Sorry, Moms — Amanda Marcotte in Salon on the poor showing the ironically-named Moms for Liberty had last week.
“We have more people. That’s a huge part.”
Jane Cramer, a mother from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, explained to Salon earlier this year that she felt good about the ragtag team she’d helped assemble to boot Moms for Liberty, the well-funded conservative parents’ rights group, off of her local school board. “We’re not organized in the best ways necessarily, but it kind of all fell into place,” Cramer told me. “And we’re all obsessed a little bit.”
Last month, I published an investigative report about how Moms for Liberty, a group dedicated to rewiring American education toward the far right, had taken over the board of education in the Pennridge School District, about half an hour outside Philadelphia. Moms for Liberty, a heavily funded astroturf organization linked to GOP leadership, wasn’t especially subtle in its strategies, pinpointing a handful of swing districts in purple states, like Virginia and Pennsylvania, and targeting school board elections, which are usually low turnout and easy to win. Once installed, Moms for Liberty members started banning books and Pride flags, as well as protesting that teachers were “grooming” kids with “smut,” which usually meant either a history book or acclaimed, age-appropriate fiction. The idea was to create moral panics around sex and race that could tip national elections towards Republicans.
Well, it backfired.
As I reported, parents in the Pennridge district eager to fight back against right-wing radicals formed the Ridge Network and got the word out, arguing to voters that the group was degrading the quality of the public schools. This week, those efforts paid off: Democrats won all five of the open school board seats in the district, wresting control away from Moms for Liberty.
By the time this election rolled around, Moms for Liberty seemed to have already realized their brand had become poisonous. As the Daily Beast reported, “In 2021, Moms for Liberty claimed credit for 33 seats in Bucks County,” but in this election cycle, the group “endorsed only a single candidate in the county.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that some Republican candidates wanted the group to keep its distance, fearful of the taint. And that was my sense of things in the Pennridge district this fall. School board members who had links to Moms for Liberty tried to downplay it and ended up getting outed by investigators from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
The school board election is the latest in an escalating series of victories for the Ridge Network and other resistance efforts in Pennsylvania. Last month, the Democratic-controlled state legislature held hearings about the threat of book banning, allowing parents and educators to speak out. One of those parents, Darren Laustsen, told Salon about his attempts to expose backdoor book banning at Pennridge, which involved books mysteriously being “checked out” so that students couldn’t read them all year. In late October, he won a lawsuit against the school district over what the judge called a “cover-up” of such secretive book bans.
But Laustsen isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s still out there raising awareness of the radicalism of Moms for Liberty. He recently tweeted a story about Moms for Liberty activists demanding the arrests of librarians for letting kids read young adult novels, adding, “I am so tired of these psychos.”
It’s remarkable how swiftly Moms for Liberty became such an albatross organization. As many Pennridge parents complained to Salon, much of the initial media coverage of the group was credulous, buying into the false narrative that it’s a grassroots group of normal parents who are simply “concerned” about liberal “excesses.” In reality, the group was founded in 2021 by the wife of the chair of the Florida Republican Party and was immediately so well-resourced and fully staffed that it could only be they were propped up by secretive, wealthy donors.
The suspicious aura of money around the group was interesting to journalists, but what really damaged Moms for Liberty was that they underestimated the intelligence of the people in the communities they were targeting. The parents of Pennridge were not fooled by attempts to characterize literary fiction as “pornography.” Local residents also feared that rewriting history classes to adhere to right-wing mythologies would ultimately harm the school’s reputation, which could hurt both their property values and the ability of their kids to get into good colleges. Above all, multiple parents expressed a belief that schools should be preparing kids for the real world. They worried that right-wing whitewashing of history, social studies and other courses would leave kids without the basic skills necessary to thrive in a diverse, dynamic society.
Moms for Liberty was started, in a fairly obvious manner, to help boost the national prospects of Republicans. So it’s a delicious irony that, in two short years, the organization is mostly known as a symbol of the MAGA extremism that is driving down the overall popularity of the GOP, leading to yet another election cycle where Democrats overperformed expectations. The group was meant to put a family-friendly gloss on right-wing extremism. Instead, they got parents and teachers, many who barely have time to work and care for their families, to become political organizers. Messing with people’s schools was not, it turned out, a genius political strategy.
Doonesbury — It’s only a game.