Moms for Liberty: Birchers in Heels
This paranoid outfit is pushing rightwing censorship in schools in the name of liberty
Moms for Liberty, an activist organization founded and led by conservative women, has emerged in the last two years to oppose, in the name of “parental rights,” what it sees as leftist indoctrination in public schools.
There are worthwhile arguments to be had about contemporary gender ideology and about how to respond to the history and legacy of race in America—about how to address these issues in public institutions like schools and where to draw the line between necessary instruction and ideological indoctrination. In a nation with 50 million children in thousands of school districts, there will be no shortage of controversial examples to be debated.
But a thoughtful debate is not what Moms for Liberty has offered as its defining contribution. Instead, it has become the driving force behind a sweeping wave of book bans and politicized restrictions on teaching.
It is a curious outcome for a group with such a libertarian-sounding name. How did Moms for Liberty come to be one of the nation’s chief censors?
The origin of Moms for Liberty was not in the culture wars over race and gender but the Covid culture war. It began in Florida as a rebellion against rules requiring masks for public school students. When Tina Descovich, the group’s co-founder, lost her bid for reelection to the Brevard County School Board in 2020 by 10 points, she acknowledged that her opposition to mask requirements “played a role” in her defeat. That fall, Descovich joined Tiffany Justice, a former school board member from a neighboring county, to start an activist organization with the purpose of opposing pandemic measures in schools. In early 2021, they formed Moms for Liberty.
It was the pandemic that provided Moms for Liberty with the opportunity to mobilize and radicalize conservative parents. Descovich explained, “If you miss this opportunity, when [parents] are really engaged … it’s going to be hard to engage them in the future.” When the debate shifted from masks to vaccines, Moms for Liberty appealed to anti-vaccine sentiment on the right. For example, a new chapter in Orange County, California was launched toward the end of the movement’s first year and cited the state’s vaccine mandate as a reason for the chapter’s creation. Anti-vax crusader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was scheduled to be a star speaker at the Moms for Liberty national summit earlier this year before backing out at the last minute.
That’s the supposed meaning of “for liberty” in Moms for Liberty: the freedom to ignore mask and vaccine mandates. The group emerged from a combination of dogmatic rejection of any anti-pandemic measures and legitimate frustration with school closures, which in some areas dragged on for a year—though Florida’s own schools re-opened quite early, in late August of 2020.
The anti-mask cause summoned a great deal of violent fury, but it was perhaps too small and temporary for a national movement that had ambitions to persist beyond the pandemic. Yet this issue established the kind of energy that has characterized Moms for Liberty ever since: an upwelling of anger, a distrust of experts, a volcanic hatred of “the establishment,” and a deep suspicion that the powers that be are out to destroy our way of life.
From masks, Moms for Liberty moved to other causes that fit with this outlook, first to the notion that “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is being injected into school curricula, and from there to policing classroom instruction on gender and sexuality. Then came a wave of state-level anti-CRT laws. Tennessee enacted rules on “Prohibited Concepts in Instruction,” a name that seems plucked straight out of a dystopian novel. Like Florida’s vaguely worded “Don’t Say Gay” bill, these were designed to empower armies of citizen enforcers to file complaints about “prohibited concepts,” a role Moms for Liberty gladly adopted. The Bulwark’s Tim Miller had warned that under the Florida bill, “silence” on homosexuality and gender “will be enforced by Florida Man.” Instead, it has been enforced by Florida Woman.
Moms for Liberty became the driving force behind a wave of challenges to school curricula and particularly to school libraries stocking books with any kind of content relating to sex, gender, and race. Some schools in Florida opened the year with empty shelves because school librarians were still sifting through them for unapproved books, and they face significant penalties if they run afoul of parent complaints.
The explanation offered by Moms for Liberty is that this was a grassroots upswell that grew out of parents watching Zoom classes over their kids’ shoulders during the pandemic. Co-founder Tiffany Justice claims, “When the whole world went virtual, it opened a window for parents into what was being taught.” But keep in mind that Florida schools re-opened in late summer of 2020. Zoom classes only happened for a few months toward the end of the prior school year, mainly in April and May. During the scrambling transition to online schooling, how many lessons actually promoted Critical Race Theory or 58 genders?
