Last spring, taking a break from waging conspiratorial campaigns against the republic, an assortment of luminaries associated with the Claremont Institute gathered to lay out a plan to foment a culture war against the nation’s schools. The Clubhouse event, entitled “Building A New Right: Red States vs. Wokeness,” featured a grab bag of Claremont fellows and friends. The star attraction was Manhattan Institute agitprop specialist Christopher Rufo, chief sower of the panics against critical race theory (CRT) and “grooming.”
In a now familiar exercise, Rufo sketched out his campaign to make CRT toxic as part of a larger propaganda war against public institutions. The ultimate goal, he explained, was essentially to do away with those institutions and redirect school funding to families and individuals based on their “values.” Rufo waxed apocalyptic about the scourge of “wokeness,” and yet he struck a hopeful note. After all, he reminded listeners, it had only taken the country a few years to go from the Black Panthers to Nixon.
In the ensuing months, Rufo’s propaganda campaign would grow increasingly lurid, but on this occasion, he urged his audience to raise the discussion to a higher level. Focus on “excellence,” he admonished them, and attack public schools for failing to meet that standard. Conservative communications guru David Reaboi, who helped seed a previous moral panic on the right against the sinister spread of Sharia law, weighed in with some messaging advice of his own: Go full bore against the teachers unions. Do damage.
Today, this coordinated plan to wage a public relations war against the nation’s public schools is an undeniable success. Forty-two states have moved to restrict teaching about oppression, race or gender. According to one estimate, more than one third of students in the country attend school in a state where educators are now subject to some kind of classroom gag order.
The achievement of Rufo and his allies is all the more astonishing, given the deep unpopularity of the policies they champion. Polls consistently show that voters across party lines are repelled by the GOP’s education extremism. Across the chasm of our current political divide, bipartisan majorities are largely in agreement that banning books and gagging teachers is bad.
And for all of the insurgent right’s bold rhetoric about mining parent outrage for electoral gold, the polls that matter most have shown remarkably poor results for candidates running on scorched-earth education platforms. In New Hampshire, New York, Montana, Georgia, Wisconsin and beyond, voters are rejecting right-wing culture warriors, often by wide margins—a movement that might be summed up as “keeping the crazy away from the kids.”
There’s just one problem, though: The leadership of the Democratic party doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.