opposing re-opening?”

In YTD 2021, this framing – no longer mostly confined to Fairfax County – had spread, as narratives do, to all corners of coverage. The threat of strikes in Chicago. Debates over teacher vaccination policy nationwide. Varying opinions of President Biden’s One-Day-A-Week plan. And yes, the same raging debates in California.

The Third Rail Switch
Source: Epsilon Theory, Quid

Readers’ opinions may differ on the reality of school openings. I’m guessing they probably changed a bit over time, too.

In my own town, I was supportive of closures in March. By July, I felt confident enough in the data to support elementary school openings but was suspicious enough of high schools that I considered them a legitimate superspreader risk. By mid-September I’d generally come to the conclusion with more data that my view was wrong – too conservative. By then I believed that high schools with appropriate precautions outside of raging hotspots could – and in my area where my opinion matters, should – re-open. Today, I have some concerns about high schools in emerging B.1.1.7 areas, but none that rise to the level of changing my mind.

Maybe your path was similar. Maybe you felt more comfortable with broad re-openings sooner. Maybe it took you some time. Maybe you’re not there yet.

No matter what you believe about the reality of school re-openings or the role teacher unions have played in school re-opening policy, and no matter how that belief changed over time, in narrative world the switch on this third rail has been flipped.

For better or worse, for the first time in a very long time, everybody knows that everybody knows it is now possible to openly discuss and debate the social role of teacher unions. That doesn’t mean that anything about the relationship schools have with these unions will change. It means that it can change.

I remain concerned that this is a conversation that can and will be easily co-opted by those with a political interest in creating conflict between groups that have every reason to be aligned. Still, we are where we are. In the same way that narrative shaped a conversation about the role of police going forward in 2020, this narrative can shape a conversation about the role of teacher unions and public sector unions more broadly. My money is still on the status quo.

But I’ve been wrong before.


Rusty Guinn
Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Salient. Rusty Guinn is the executive vice president of asset management at Salient. He oversees Salient’s retail and institutional asset management business, including investment teams, products, and strategy. Rusty shares his perspective and experience as an investor on the Epsilon Theory website.

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