Instead, Moms for Liberty’s agenda has always been driven by the issues that dominate the wider conservative culture wars. As Descovich put it during an appearance on The Rush Limbaugh Show, the organization is based on the premise that “conservatives have neglected education for decades.” Moms for Liberty is less a spontaneous wave of popular discontent than a new wave of activism aimed at bending school curricula to promote a conservative agenda.
There have been previous waves of conservative panic about education. In the 1970s, long before “Don’t Say Gay,” Florida politics was roiled by Anita Bryant’s attempt to ban gay and lesbian teachers based on the fear that they would use schools for homosexual “recruitment.” In my youth, the big conservative cause related to education was school prayer and opposition to teaching evolution. That old wave hasn’t even fully receded. Chris Rufo, who has risen to the forefront of conservative activism in recent years by inveighing against a catchall he calls “Critical Race Theory,” did much of his early work at the Discovery Institute, a think tank formed to promote the teaching of creationism. Moms for Liberty is merely the latest wave in this broader battle to bring public schools into closer alignment with the doctrines of the religious right.
Let’s see what that looks like in practice.
Norman Rockwell, Subversive
Moms for Liberty originated in Florida, but a revealing microcosm of its national effort can be seen in a running battle over the schools in Williamson County, Tennessee, which has emerged as a particularly gaudy flashpoint in the culture war.
This was underscored in the past few weeks when Gabrielle Hanson, a populist conservative candidate for mayor of the county’s biggest town, Franklin, Tennessee, showed up at a candidates’ forum escorted by members of the Tennessee Active Club. The Club is notorious for its antisemitism, and local investigative reporter Phil Williams tracked down one of the leaders of the organization, who described himself as “an actual literal Nazi.” After refusing to disavow the group, Hanson was defeated by a huge margin in Franklin’s early election on Tuesday.
But this is just one skirmish in an ongoing conflict.
In some ways, this may seem like an odd place to expect such an intense battle over education because, like Florida, Tennessee is already a relatively conservative state, and Williamson County even more so. It is a prosperous and fast-growing semi-suburban area south of Nashville that voted almost 2 to 1 for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in 2020. In short, it is not the sort of place you would expect to find outrageous examples of propagandistic education like the ones that have been reported elsewhere—and, so far as I can tell, you won’t find them. Yet perhaps the battle is being fought here precisely because it is so conservative. In a more left-leaning county, a small minority of Moms for Liberty types couldn’t hope to get much traction. It is only because they have a realistic prospect of commanding a majority that they’ve managed to turn the politics of the Williamson County schools upside down.
They have changed the politics in a very literal sense. I talked recently with Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch, who has become a target of Moms for Liberty despite being a conservative, a Christian, a military veteran, and—as he tells me—a guy “with a dog named Reagan.” Welch, who stressed that he speaks for himself and not the board, explained that the county had never had partisan school board elections before, because education wasn’t considered a partisan issue. Not anymore. Being a member of the school board is usually a thankless job that involves a lot of tedious discussions about administrative policy and budgets. Now it has become a political hot button that attracts partisan activists.
The big Moms for Liberty demand was a letter from Williamson County chapter chair Robin Steenman demanding the removal of a list of books from the public school curriculum and changes in the manual given to teachers to accompany these readings. What are these objectionable books? They include Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, by Ruby Bridges—the story of the first black girl to attend a newly integrated school in Louisiana. Among the complaints about the book is that it shows Norman Rockwell’s famous depiction of Bridges in The Problem We All Live With.
That’s right: Norman Rockwell is too subversive for Moms for Liberty.
The letter demands an end to the “negative psychological effect” and “emotional trauma” that might come from learning too much about the history of segregation. There is a certain irony that conservatives have spent years complaining about overly sensitive “snowflakes” who demand to be shielded from opposing views and need “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”—yet here are conservatives demanding a safe space for children from basic facts about the struggle for civil rights.
