Over the course of the 2016 election process, the same term was used over and over again. Whether by friends on social media, bloggers and journalists, or politicians on both sides, the phrase 'race to the bottom' consistently came up.
But, what does the term really mean?
Rooted in the financial lexicon, the phrase race to the bottom generally describes the progressive lowering or deterioration of standards and wages in order to survive in a competitive market. Generally, in a race to the bottom, companies or organizations make ongoing sacrifices regarding the quality of their product and service in an effort to improve profits from quantitative growth.
In governmental policy, the race to the bottom occurs in the same way. When you seek programs that strive for quantitative effects over qualitative, you’re inherently engaging in a race to the bottom.
While it’s easy to view one or both candidates that you find objectionable to not be up to your personal standards, the references to the candidates themselves as 'a race to the bottom' is misplaced and misguided. However, the term itself was and remains apropos to the growing division between Republicans and Democrats since Lyndon Johnson took office a half century ago.
The reality is that the Democratic party, in an effort to make the world a more fair place in their view, has been engaged in a race to the bottom for decades and the 2016 election itself was a public debate between a continued deterioration of standards which was revived 8 years ago under president Obama or a race to the top led by nearly any of the 17 Republican candidates.
Donald Trump’s success was a simple result of being the most successful candidate to articulate his desire to lead Americans to the top of the mountain. An exploration of three of the most prominent progressive democratic policies will clearly show this distinction to be true.
Policy #1: The Affordable Care Act
The elephant in the room (or donkey in this case) when talking about a race to the bottom is the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. At its core, Obamacare was intended to ensure that all Americans had access to healthcare regardless of income and social standing. In and of itself, this goal is certainly admirable.
To that end, the Democratic National Committee has touted Obamacare as a general success due solely to the contention that somewhere between 20 and 40 million Americans signed up for insurance through the various ACA exchanges and some percentage of those people would not have been able to get health insurance without it.
The Republican objection to the claim that Obamacare was a success references a reduction in the quality of insurance, an increase in the cost of insurance, and the inability for continuity in care by a patient’s current doctor.
The contentions by the sides are both true. Still, they provide a stark contrast to the priorities of each party. The Republican objections to Obamacare refer to the decrease in standards of healthcare in an effort to ensure everyone is able to have it – a claim the Democrats don’t object to, arguing that quality doesn’t matter if you don’t have insurance at all. Essentially, Progressives strictly point to the quantitative effects of Obamacare, with little care for the qualitative. Inherently, this Democratic position is by definition a race to the bottom by accepting a lower standard of care.
This stark contrast in priorities has actively reflected the growing divide between parties since the creation of the progressive movement. The question is simple: Should the government actively seek a scenario where they can ensure no one finds themselves under a minimum standard of living, while accepting that the average person must expect lower standards as a result?
Or, should the government’s primary goal be to create the economic conditions where those who accept the personal responsibility to improve their situation have the opportunity to do so, but with the understanding that some may choose not to?
This latter question is also challenged by many Democrats who argue that personal ability and socio-economic conditions may prevent some individuals to make the choice.
Policy #2: Social Security
Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” put Social Security at the forefront of the progressive agenda. The idea that elderly Americans should not live in poverty and have access to required healthcare is, once again, a noble cause. Common to the Progressive Democratic approach, Johnson requested an increase in taxes and and increase in government expenditure to cover the billions of dollars that were required to provide ongoing care of the older generations in society.
When discussing elements of Social Security, Harry Truman was quoted as saying, "Millions of our citizens do not now have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness. And the time has now arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and to help them get that protection.”
Truman’s call was for the US government to assume the active role in caring for its citizens who were being left without the finances for health care and adequate living arrangements – a call to action very similar to President Obama’s desire to provide health care to those citizens without it.
On May 5, 1965, in Johnson’s address to congress, he touted the success of Social Security benefits to the elderly, citing with enthusiasm a day that marked the 20 millionth American to enroll in Social Security benefits. In that address, Johnson touts that these 20 million people receive “more than $1 billion a month, more than $16 billion a year, providing a much more secure life for our citizens and contributing a great deal of economic soundness to our economic system.”
However, like other progressive policies, Social Security has seen a clear and distinct deterioration of standards for what the American people can expect. While Johnson continually asked for an increase in Social Security spending, the system was not solvent and is today in peril. In fact the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is advocating for further and substantial deductions in benefit payments of between 28% and 44% annually until the year 2030 when the system will be completely insolvent.
