I. The New Tea Party Strategy
Why have our school board meetings, typically a snoozefest, become a brutal battleground complete with raucous crowds, baseless legal harassment and death threats? Is it because a bunch of “concerned parents” just woke up one day and became outraged over their kids’ schools’ race and gender teachings and policies?
That, to be sure, is NOT what’s going on. What we are experiencing is the early stage of a national strategy for Republicans to maintain power where they have it, regain power where they’ve lost it and keep their base mobilized in the usual way – by feeding them dishonest, manipulative propaganda designed to stoke their fear, rage and hatred.
If Virginia politics these days strikes you as odd and disorienting, it’s because we are all sitting in a test tube. We are one of the most key targets of a continuing Republican social and political experiment.
Unfortunately, the first part of that experiment, Virginia’s 2021 elections, worked as planned, propelling the GOP to power in Richmond. We are now in the second phase, as Republicans work to consolidate, use and build on the still tenuous power they’ve gained – as a springboard into the 2022 midterm elections.
As the first purple state test case, it is vitally important for Republicans to show results here and not allow this victory to turn into a missed opportunity. And so they have unleashed a lot of their big guns on Virginia, while pouring dark money & other resources into the Commonwealth.
The strategy strikes me as similar to what they did successfully with the so-called Tea Party movement a dozen years ago: use national leaders, propaganda and money to fund localized efforts in key areas, in which loud, rowdy activists are sent to disrupt governmental and political meetings – in that case, mostly Congressional town halls on the issue of health care; in this case, school boards, with a focus on issues of race, and secondarily on gender and public health.
As with the Tea Party movement, the public is being misled through emotional appeals to believe that the activists are representative of the average, normal citizen, and that therefore others should embrace their concerns. In this way, radical right-wing ideologies are mainstreamed to shame and alienate Democrats (and various marginalized groups) to propel Republicans to greater power.
So who are the driving forces behind this campaign and what are they up to?
II. The Manufactured “Critical Race Theory” Controversy
While racism has been a powerful political tool from the earliest days of the American colonies, it has continually evolved to meet the needs and fears of the moment. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 proved that even the crudest, most blatant forms of racism still have an audience in 21st century America.
But by 2020, following the gruesome videotaped murder of George Floyd, the frustration of millions of Americans with the politics of racism boiled over into a summer of racial justice protests – including, by one estimate, an astonishing 15 million people, making the Black Lives Matter protests the largest in US history.
To Republican strategists, this represented both a crisis and an opportunity. Though the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, the few violent flashpoints would be replayed over and over again on Fox and other right-wing media to make their elderly white audiences feel threatened. As always, Republicans would present themselves as the heroic solution to the great danger that they had just conjured up.
The question was how to blame progressives for the situation. Enter Chris Rufo, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute who had made a, uh, name for himself as an opponent of the teaching of evolution in schools and advocate for creationism. That pedigree should tell you what you need to know about his level of intellectual honesty in the pursuit of right-wing causes.
If you want to understand how conservatives think about the mostly made-up bogeyman they call “Critical Race Theory” or CRT, I suggest Rufo’s YouTube video on the topic, which quite skillfully weaves this demagoguery together into something that (at least to a MAGA brain) sounds coherent. While I don’t normally recommend people go to right-wing sources, in this case, I think it helps explain a lexicon and worldview that is otherwise quite perplexing – as long as you keep in mind how fast and loose Rufo plays with the facts to suit his purposes.
Rufo took the name of an abstruse academic theory and turned it into shorthand for all efforts to teach the truth about race in America, as well as all policies to right the historical inequities of institutionalized racism. With this one neat trick, he tars all the terms that progressives may use to deal with race – “equity, social justice, diversity and inclusion, and culturally responsive teaching” – with the brush of the most radical thinkers and activists on the topic.
This allows him to pretend to take the high ground in admitting that CRT’s fundamental premise is true – “America has a history of slavery, racism and injustice and we should examine the relationship between racism, power and society” – while claiming that what progressives draw from that premise is that “the American regime is irredeemably racist and must be overthrown through moral, political and economic revolution.”
With this fancy footwork, Rufo trains his acolytes to associate the mildest anti-racist terms, trainings and policies with Marxism, revolution and totalitarianism. This helps explain why Governor Youngkin, for example, has gone on a holy war against all use of the term “equity” in Virginia government, since in Rufo-speak, equity means ensuring “race-based equality of outcomes, endorsing active racial discrimination to get there.” (Per dictionary.com, equity actually means “the quality of being fair or impartial; something that is fair and just.”)
As Rufo admitted in a tweet:
“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
The phony “CRT” concept (as opposed to the actual academic theory, which is not taught in elementary or high schools) then travelled to the Republican mainstream through the usual channels – Rufo making lots of appearances on Fox shows, which then-president Trump saw and picked up on. Donald then used the term in a September 2020 executive order attempting to ban federal trainings on such topics as inherent bias. From there, the Republican flock learned to regularly bleat these words.
And, what do you know, this was happening right before a Virginia statewide election that Republicans seemed to have a shot at winning.
III. Virginia Becomes Ground Zero in the GOP Race War
Per Media Matters, in the 11 months leading up to May 2021, Fox mentioned so called “CRT” over 550 times. And they were focused like a laser on controversies with the Loudoun County schools that they and GOP operatives helped to gin up. As Media Matters noted in another very telling article:
“Nearly a dozen of the Fox News guests the network has presented as concerned parents or educators who oppose the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in schools also have day jobs as Republican strategists, conservative think-tankers, or right-wing media personalities.”