(I repeatedly solicited comment from Steenman and from the national Moms for Liberty group. The response was repeated demurrals, in one case a scheduled then hastily canceled interview, and then—silence. Moms for Liberty has grown accustomed to soft and credulous coverage from right-leaning outlets. An article in Bari Weiss’ The Free Press, for example, acknowledges that there is a “lunatic fringe” associated with the group but largely dismisses this as being unfairly used by the left-leaning press to smear the organization. So it is perhaps natural that Moms for Liberty would prefer to talk only when assured of this kind of sympathetic treatment.)
The upshot of the Moms for Liberty approach is to impose a heckler’s veto that empowers the most paranoid and hypersensitive. Another set of complaints evaluated by Williamson County includes a claim that the choice of a group activity for kindergartners was intended “probably to foster a communist mentality of the group being more important than the self.” The group slammed a video about seahorses, where the male actually does carry the eggs until they hatch, as an attempt to “normalize” the notion “that males can get pregnant” and “suggest that gender is fluid.” A picture book about African-American tap-dancing pioneer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was denounced as “CRT” for referring to the realities of racial prejudice and segregation in the early 20th century. A book on Galileo, the 17th century Florentine who was tortured for promoting his scientific discoveries, was denounced because it makes the Catholic Church look bad and therefore “makes kids question tradition.” The levels of irony are very thick here.
None of the Questions and All of the Answers
What is perhaps most interesting about the report on these complaints is that it notes that a “document presented by multiple complainants was directly related to the Teacher Editions used in the state of Florida not the state of Tennessee.” This strongly suggests that complaints are being generated by the national Moms for Liberty organization, with its origins in Florida, and merely copied and pasted elsewhere. It used to be said that “all politics is local,” but these days it seems as if all politics is national, even the most local part of local politics, the school board. People get angry because they see Chris Rufo say something on Fox News, or because they see a report online about something outrageous that was done or said halfway across the country, or because of talking points handed down from a national activist group.
Yet rather than producing more parental engagement with the schools, this national culture-war approach serves as a substitute for such engagement. Welch mentioned that the complaints he heard in Williamson County often came from people who don’t have kids in the public schools, or who had never been engaged in their schools or districts before. They are the kind of people, as he put it, who “ask none of the questions but have all of the answers.”
That is particularly striking when it comes to curriculum. Just prior to these recent controversies, the state of Tennessee mandated an overhaul of its state education standards, eliminating the Obama administration’s Common Core standards which were “embroiled in political controversy over charges of federal overreach.” In response, the Williamson County school board spent years selecting a new curriculum package that would be consistent with the new standards. Then Moms for Liberty arrived, filing frivolous complaints after having participated in none of the difficult legwork of choosing the curriculum in the first place.
Yet they want their views to take precedence. Notice in this respect that most books that are even remotely controversial allow for a parental opt-out, in which a parent can choose to have a child excused from reading the book. But this is not good enough. The standards of the most sensitive must be applied universally.
“Parental rights,” as it is now being used, means some parents have the right to dictate what everybody else’s kids can learn.
The Age of Vitriol
The problem is not just the content of the Moms for Liberty complaints, but the style in which they are offered, which has turned school board meetings that used to be run on the motto “be nice” into an arena of constant ideological warfare. The word I have heard used most frequently in association with Moms for Liberty is “vitriol.”
The Moms for Liberty approach to activism is to dial every issue up to 11. Any reference to sexuality, even indirect, is labeled “pornography.” Following the lead of Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, they have taken to calling anyone who disagrees with them a “groomer”—a term borrowed from old tropes that insisted all homosexuals are pedophiles who deliberately manipulate children in order to abuse them.
But describing your enemies as pedophiles is a bald attempt to declare open season on them. Such predators are regarded as the lowest of the low, the one group against whom violence might be justified. This is the rhetoric of outright incitement.
