Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She publishes the newsletter Lucid on threats to democracy. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
School drop-off used to be a happy occasion, a time for children to reunite with their friends and parents and caregivers to socialize. For a growing number of Americans, that’s no longer the case.
The scenes of harassment and vitriol in front of schools and in school board meetings in all parts of the country are the latest indicator of the deepening fractures in American society. While talk of a possible “civil war” may seem hyperbolic, four years of Donald Trump’s divisive and polarizing presidency, and the post-Trump extension of the GOP’s retreat from bipartisan governance, have eroded support for the democratic ideals of consensus, compromise and mutual tolerance.
The internal politics of the Republican Party’s leadership model this new climate. The authoritarian-style party discipline Trump imposed during his time in office remains in place. Lawmakers who criticize Trump, like Liz Cheney, are viewed as disloyal and ostracized by the GOP establishment. And questioning the leader cult can be downright dangerous. “Our expectation is that somebody may try to kill us,” said Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., who voted to impeach Trump, explaining in January why he was buying body armor.
Now this authoritarian culture, which sees those who hold different views as enemies, has reached the personal and local levels. Schools, and school boards, are the latest front of a Republican crusade to “take back America” through violent verbiage. For instance, Steve Lynch, the Republican nominee for Northampton County executive in Pennsylvania, advocates the use of intimidation at school board meetings to deal with parents who support mask mandates. “I’m going in with 20 strong men….I’m going to give [the school board] an option: They can leave or they can be removed,” he declared. While Lynch later claimed that his “strong men” were simply people in the community who want to be more involved in school politics, the “agree with us or else” message he sent was clear.
Centering the anti-mask and anti-vaccine fight on schools may seem an illogical move by Republicans: What parent wouldn’t want to keep their children safe by complying with best public health practices? Yet right-wing propaganda has effectively convinced many parents that masks are “muzzles” of freedom and vaccine mandates tyrannical, spawning new waves of activists imbued with an intolerant “us vs. them” mentality little in keeping with democratic models of civic life.
This translates into public bullying of parents who want to protect their children from Covid-19. In Los Angeles, anti-vaccine mandate protesters harassed parents at school drop-off. They claimed that masking is child abuse and subjecting children to vaccines a form of “rape.” In Grand Rapids, Michigan, “Moms for America” activists pressured parents to pull their children out of schools that mandate face coverings. “We have had enough of the forced mandates, knee-jerk reactions, and government overreach,” said the group’s founder, Kimberly Fletcher. “We will not co-parent with the government.”
Here the supposed advocates of education “freedom” show their hand. Arguments like those repeated by Fletcher have little to do with child welfare. But they have everything to do with right-wing efforts to discredit the Biden administration by depicting it as bringing socialist tyranny to America, and by labeling Democrats as degenerates who exploit children (the latter belief is also a central tenet of QAnon conspiracy theories).
Concern for children in this context is just a smoke screen for right-wing activists with far greater ambitions. Calls by Fletcher and many others for a mass exodus from public schools, with the excuse of opposing vaccine and mask mandates, align with the ideal of divesting from the civic space of democracy altogether. They also further the cause of privatizing American education – a pet project of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Moreover, the idea of “parental rights” in schools, advocated by anti-vaccine militants and their White Christian Evangelical allies, also becomes another way to justify censorship of ideas you don’t like, such as the centrality of slavery in America’s development and the costs of institutionalized racism.
It’s not surprising that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wants the private realm to take control of public school curricula. “I think parents should decide what their children are taught in schools,” he tweeted, his stance also reinforcing the right’s disdain for expertise.
Nor is it unexpected that Glenn Youngkin, who is running for Virginia governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, cites parental rights, along with opposition to critical race theory and “transgender ideology,” as part of his ideals for school reform. If Youngkin truly cared about public schools, his campaign wouldn’t be pushing for parents to pull their kids out of them; and if he truly cared about child health and safety, he wouldn’t be opposing mask and vaccine mandates.
When illiberal forces are on the march, the education system is always in their sights. The brutal rejection by activist parents of differences of opinion, and the spread of practices of harassment meant to frighten others into silence, models the kind of authoritarian culture the right is trying to install, town by town, school board by school board.
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One way to push back is to populate school boards with individuals who care about pluralism, democracy and public health. School boards “play a foundational role in determining the kinds of citizens that kids ultimately become. The way that they are treated in school cultivates the kind of people they grow up to be,” said Amanda Litman, executive director and co-founder of Run For Something, which recruits and mentors candidates for local offices.
However we choose to be involved, parents can set an example by standing up for democracy, respect for others and protection of the health of children. For it’s the next generation that will bear the burden if we don’t act now.