Jul 7, 2023, 11:48 PM (7 hours ago)
For more than a week now, I have intended to write a deep dive into the right-wing Moms for Liberty group that held their "Joyful Warriors National Summit" in Philadelphia last week, only to have one thing or another that seemed more important push it off another day. This morning it hit me that maybe that's the story: that the reactionary right that has taken so much of our oxygen for the past year is losing ground to the country's new forward movement.
Today the jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics pushed ahead of them by showing that the U.S. economy added 209,000 jobs in June. The rate of job growth is slowing but still strong, although the economy showed that the Black unemployment rate, which had been at an all-time low, climbed from 4.7% to 6%. Since Black workers historically are the first to lose their jobs, this is likely a signal that the job market is cooling, which should continue to slow inflation.
In the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin called out the media outlets so focused on the idea that Biden would mismanage the economy and that recession was imminent that they have ignored "29 consecutive months of job growth, inflation steadily declining, durable goods having been up for three consecutive months, 35,000 new infrastructure projects, an extended period in which real wages exceeded inflation and outsize gains for lower wage-earners." As reporters focused on the horse-race aspect of politics and how voters "felt" about issues, she noted, "[w]e have seen far too little coverage of the economic transformation in little towns, rural areas and aging metro centers brought about by new investment in plants, infrastructure projects and green energy related to the Chips Act."
Also of note is that today is Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's first day of talks with top Chinese officials in Beijing, where she will also talk to U.S. business leaders. At stake is the Biden administration's focus on U.S. national security, which includes both limiting China's access to U.S. technology that has military applications and bringing supply chains home. China interprets these new limitations as an attempt to hurt its economy. Yellen is in Beijing to emphasize that the U.S. hopes to maintain healthy trade with China but, she told Chinese Premier Li Qiang, "The United States will, in certain circumstances, need to pursue targeted actions to protect its national security."
Meanwhile, China's faltering economy has led to new rules that exclude foreign companies, leading U.S. businesses to reconsider investments there. Chinese leaders have tried to reassure foreign business leaders that they are welcome in China, while Yellen told U.S business leaders: "I have made clear that the United States does not seek a wholesale separation of our economies. We seek to diversify, not to decouple. A decoupling of the world's two largest economies would be destabilizing for the global economy, and it would be virtually impossible to undertake."
The success of Biden's policies both at home and abroad has pushed the Republican Party into an existential crisis, and that's where Moms for Liberty fits in. Since the years of the Reagan administration, the Movement Conservatives who wanted to destroy the New Deal state recognized that they only way they could win voters to slash taxes for the wealthy and cut back popular social problems was by whipping up social issues to convince voters that Black Americans, or people of color, or feminists, wanted a handout from the government, undermining America by ushering in "socialism." The forty years from 1981 to 2021 moved wealth upward dramatically and hollowed out the middle class, creating a disaffected population ripe for an authoritarian figure who promised to return that population to upward mobility by taking revenge on those they now saw as their enemies.
In the past two years, according to a recent working paper by economists David Autor, Arindrajit Dube, and Annie McGrew, Biden's policies have wiped out a quarter of the inequality built in the previous forty. And at the same time that Biden's resurrection of the liberal consensus of the years from 1933 to 1980 is illustrating that the economic problems in the country were the fault of Republican policies rather than of marginalized people, the extremism of those angry Republican footsoldiers is revealing that they are not the centrist Americans they have claimed to be.
Moms for Liberty, which bills itself as a group protecting children, organized in 2021 to protest mask mandates in schools, then graduated on to crusade against the teaching of "critical race theory." That, right there, was a giveaway because that panic was created by then-journalist Christopher Rufo, who has emerged as a leader of the U.S. attack on democracy.
Rufo embraces the illiberal democracy, or Christian democracy, of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, saying: "It's time to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers' unions, and overturn the school boards." Radical right activists like Rufo believe they must capture the central institutions of the U.S. and get rid of the tenets of democracy—individual rights, academic freedom, free markets, separation of church and state, equality before the law—in order to save the country.
Because those central democratic values are taught in schools, the far right has focused on attacking schools from kindergartens to universities with the argument that they are places of "liberal indoctrination." As a Moms for Liberty chapter in Indiana put on its first newspaper: "He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future." While this quotation is often used by right-wing Christian groups to warn of what they claim liberal groups do, it is attributed to German dictator Adolf Hitler. Using it boomeranged on the Moms for Liberty group not least because it coincided with the popular "Shiny Happy People" documentary about the far-right religious Duggar family that showed the "grooming" and exploitation of children in that brand of evangelicalism.
Moms for Liberty have pushed for banning books that refer to any aspect of modern democracy they find objectionable, focusing primarily on those with LGBTQ+ content or embrace of minority rights. During the first half of the 2022–2023 school year, PEN America, which advocates for literature, found that 874 unique titles had been challenged, up 28% from the previous six months. The bans were mostly in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina. A study by the Washington Post found that two thirds of book challenges came from individuals who filed 10 or more complaints, with the filers often affiliated with Moms for Liberty or similar groups. And in their quest to make education align with their ideology, the Moms for Liberty have joined forces with far-right extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, sovereign citizens groups, and so on, pushing them even further to the right.
Although the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Moms for Liberty an "extremist group" that spreads "messages of anti-inclusion and hate," the group appeared to offer to the Republican Party inroads into the all-important "suburban woman" vote, which party leaders interpret as white women (although in fact the 2020 census shows that suburbs are increasingly diverse—in 1990, about 20% of people living in the suburbs were people of color; in 2020 it was 45%).
When Moms for Liberty convened in Philadelphia last week, five candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, including Trump, showed up. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley told them: "When they mentioned that this was a terrorist organization, I said, 'Well then, count me as a mom for liberty because that's what I am."
But here's the crisis for the Republican Party: Leaders who wanted tax cuts and cuts to social programs relied on courting voters with cultural issues, suggesting that their coalition was protecting the United States from radicalism.
But the Republican embrace of Moms for Liberty illustrates dramatically and to a wide audience how radical the party itself has become, threatening to turn away all but its extremist base. A strong majority of Americans oppose book banning: about two thirds of the general population and even 51% of Republicans oppose it, recognizing that it echoes the rise of authoritarians.
As historian Nicole Hemmer points out today for CNN, Moms for Liberty are indeed a new version of "a broader and longstanding reactionary movement centered on restoring traditional hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality" that in the U.S. included the women of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and segregationists who organized as "Restore Our Alienated Rights" (ROAR) in the 1970s. Hemmer observes: "The book bans, the curricula battles, the efforts to fire teachers and disrupt school board meetings—little here is new."
In the past, a democratic coalition has come together to reject such extremism. If it does so again, the Republican marriage of elites to street fighters will crumble, leaving room for the country to rebuild the relationship between citizens and the government. When a similar realignment happened in the 1930s under Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Republican Party had little choice but to follow.
Q. What is the difference between a law-abiding gun owner and a criminal?
A. The .2 of a second that it takes to pull a trigger.