“We have more people. That’s a big part.”
Jane Cramer, a mother from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, told Salon earlier this year that she felt good about the diverse team she assembled to create Moms for Liberty, the well-funded conservative organization parental rights group, from their local school board. “We’re not necessarily well organized, but somehow everything came together,” Cramer told me. “And we’re all a little obsessed.”
Last month, I published an investigative report on how Moms for Liberty, a group that seeks to reorient American education along far-right agendas, took over the school board in the Pennridge School District, about a half-hour outside of Philadelphia. Moms for Liberty, a heavily funded AstroTurf organization with ties to the GOP leadership, hasn’t been particularly subtle in its strategies, locating a handful of swing districts in purple states like Virginia and Pennsylvania and targeting school board elections that typically see high numbers A low voter turnout makes it easy to win. After its founding, Moms for Liberty members began banning books and pride flags and protesting against teachers “spoiling” children with “smut,” which usually meant either a history book or acclaimed, age-appropriate fiction. The idea was to create moral panics about sex and race that could result in national elections tipping in Republicans’ favor.
Well, it backfired.
As I reported, parents in Pennridge County, eager to fight back against right-wing extremists, formed the Ridge Network and promoted it by arguing to voters that the group was degrading the quality of public schools. This week, those efforts paid off: Democrats won all five open school board seats in the district, wresting control from Moms for Liberty.
Cramer celebrated on her TikTok account:
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As this election approached, Moms for Liberty seemed to have already realized that their brand had become toxic. As the Daily Beast reported“In 2021, Moms for Liberty.” claimed credit for 33 seats in Bucks County,” but this election cycle the group “only supported a single candidate in the county.” Philadelphia Inquirer reports that some Republican candidates wanted the group to keep their distance for fear of contamination. And that was my feeling about things in Pennridge County this fall. School board members who had ties to Moms for Liberty tried to downplay the issue and eventually got it discovered by investigators at 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 danger of a book ban so that parents and educators can express their opinions. One of those parents, Darren Laustsen, told Salon about his attempts Expose the Back Door Book Ban in Pennridge, in which books were mysteriously “borrowed” so that students couldn’t read them throughout the year. In late October, he won a lawsuit against the school district for what the judge called a “cover-up” of such secret book bans.
But Laustsen isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s still out there bringing attention to the radicalism of Moms for Liberty. He recently tweeted an article about Moms for Liberty activists calling for librarians to be arrested for reading young adult novels to children, adding, “I’m so sick of these psychos.”
It’s remarkable how quickly 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 gullible and relied on the false narrative that it was a grassroots group of normal parents who were simply “concerned” about liberal “excesses.” In reality, the group was founded in 2021 by the wife of the chairman of the Florida Republican Party and was immediately so well-equipped and fully staffed that it could only be that it was backed by secretive, wealthy donors.
The suspicious aura of money that surrounded the group was interesting to journalists, but what really hurt Moms for Liberty was that they underestimated the intelligence of the people in the communities they targeted. Pennridge’s parents were not fooled by attempts to label literary fiction “pornography.” Residents also feared that redesigning history classes to adhere to right-wing mythologies would ultimately damage the school’s reputation, which could harm both its property value and their children’s ability to attend good colleges. Many parents in particular expressed the belief that schools should prepare their children for the real world. They feared that the right-wing glossing over of history, social studies and other courses would leave children without the basic skills they need to thrive in a diverse, dynamic society.
Moms for Liberty members are not coping well with the rapid, dramatic decline of their organization:
UPDATE: The @Moms4Liberty An activist who reported librarians in Florida to law enforcement, claiming they had committed crimes, accused me of “Antifa tactics.”
I guess Antifa files a lot of public records requests?
That was my tactic. pic.twitter.com/4NsntZWogQ
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 8, 2023
Moms for Liberty was clearly launched to improve Republicans’ national prospects. So it’s a delicious irony that in two short years, the organization became best known as a symbol of MAGA extremism that depressed the GOP’s overall popularity, leading to another election cycle in which Democrats outperformed expectations. The group was supposed to gloss over right-wing extremism in a family-friendly way. Instead, they have enlisted parents and teachers, many of whom have little time to work and care for their families, to become political organizers. It turned out that messing with public schools wasn’t a brilliant political strategy.