Exclusive: Moms for Liberty's Failure Was Even Worse Than Reported
Other right-wing groups ate dirt, too
Welcome to a Monday edition of Progress Report.
Before we get to the main story tonight: The Supreme Court adopted an extremely voluntary “code of ethics” today. The document is page after page of items that Supreme Court justices should or should not do, mere suggestions that cannot be enforced in any way.
The code is almost a middle finger to the majority of Americans who no longer trust the court; if the code weren’t so toothless, most of the conservative justices would be guilty of a fair number of the discouraged ethical lapses and conflicts of interest.
In reality, there was never any reason to expect anything worthwhile from the conservative majority, which is made up of people who have hidden gifts from billionaires and paychecks from far-right leaders for well over two decades now.
What I’m most concerned about is whether Sen. Dick Durbin, the reticent Senate Judiciary Chair will use the court’s sham code as an excuse to not investigate the deep corruption around Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. He’s already shown signs of spinelessness after promising to subpoena their billionaire patrons, so the pressure on him must continue and even intensify.
As for tonight, we’ve got some rare great news for you, including a big scoop on school board elections and the deepest dive into the right wing’s historic failure that you’re going to find anywhere.
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The narrative coming out of last Tuesday’s various statewide elections has been that abortion remains a critical issue to American voters. While that’s unequivocally true, it’s also only part of the story. Dig a little deeper, into county and city election results, and you’ll find a much larger trend: Americans unequivocally rejected the right-wing freaks who have been making life miserable for everybody.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in this year’s boards of education races, which broke decisively for decent people who do not want to turn public schools into culture war zones. In red states and blue states alike, moderate and liberal candidates defeated conservatives endorsed by the bigoted, book-banning bullies at Moms for Liberty and other right-wing astroturf groups, often in tense races that divided communities.
Moms for Liberty tried to scrub its list of endorsed candidates offline after the election, and with good reason: We retrieved an archived copy, and according to Progress Report’s analysis, of the 134 school board candidates that Moms for Liberty endorsed this fall, only 40 of them won their elections.
That’s a win rate of less than 30%, which qualifies as an absolute failure no matter who is grading.
“The book bans, the discrimination, the attacks on kids, and teachers, and the taking away of our choices, it all added up,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the CEO of MomsRising, a national parents organization, told Progress Report. “They added up in really, really visible ways: students not feeling comfortable going to school, teachers leaving the profession, and people not feeling comfortable in their communities.”
As of July, Moms for Liberty had 285 chapters in 45 states, with around 115,000 members total — or about one-tenth of MomsRising’s membership. In many districts, Moms for Liberty members have been a very loud minority, having seized power in sleepy, low-turnout elections, often with little competition.
MomsRising worked hard to translate its national base into local action on school board elections, especially as it pertained to candidate recruitment and encouragement. Most of the wins that Moms for Liberty’s endorsed candidates did muster came in conservative and/or rural areas, often in at-large districts that are inherently designed to undermine diversity.
In the small Pittsburgh suburb of Moon, for example, Moms for Liberty candidates won four of the five school director seats, an outcome that becomes less remarkable when factoring in the fact that they backed five out of seven candidates on the ballot.
In most places, communities were able to either harness the outrage at overreaching conservative school boards or suss out the extremists maniacs as well as who was funding their campaign.
Such was the case in Loudon County, Virginia, a well-to-do DC suburb that spent the past two years being rocked with scandal and recriminations, a ground zero for book bans and anti-trans rules. Democrats took seven of nine seats this time, winning back control of a district that had become a centerpiece of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “parents’ rights” education policies.
The most highly scrutinized showdown this fall came at the Central Bucks Board of Education in Bucks County, PA. A cluster of moderate Philadelphia suburbs that swung left to Democrats in 2018, its school system — the third largest in the state — was seized by far-right candidates who turned the place into a war zone.
For two years, the Republican school board meted out a total of 60 book bans, mask bans, and rampant discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, with each policy debated at school board meetings that made national news.
Last week, Democrats swept the five available seats, including the Republican president of the school board, to retake a 6-3 majority. Notably, Moms for Liberty only formally endorsed one candidate for the Central Bucks school board. The far-right candidates ran together on a slate called Central Bucks Forward, a more sophisticated and localized approach taken by school board candidates in many parts of the country.
