Michigan state Senator Mallory McMorrow made national headlines this week after tearing into Republicans who for months have been attacking school boards, teachers, communities, and political figures who champion fact-based and humane education about gender and race. In a stinging rebuke to the deliberately dishonest Republican tactic of wrapping bigotry in a cloak of “parents’ rights,” McMorrow employed facts, logic, and her own experience to shred the GOP’s attacks on public education. The five-minute address went viral, gaining millions of social-media views and earning praise from a presidential historian as an epic smackdown of hate-mongering. It also provided Democrats with a cogent example of how best to respond to the GOP’s cultural warfare.
McMorrow, a 35-year-old, first-term legislator who represents a politically competitive district in suburban Detroit, responded Tuesday to a crude attack from a fellow legislator who appeared to target the Democrat for defending the accurate teaching of US history, gender studies, and educational programs that support LGBTQ youth. Republican state Senator Lana Theis circulated a fundraising appeal that suggested McMorrow, the parent of a young daughter, and her fellow progressives were “outraged that they can’t groom and sexualize kindergarteners” and teach “that 8 year olds are responsible for slavery.”
Instead of rolling her eyes at the absurdity of Theis’s outrageous claims and changing the topic, as Democrats so frequently do, McMorrow fought back. She read the riot act to Theis and the whole cabal of Republicans that seeks to score political points at the expense of students, teachers, and the truth.
“I didn’t expect to wake up yesterday to the news that the senator from the 22nd district had, overnight, accused me by name of grooming and sexualizing children in an email fundraising for herself,” McMorrow declared on the Senate floor. “So I sat on it for a while wondering: Why me? And then I realized: Because I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme. Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no.”
McMorrow cut through the lies and distortions with a personal reflection on her own upbringing and the Christian faith with which she was raised:
My mom taught me at a very young age that Christianity and faith was about being part of a community, about recognizing our privilege and blessings, and doing what we can to be of service to others, especially people who are marginalized, targeted, and who had less, often unfairly. I learned this service was far more important than performative nonsense like being seen in the same pew every Sunday, or writing “Christian” in your Twitter bio, and using that as a shield to target and marginalize already marginalized people.
I also stand on the shoulders of people like Father Ted Hesburgh, the longtime president of the University of Notre Dame, who was active in the civil rights movement; who recognized his power and privilege as a white man, a faith leader, and the head of an influential and well-respected institution; and who saw Black people in this country being targeted, and discriminated against, and beaten, and reached out to lock arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was alive, when it was unpopular and risky, and [marched] alongside them to say, “We’ve got you.” To offer protection and service and allyship to try to right the wrongs and fix injustice in the world.
McMorrow’s rage at the immorality of her critics was sincere and powerful. So powerful that historian Michael Beschloss referred to her speech as a “’Have you no sense of decency?’ moment”—making a comparison with the epic response, during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, of attorney Joseph Welch to cruelly disingenuous claims by red-baiting Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy.
McMorrow’s rebuke of cynical Republicans gave leaders within her own party a reminder of an essential fact of American politics.
When Democrats fail to object to Republican lies about the teaching of history that reflects on the role that slavery and segregation played in establishing systemic racism; when they fail to call out GOP promotion of “Don’t Say Gay” laws; and when they fail to push back against conservative assaults on programs that support transgender and gender non-conforming youth, the Republican strategy wins. Neglecting to correct lies from reprehensible Republicans never works for Democrats.
It’s a lesson Democrats should have learned when 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry initially refused to counter conservative “swiftboating” attacks on his record of service in Vietnam. Yet, even now, there are prominent Democrats who imagine they can avoid mounting a robust response to conservative treachery.
So it is that many top Democrats have gone soft in the face of a Republican strategy of asserting “parental rights” to make public education more cruel, dishonest, and ignorant. They fear they’ll be targeted for the sort of attacks that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe faced in the fall of 2021, when Republican Glenn Youngkin and his supporters exploited McAuliffe’s missteps in an education debate to portray the former Democratic governor as a proponent of the “indoctrination” of children. McAuliffe’s bumbling and unfocused campaign failed to push back in a meaningful or effective way, and the Democrat lost.
The message from Virginia should have been clear: Don’t be glib. Don’t be dismissive. Don’t walk away from debates about education. Engage in them with a passion that is big enough and blunt enough to expose the Republicans for the charlatans that they are. That’s what McMorrow did when she recalled being raised Catholic, working in soup kitchens, and learning to see the humanity in others.
“So who am I?” asked McMorrow. Her answer is one that Democrats would do well to study as they prepare for the 2022 midterm elections:
I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom, who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are white is absolute nonsense.
No child alive today is responsible for slavery. No one in this room is responsible for slavery. But each and every single one of us bears responsibility for writing the next chapter of history. Each and every single one of us decides what happens next and how we respond to history and the world around us. We are not responsible for the past. We also cannot change the past. We can’t pretend that it didn’t happen or deny people their very right to exist.
I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom. I want my daughter to know that she is loved, supported, and seen for whoever she becomes. I want her to be curious, empathetic, and kind. People who are different are not the reason that our roads are in bad shape after decades of disinvestment or that health care costs are too high or the teachers are leaving the profession. I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard, and supported, not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, white, and Christian.
We cannot let hateful people tell you otherwise to scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they are not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives. And I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen. So I want to be very clear right now. Call me whatever you want. I hope you brought in a few dollars. I hope it made you sleep good last night. I know who I am. I know what faith and service means and what it calls for in this moment. We will not let hate win.