Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
After four years when all eyes were glued to the presidency, American politics have taken on a decidedly local bent. During last fall’s elections in Virginia, national media latched on to events in Loudoun County, where both right-wing and mainstream outlets amplified local politics and growing panic over everything from critical race theory and trans students’ bathroom access to mask policies and math courses. After Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship, commentators dissected the results to foretell the outcome of elections in 2022, 2024 and beyond.
This week’s recall election in San Francisco is following a similar pattern. Three school board members lost their seats in a recall effort fueled by so many different issues that observers could easily play pick-your-own-narrative.
There were extended pandemic school closures, a ham-handed effort to rename schools commemorating Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, among other figures, in the name of social justice, an attempt to move away from testing and GPA requirements for admission into high-ranking public schools, a growing achievement gap, an enormous budget deficit and, in the case of one school board member, the use of a racial slur in an anti-Asian rant. All that makes trying to sum up the lessons of the recall a tall order.
But while the results in San Francisco may resist simple analysis, the politics swirling around the recall tell us something important about a process underway across the country. In San Francisco, deep-pocketed, right-leaning donors shoveled money into the recall, while activists and media outlets began using language that lashed together the disparate dissatisfactions into a coherent message.
This rhetoric of “parents’ rights” is not new to the 2020s; conservatives in Colorado in the 1990s even sought to pass a “parents’ rights” amendment “to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children.” Yet it is now being reworked to funnel all the discontents of the era into a set of right-wing school politics at the heart of the GOP’s strategy for the coming midterm elections.
Political organizing around schools is nearly as old as compulsory schooling itself, sparking battles over access, the teaching of subjects like evolution and sex and mandatory prayer and pledges of allegiance. Parents played a role on both sides of all these issues, advocating for the school rules that they felt aligned with their own values.
Yet because so many of these issues would ultimately be settled in state legislatures, Congress and the courts, the right successfully framed school politics as concerned parents having their rights infringed by politicians, bureaucrats and judges. This was the case with desegregation and busing, with Black parents constantly pressing for equal access to local schools and better education. In Boston in the 1960s, Black parents organized Operation Exodus, an effort to transport their children to better schools in the years before court-ordered busing.
The arrival of court-ordered busing in the 1970s, which occurred after White-run school boards failed to comply with the state’s Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, led to the formation of groups like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights), a movement by White parents to resist school desegregation.
The notion that this was a parent-led, and specifically a mother-led, movement was key to the political appeal opponents of segregation were making: that first the legislature and then the courts were forcing them to send their children to integrated schools, and that as parents they had not only a right but an obligation to act in what they saw as their children’s best interest.
It was an emotional narrative pitting aggrieved parents against a pitiless state – a narrative that excluded Black parents and their activism on behalf of their children.
That same erasure happened in the debate over African American Vernacular English that exploded in 1996, after the Oakland school board passed a garbled resolution recognizing AAVE, or ebonics, as a language. The resolution, which was widely reported as a requirement to teach ebonics as a replacement for standard English (or “teach black schoolchildren in ghetto-ese,” as the Boston Globe put it), was both ridiculed and denounced by everyone from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to conservative Education Secretary William Bennett.
It was treated as a sign that public schools were incapable of properly educating students, that standards were nearing non-existence under the reign of liberal bureaucrats.
The politics of the ebonics panic allowed no space for the broader story, one that began with the problem of poor Black students being underserved and undereducated within the school system. A lawsuit brought in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1979 on behalf of poor Black students argued that they were being denied equal access to education because the school system did not account for the socioeconomic and cultural background of these students. A judge ruled that the school had to find ways to identify students who spoke AAVE and find ways to use that knowledge to assist their education. It was in response to these concerns that the Oakland school board acted.
There was some pushback at the time against the popular narrative about ebonics, and Jesse Jackson would soon retract his initial denunciation, admitting he had misunderstood the issue. The school board resolution may not have been the solution to educational disparities in Oakland. But ultimately the politics of the ebonics panic served conservative ends, not the needs of the Black students it sought to help.
The ebonics panic was just one of many instances where conservatives and moderates found common ground as the right spun moral panics into backlash politics, fostering a sense that something was wrong with schools, and anyone concerned about education quality and children’s well-being should be wary of public schools and progressive politics.
In places like Loudoun County and San Francisco, conservative activists are attempting to do the same today, refashioning a suite of school discontents into a wave of Republican victories.
What these decades of backlash politics show is that narrative plays a powerful role in shaping where politics flow. Democratic politicians often lack courage when backlash politics are in motion, as likely to jump on the outrage bandwagon as shrink into the shadows, waiting for it to blow over. But they and progressive activists have a responsibility to counter moral panics with narratives more rooted in reality and more concerned with those whose needs are being overlooked.
Journalists and commentators also play a critical role in how backlash politics form: whose stories get told and emphasized, what frames are applied to the story of what schools need and where they fail, what policy issues and political concerns are treated as legitimate and which get hand-waved away. Getting those issues right is not just critical for how elections unfold, but how schools are ultimately valued and reformed.