The venture capitalist husband of one of the conservative Central Bucks candidates poured $239,000 into Central Bucks Forward and half a million dollars into races across the state. The money in Central Bucks was used on any number of reprehensible things, including mailing graphic images from books to parents of students in the district.
It didn’t translate into many victories — Moms for Liberty candidates went 1-for-15 in nearby Chester County — but it did show the depth of the finances of the right-wing school movement. As this patently false flyer handed to voters in West Chester shows, it also exposed how shameless they became.
Moms for Liberty is the most prominent of the puritanical parent groups, and provides training and resources for candidates all over, but it’s hardly the only organization working to inject Christofascism into public education.
A short, cynical movement
This particular assault on education goes back to the the fall of 2020, when a cranky mom in the Philly suburbs flipped out over her child’s’ teacher incorporating that summer’s historic Black Lives Matter protests into social studies lessons.
Tucker Carlson, then still on Fox News, broadcast a story about her new organization, No Left Turn in Education; by the next spring, right-wing governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott were seizing on manufactured hysteria around things like Critical Race Theory and the few trans girls who play high school sports.
That May, Steve Bannon urged his far-right audience to start running for school boards, calling them “the path to save the nation.” Moms for Liberty sprung up in Florida that year, becoming a key part of DeSantis’s bigot brigade and providing a well-financed infrastructure to the right-wing maniacs who took Bannon up on his call to arms.
Youngkin, late in the 2021 campaign, seized on a gaffe by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to make the broad argument that parents should have say over what their children learn. At the same time that Youngkin won the election, Moms for Liberty and other right-wing groups were staging school board takeovers in other states, beginning two years of chaos.
Two Years of Hell
Parents who had largely ignored school board races to that point became deeply engaged as the new far-right members’ attacks on books, queer kids, and reality itself began to unfold and wreak havoc on day-to-day education.
In Pennsylvania’s Central York district, Tea Party types that had quietly taken over the school board pushed back at teachers who wanted to use books to help students understand systemic racism after the Black Lives Matter protests. They went under the radar during the Covid-era, Zoom-only board meetings, but when the bans were formalized in the fall of 2021, students got involved in protests, bringing national attention that helped partially undo the policies.
Though the voters in the district are conservative, they crossed over to vote for Democrats in 2021 and again last week, finally flipping the school board. (Note: We’ll have much more on this fight in an upcoming issue of Progress Report.)
In the Pennridge district, that meant hiring a right-wing consultant who used to work for Hillsdale College and requiring teachers to check their lessons against the private Christian school’s 1776 curriculum, a full-on alternative history series that caters to overly sensitive white people.
“[‘Parents Rights’] is not what it appears to many at first on the surface,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “And so over time, the actual implications of the agenda became more clear due to a lot of people raising their voices.”
Democrats swept Pennridge’s five school board elections and plan to fire the consultant as soon as they take office in December.
In other places, such as Iowa, the right-wing candidates were sussed out and stopped before they could get elected.
Both suburban and rural Iowa rejected extremists. Ankeny only voted in one of five Republican candidates after Gov. Kim Reynolds got involved last cycle, while Johnston denied all four Moms for Liberty candidates. Carroll County voted 63% for Trump in 2020, but rejected all three conservative school board candidates.
As I’ve reported both here and More Perfect Union, there is a much reactionary school movement that has been working for the past 40+ years to overtake and crush public education in the United States.
It took decades and billions of dollars from cultish ghouls like Betsy DeVos to build up the infrastructure, but that movement now has a tremendous amount of momentum thanks to Republicans’ rightward drift. The school voucher scam, which began last year in Arizona, has spread to Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida, among other states. If Gov. Greg Abbott finally gets his way and can break down rural Republicans in the legislature’s fourth special session, it will crack Texas, as well.
The new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, spent years working for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal foundation that is pushing specious arguments on “religious freedom” in education that could well appeal to the Supreme Court.
These losses, then, may not change shift conservative initiatives in many parts of the country — just look at Republicans in Utah, who are now exploring a proposal that would make it easier to ban books from schools statewide. Iowa Republicans are moving forward with their voucher program, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has staked his sad career on dividing kids at school.
Still, the pathetic underperforming of Moms for Liberty candidates in so many parts of the country not normally amenable to Democratic leadership is a sign that blatant bigotry and far-right moralism in education will not work as an electoral issue, nor will dog whistle phrases like “parents’ rights.”
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