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that one of the reasons that Northern Virginia was targeted is because so many inside-the-Beltway Republican operatives conveniently live here! To list just three of Fox’s so-called “concerned parents”:
- Ian Prior of “Fight for Schools”, introduced as a “father” who “has gone from concerned parent, like many of you, to legal activist”. Somehow, Fox forgot to mention his years in “top communications roles during the 2016 election cycle for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Karl Rove-fronted super PAC American Crossroads, and the Senate Leadership Fund”.
- Barry Bennett, characterized as a “Virginia Little League Parent”, also just happened to be “one of the most prominent lobbyists of the Trump era,” who “co-founded Avenue Strategies with Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, after Trump’s victory”.
- Patti Hidalgo Menders, described as a Loudoun County parent, also turns out to work for “Majority Strategies, a GOP media consulting firm that bills itself as ‘the only firm to work with every official GOP presidential nominee since 2000’ and counts Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and two past Speakers of the House among its current or former clients.”
Oh, so what were the horrendous racist, Marxist, dictatorial acts committed by the Loudoun County School Board? As NBC News recounts, they included “revamping diversity training for staff…issu[ing] a public apology for being one of the last school districts in the country to desegregate…chang[ing] the name of the mascot, the Raiders, to drop a Confederate reference…banning students from wearing the Confederate battle flag on clothing, creating a student equity ambassador program and establishing a new protocol for dealing with racial slurs.” Shocking stuff!
Yeah, no surprise that there is no substance to back up the right’s charges of nefarious things happening in Northern Virginia schools. But sadly, as we all know, this dishonest political strategy worked for Republicans in November 2021, helping Glenn Youngkin win the governor’s race and pull in a Republican lieutenant governor, attorney general and House of Delegates with him. Interestingly, a recent analysis found no evidence that Republicans attracted any additional voters of “concerned parent” age, yet they did pull in many more voters of the scared elderly Fox viewer age – “Voters age 65 & older are an estimated 15.9% of Virginia’s population according to the census, yet accounted for 31.9% of all ballots cast in 2021.”
In some ways, that win was the easy part, as it just required spinning out fairy tales that needn’t be too connected to reality as long as they brought Republican voters to the polls. We are now in the more difficult and painful stage, as Youngkin and his team try to turn Rufo’s logically incoherent propaganda into actual governmental laws, rules and policies. This part is tricky for Republicans because it is close to impossible for them to establish and enforce bans on race-conscious teaching and action in our schools without showing a truly authoritarian, McCarthyist face. Kind of like the face of the right wing protestor who told the Luray, VA School Board that she would “bring every single gun loaded and ready” to school.
Thankfully, the Democratic-run Virginia Senate has managed to kill most legislation in support of Youngkin’s anti-education agenda to date. This has forced him to try to ram his policies through with executive orders and such ridiculous tools as his “tip line” to catch teachers straying from GOP party dogma. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents recently criticized this and other Youngkin school policies – just the latest of many waves of pushback he’s had to face from the start.
But Republican operatives still aglow over Youngkin’s victory just four months ago are determined to win this war in Virginia and use the issue to prevail in the 2022 midterm elections. Indeed, they are turning up the heat in the red areas they control, firing school officials for offenses from saying “Black Lives Matter” to being a black principal who posted a picture on social media of him about to kiss his white wife.
And they are introducing scores of bills across the country which PEN America rightly calls “educational gag orders”. Per Education Week’s tracker, 14 states, mostly in the South and West, have imposed bans on teacher speech, with bills proposed in a total of 41 states. Ambitious Republican politicians like Governor DeSantis in Florida are clearly betting their chips on this culture war strategy, on both race and gender issues.
It is finally worth noting how these attacks on our public schools seem always paired with efforts to establish for-profit education, promoted by those who might profit from such efforts. As The Nation pointed out in regard to Koch-funded education groups:
“They propose solutions like deregulating teacher licensing and relaxing restrictions on which public schools parents can send their kids to, both long-standing goals of the organization. This dramatic mismatch between supposedly existential stakes on the one hand and technocratic fixes on the other exposes their true intentions. They are inciting outrages against racial justice, and then using that outrage as a Trojan horse for entrenching radical free market ideology in every institution possible.”
So here are a few takeaways:
- It’s mostly not really about “concerned parents” but rather political operatives attempting to rally their right-wing, racist GOP base.
- These battles are very much in play, especially in a competitive state like Virginia. Check out what you can do to help the local grassroots groups springing up to fight the war on our schools, like 4 Public Education and Stand and Deliver Virginia.
- Support your local Democratic school board members through this hard time, and help recruit new ones if they’re ready to call it quits.
- Do not use the right wing’s propaganda terms, like “CRT” to describe this debate; doing so just furthers their deceptions. Use terms that express your values, e.g., “educational gag rules.”
- By beating the assault on our schools here in Virginia, we can help deflate Republican hopes of winning elsewhere based on this dishonest, manipulative formula.
Needless to say, Youngkin and the protestors he empowers have stirred up a political hornet’s nest in the first two months he’s been in office and he’s suffered a lot of stings. Let’s keep ‘em coming!