It has certainly led to a spate of reports of harassment of school board officials. Activists call their opponents “pedophile sympathizers” and falsely accuse them of abusing their children or possessing child pornography. This is already having the effect of driving normal people out of school boards and teaching positions. Williamson County’s Eric Welch notes that his school district needs to expand, but it depends on being able to recruit teachers from across the state and across the country, and the county’s current political climate is “100% a recruitment problem.” It also keeps smart, well-qualified people from volunteering to run for the school board or get involved in the local schools, for fear of facing the same kind of targeted harassment.
In a few cases around the country, Moms for Liberty members and local leaders have made not-so-subtle threats of violence, with one declaring about local librarians that if she had “any mental [health] issues, they would all be plowed down with a freaking gun by now.” Some have connections with the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits its own fantasy about rings of secret pedophiles and a violent reckoning in which they will be executed, while some are connected to the Proud Boys militia that helped organize the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
This movement has not, to my knowledge, ever resulted in actual violence. But they certainly seem like they’re trying to talk themselves into it.
The Paranoid Style in Education Politics
One particular example crystallizes both the content and style of Moms for Liberty activism. As an approved alternative to the materials on slavery and segregation that they want to restrict, Moms for Liberty recommends W. Cleon Skousen’s The Making of America. Skousen is an obscure figure, but he has a long history as a fringe character on the right, and he enjoyed a new vogue during the Tea Party years when his work was recommended by talk radio host Glenn Beck.
Skousen’s historical account of slavery and reconstruction is a sanitized and glamorized view of the Old South, in which he repeats antebellum myths about how slaves were well-treated and actually better off than free workers in the North. Consider this doozy: “Some Negroes, having been freed and sent to any Northern state which would receive them, became so miserable as to solicit a return to slavery.” Meanwhile, Skousen blamed “the interference of Northern abolitionists” for somehow “perpetuat[ing] slavery.”
These are outrageous lies, but they make more sense when you put them in the context of Skousen’s other crackpot views, including the idea that communism was actually a capitalist conspiracy foisted on the world by international bankers. More to the point, Skousen was a leading figure in the John Birch Society, which promoted conspiracy theories about communist plots for world domination, including the idea that these plots were supported from within the U.S. government, going all the way up to the top.
The Birchers were the chief example of what Richard Hofstadter famously called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and it followed a pattern we can recognize with Moms for Liberty today: a belief that there is an insidious plot to destroy American society; a catastrophist view in which the threat of tyranny and destruction is immediate and everywhere, even in the midst of the heartland; a view that the whole system is working to promote these nefarious goals; and most of all, the idea that even apparent friends, allies, and fellow conservatives are all in on it.
When I talked to him, Eric Welch seemed bewildered by the absurdity of seeing himself branded as “the left’s secret weapon.” But he’s in good company. The Birchers’ big enemy, the guy they considered a secret communist, was President Dwight Eisenhower.
In short, the Moms for Liberty look a lot like Birchers in heels—the paranoid style in education politics.
This does not mean there is no merit to some complaints about public education. Parts of the left have adopted a rigid dogma on gender, and there are a few children’s books that aim to proselytize it. There are serious complaints from mainstream historians about the promotion of historical errors that can distort our understanding of the role of race in American history. If there is a case to be made that we should oppose these trends, the reckless paranoia of Moms for Liberty will only work to undermine that case—just as the Bircher’s irrational zealotry ultimately discredited them.
In the meantime, the current poisonous politics of education imposes a cost in diminished educational opportunities from books that stay off the shelves, but also in the impaired function of the real engines of parental engagement in education: school boards and parent-teacher associations.
When I asked Welch what the Williamson County School Board would be focusing on in normal times, he cited the county’s growth, its need for new school buildings, and the difficult question of how to finance it while paying down debt. Or, he recalls, they used to spend months going over test scores to see which groups of students are doing well and which need more resources and attention.
Instead, he says, they spent most of a recent meeting talking about what some board members thought was the really important issue: a teacher who had a small pride flag on her desk.
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