A feedback loop between powerful right-wing institutions is fueling the GOP’s anti-“critical race theory” strategy, which seeks to turn local debates about school curricula into a polarized national issue Republicans can wield in state and national elections.
Critical race theory is an academic legal framework which examines the systemic impact of racism in the United States. But “critical race theory,” like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” before it, also functions as an umbrella term the right-wing movement uses to turn its mostly white adherents’ racial anxiety into political energy.
There are more than 130,000 K-12 schools in the United States, with more than 13,500 school districts governing the public facilities. As teachers and administrators grapple with how to discuss race and racism in the wake of 2020’s police killings and protests, it is inevitable that some of them will make decisions that are clumsy, ineffective, unpopular, or all of the above.
Such disputes over curricula have traditionally been managed between local officials, educators, parents, and other stakeholders. But the right-wing strategy is to take as many of those instances as they can find, manufacture others, stretch them beyond recognition, dishonestly place them all under the heading of “critical race theory,” give them national media attention, and polarize the debate to try to win elections. And along the way, Republican politicians are passing laws they claim ban “critical race theory” in schools that actually restrict how teachers can discuss a wide range of topics in their classrooms.
Here’s how the strategy works.
Right-wing think tanks came up with a framework for discussing “critical race theory.” As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, who helped launch the campaign, has explained, the goal is to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category” so that people “read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Other right-wing institutions like the newly established Center for Renewing America and the Heritage Foundation followed up on Rufo’s work, putting on events, producing “toolkits” for local activists, writing model legislation, and convening allied lawmakers to discuss state-level bans.
Advocacy groups use the think tank framework to oppose “critical race theory.” There are now “at least 165 local and national groups that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender,” according to an NBC News analysis. Some, like Fight for Schools and Parents Defending Education, are led by longtime GOP political operatives or right-wing policy analysts, while No Left Turn in Education is led by a local activist with a history of toxic rhetoric.
These groups try to garner attention for their flawed interpretation of “critical race theory.” They highlight controversies in their communities, attend and speak at public meetings, lobby public officials, and appear in local and national media. Their on-the-ground efforts create increased demand for the think tanks’ work.
Advocacy work generates press coverage, particularly from right-wing media. Fox News and other right-wing outlets, their audiences seemingly uninterested in President Joe Biden and his agenda, have spent much of the year focused on ginning up culture war outrages. Critical race theory has taken center stage over the last few months, garnering more than 1,300 Fox mentions along with seemingly endless coverage across the constellation of right-wing news sites.
The anti-“critical race theory” advocacy groups are essential to this push. They provide a steady stream of news hooks, often through local media coverage of their efforts, that can be easily turned into articles or segments for the national right-wing media audience. For example, Fox has provided a series of reports about “critical race theory” in schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, often featuring the commentary of Ian Prior, a GOP operative and executive director of Fight For Schools who lives there. (County school officials say critical race theory is not taught in the district.)
Such right-wing media attention gives the advocacy groups a national platform that helps them raise funds and gain new recruits. According to No Left Turn’s Elana Fishbein, for example, her organization’s Facebook page went from fewer than 200 followers to more than 30,000 after she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show; she now claims 30 chapters in 23 states and has said Carlson “launched our movements.” And right-wing media’s focus on the think tanks’ framework increases the influence of those institutions as well.
Media coverage creates the incentive for GOP politicians to take action. Republican politicians are increasingly indistinguishable from right-wing media personalities, latching on to whatever culture war outrage is currently roiling the GOP base rather than trying to grapple with actual societal problems. As Fox and its ilk made “critical race theory” that subject, GOP candidates and officeholders responded to the incentive the coverage created.
Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee put opposition to “critical race theory” at the center of his campaign, presaging a GOP effort to use it as a core part of its political strategy in the 2022 midterm elections. Meanwhile, at least 25 states have reportedly introduced or passed legislation banning “critical race theory” in public schools or taken other steps to supposedly curtail its spread. Florida and Texas, whose governors are potential GOP presidential candidates, are among the states that enacted such bans.
For the right-wing movement, this is a virtuous cycle. The political action provides more news hooks for right-wing media outlets to cover; creates victories for advocacy groups to claim and rally around; and adopts the framework and echoes the text of model legislation crafted and promoted by the think tanks. That in turn creates incentives for more think tank work, more advocacy, more media coverage, and more political action. And every step creates more of a frenzy among the right-wing base, which shows up everywhere from enraged social media engagement to public meeting uproars.
The scene tonight at a raucous Loudoun County school board hearing where many came to voice opposition to critical race theory. The meeting was stopped when the crowd wouldn’t quiet down and two were arrested. pic.twitter.com/WkiZCGJ6Jm
— Evelyn Hockstein (@evelynpix) June 23, 2021
The current right-wing target is “critical race theory.” But this strategy is plug-and-play and could be used on a host of issues -- the tea party movement of 2009, the opposition to health care reform in 2010, and the anti-social distancing movement of 2020, to take three examples, bear some striking similarities. And the increasingly nationalized character of U.S. politics, the collapse of local newsrooms, and Fox’s outsized influence over the Republican Party and its base have all made it more potent.