Moms for Liberty Isn’t Going Anywhere

Moms for Liberty Isn’t Going Anywhere

Moms for Liberty Isn’t Going Anywhere

The more bitterness and resentment about public schools the group can generate, the easier it will be to privatize education—a long-standing goal for its deep-pocketed backers.

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The verdict is in. Moms for Liberty is over. News of a tawdry sex scandal involving one of the group’s cofounders, coming on the heels of a drubbing at the hands of voters last month, has cemented conventional wisdom that the conservative “parental rights” organization is flailing. Yet, despite the poor performance with voters, not to mention a steady stream of headlines wildly at odds with the group’s moral crusading, the obituary is premature. Moms for Liberty isn’t going anywhere.

“We’re just getting started,” founder Tiffany Justice proclaimed in a recent interview, boasting that the group plans to ramp up its efforts in 2024. That’s because Moms for Liberty isn’t designed to win elections; its real mission is to undermine public education.

For a short period, Moms for Liberty did seem like it could be the keystone of the Republican Party’s electoral strategy. In the waning days of the pandemic, frustration over school closures helped power Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in Virginia, and leaders within the GOP seized on the cause. Waging culture war in the schools, many thought, could lure back the disaffected suburban moms who had fled the party during the Trump years. Yet, amid all the sound and fury, polls consistently flashed warning signs about the appeal of culture war issues to voters. Now the evidence is clear: Most Americans aren’t interested in the parental rights crusade or the paranoid extremism that it seeks to usher into the schools.

Virtually everywhere the group fielded candidates for a school board last month, they lost. In Iowa, 12 of 13 Moms for Liberty–endorsed candidates lost their races. In Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Virginia, and Kansas, the story was much the same. As it turns out, projects like banning books and targeting transgender students aren’t the galvanizing issues that the GOP had presumed.

So why continue running on a losing platform? One reason is the divide between moderates and hard-liners in the Republican party. While suburban voters may be rejecting efforts to purge books from libraries, restrict how history is taught, and curtail the rights of students, these issues still resonate deeply with the GOP base. Moreover, the right-wing media ecosystem is dedicated to amplifying tales of zealous Marxist teachers and out-of-control trans athletes. Combine those factors with a party primary structure that rewards extremism, and it means that these issues aren’t going anywhere.

But there’s another key reason Moms for Liberty and their allies are likely to remain a fixture in our politics. While the stated goal of these groups is to win seats on local school boards and push education policy in a more conservative direction, their institutional backers have always had a more expansive vision: dismantling public education. The Heritage Foundation, a key supporter of Moms for Liberty since its inception, sees relentless culture warring as key to its work peddling school vouchers. The more bitterness and resentment in and around the public schools that groups like Moms for Liberty can generate, the easier it will be to privatize education. The Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo summed up this strategy quite frankly in a speech at Hillsdale College in 2021: “To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”

Why does the far right want to pull apart public education? There are several motivating factors. First is the cost. We spend the better part of a trillion dollars each year educating the 50 million students enrolled in the nation’s public schools. For conservatives set on eliminating taxation, privatizing education has long been a holy grail. Second is the fact that public education is the nation’s most heavily unionized sector: The American Federation of Teachers maintains roughly 1.7 million members, while the National Education Association has roughly 2 million on its rolls. Many on the right are offended by the very idea of organized labor, but the GOP also has a pragmatic interest in undermining unions, which traditionally turn out for the Democratic Party. Finally, there’s the fact that public education is designed to advance the common good rather than individual values and interests. For religious fundamentalists and committed libertarians, this borders on Soviet-style collectivism.

Most Americans happen to actually like public education. Despite decades of attacks on the schools—from systematic underfunding to overheated claims about declining test scores—most parents have been consistently positive about their own children’s schools. And the public continues to express confidence in professional educators and democratic governance of the schools.

But if your goal is to undermine faith in public education, and to advance a narrative that Americans are so hopelessly divided that public schools are no longer possible, then it makes sense to keep fanning the flames, even if the cause is a loser at the polls. Many culture war candidates may think that the purpose of their crusade is to take charge of the public education system. But the money behind those candidates has a bigger purpose in mind. The purpose of the flames is to burn the system to the ground.

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