Again, a staple of the progressive agenda has proven to be a race to the bottom whereby quality of standards by which the policy exists have deteriorated regularly in order to ensure that no one finds themselves under a minimum standard of living, while accepting that the average person must expect a lower standards as a result.
Policy #3: Education
Like the two policies above, education became a banner issue for the progressive movement lead by programs enacted by President Johnson. The two most prominent of these policies were enacted in 1965: Head Start to achieve better education for low-income students; and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that created the Title I provision for distribution of federal resources to high-poverty schools.
Like other progressive programs, the goal of these policies were commendable. Johnson simply wanted to make struggling schools more effective and a correlation had been recognized between income levels and performance in the classroom.
Unfortunately, the last 50 years have shown that the the progressive approach of throwing federal money at the situation not only was ineffective at improving educational performance, but in fact created a race to the bottom that dropped the quality of education across the board and resulted in a focus on minimum standards for all students and educators.
To understand why this happened is fairly straightforward. With the creation and ongoing expansion of federal funding for education to include the department of education to manage the many layers of federal involvement, schools were then forced to focus on achieving the best results they could on federal standardized tests which would get them the greatest funding. Education then stopped being about each child’s maximum educational growth and instead became a focus on the minimum core standards set by the federal government in order to achieve the best test results.
The domino effect has resulted in an ongoing decrease in funding and attention for the arts, music, physical education, and more, in order to spend more time on the core curriculum in schools across the board. Predictably, the schools that previously performed better have continued to outperform in these categories, but the country as a whole has fallen behind the rest of the world due to our push to simply achieve minimum standards.
Ironically, in response to these results, the Obama administration enacted an education funding program called Race to the Top in an effort to “drive states nationwide to pursue higher standards, improve teacher effectiveness, use data effectively in the classroom, and adopt new strategies to help struggling schools.”
Like progressive presidents before him, President Obama was well intentioned with this program and in this case was even on the right track. The desire for programs beyond the core curriculum would spur the creation and growth of the public charter school system focused on STEM or Arts programs entirely, while still partially funded through the department of education.
While President Obama appeared to depart from the general position of progressives before him in claiming a top-down approach, he used the creation of Race to the Top as an opportunity to implement the now notorious Common Core Standards and facilitated the further downward race to the bottom.
While educators have generally accepted the Common Core Standards, the required testing has lead to the continued focus on teaching the Common Core curriculum instead of the previously more expansive curriculum. Further, the focus on Common Core testing puts priorities on math and English, decreasing attention to science, history, and the arts.
As state and local pushback to Common Core complained about Federal overreach and each district’s inability to manage their own curriculum, the Obama administration passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which "eliminated the objective of 100 percent proficiency, and omitted requirements for teacher evaluation.” While the goal of ESSA was to allow for control to be given back to the local districts, ESSA even furthered the downward trajectory of lower standards and the acceptance of poorer performance.
Additionally, even while ESSA lessened the expectations for students and teachers, it maintained the existing student testing requirements and the requirements that “states intervene in some fashion in their lowest-performing five percent of schools.”
The end result has taken the US education system to the same result that other Progressive policies have led to before it. Today, there is a constant focus on making sure all Americans have the ability to achieve basic federally mandated standards of education resulting in an ongoing deterioration of expectations and standards to minimize a perceived lack of fairness in society. Unfortunately, the federal education laws have led us to a system whose primary focus is to have all students achieve minimum standards in math and English at the expense of the best possible education for each student.
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Analyzing these three policy programs should clearly reinforce America’s ongoing rejection of the progressive platform and provide clarity to why President Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, was so effective with voters. Trump wasn’t calling for a step back to an older way of thinking as most analysts and opponents suggest. Instead, he was leading a rallying cry from millions of Americans who were tired of trying to swim upstream in a nation engaged in a race to the bottom. These American’s were standing up and saying that America should strive to be the best in the world at everything we do and that the expectations we have of each other and of our government need to reflect that goal.
In May 2016, English Professor and Progressive theorist Adam Swift, claimed that parents who read to their child at night must understand how they are “unfairly disadvantaging” other children. His position is a classic example of the race to the bottom.
In a race to the top, the precedent must be that all parents read to their children at night and for those who don’t, to understand the difference between those who won’t and those who can’t. Communities can help those who can’t, but it’s time to start expecting more of those who won’t. That is a race to the top that will re-establish the greatness of this country.