It came as no surprise when most Republican senators walked out of the cheerful celebration of the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Friday. Just a few weeks prior, several Republicans took the opportunity to attack the supposed radical-left justice during her confirmation hearing. Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton all denounced Jackson’s record of sentencing in child pornography cases, with the implication that she, as the nominee of “every nutjob liberal group,” in Graham’s words, is soft on heinous crimes against children. Cruz once again waved the red flag of critical race theory, awkwardly making connections to critical legal studies, whose professors he said were “Marxists.” He then suggested that Jackson was among their ilk.
Heading into the midterm elections, part of the GOP’s unifying message is that “socialism” and “wokeness” plague the Democrats and are to blame for the splintered country. The right has focused on the classroom, where conservatives say children are learning the wrong lessons. Teaching history through racial lenses, they argue, causes kids to hate one another and the nation they call home. Since 2020, the number of school districts pursuing anti-CRT policies has approached 1,000 in total, which affects a staggering 35 percent of K–12 students.
But this house-is-on-fire playbook is not entirely new. It harks back to the 1970s, a decade rocked by a frail economy, defeat in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, when Republicans coalesced around a vision designed to inspire soul-searching Americans. At its center was an obsession with family values, a topic that jettisoned the neoconservative revolution and the ascension of its standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan.
The strategy involved moving away from foreign policy foibles to the domestic realm, where Republicans criticized spiraling Democratic spending and the proliferation of rights-based movements. Their solution was a return to good old American traditionalism. Countering the gains won by minority advancement or women’s and gay liberation would be the reestablishment of a middlebrow whiteness worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Spearheading the new family values emergency was Phyllis Schlafly, a one-woman wrecking crew to second-wave feminism and key architect of the reimagined conservatism. When in 1972 the country was on a bipartisan path toward passing the Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly and her Eagle Forum set their sights on the feminist agenda—abortion rights, educational equality, and greater access to professional advancement for women—and warned that it threatened familial sanctity.
In 1977, the anti-feminist movement corralled some 15,000 supporters into the Pro Family Coalition rally in Houston, as a foil to the National Women’s Conference held five miles away. For Schlafly, its success proved “that the Women’s Lib movement has sealed its own doom by deliberately hanging around its own neck the albatrosses of abortion, lesbianism, pornography, and federal control.” “Women’s libbers” were the new national enemy, the proposed ERA an assault on the traditional American home. Speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution in Cincinnati that same year, Schlafly called the ERA an “economic attack on the family” because, she reasoned, men would be out of work due to women taking their jobs. This kind of equity, she reasoned, was tantamount to communism.
Joining the anti-gay wing of the family values movement was the singer and former Miss Oklahoma Anita Bryant. She and her supporters saw gay rights as the main cause for America’s anomie in the disco decade. When in 1977 her adopted home, Dade County, Florida, passed a law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment and housing, she sought to eliminate gay teachers to save America’s children from homosexuality. She told a congregation that year, “For several years I’ve been praying for God to revive America. And when word came that there was an ordinance in Miami that would allow known homosexuals to teach my children, God help us as a nation to stand in these dark days.”
Today, the GOP wages that America’s house is on fire once again, with yesterday’s “libbers” bearing commonalities with today’s “woke.” A resuscitated McCarthyism lives on. Just as Schlafly made parallels between the women’s movement and communism, so too does today’s right accuse Democrats of fomenting Marxism, with the implication that CRT acts as a kind of modern Communist Manifesto. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts contended as much by saying that CRT was the new “label” for communism.
Bryant’s fellow Floridian, Gov. Ron DeSantis, has embraced her legacy by signing the Parental Rights in Education bill, or what critics call the “don’t say gay” law, which prevents teaching topics of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through the third grade. With his sights likely set on the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, DeSantis has also jumped on the anti-CRT bandwagon, calling its instruction “crap” and recalling the anti-communist familism of the Cold War. “What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism.”
Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire has gone as far as to support* loyalty oaths for teachers with the bill “An Act Relative to Teachers’ Loyalty,” which if passed would prohibit teaching “any doctrine or theory promoting negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States,” such as the notion “that the United States was founded on racism.”
Texas may very well be the epicenter of this discriminatory assault. Gov. Greg Abbott ordered child welfare officials to investigate parents of transgender children who receive gender-affirming care. Such treatment, the state’s Attorney General Ken Paxton opined, is “child abuse.” Paxton also accused the Austin Independent School District of breaking state law with its celebration of Pride Week, charging that the district risked “cynically pushing a week-long indoctrination of [students] that not only fails to obtain parental consent, but subtly cuts parents out of the loop.”
It may be tempting to dismiss these diatribes as mere rhetoric, but such language coheres real political resistance against social advancements. Schlafly and her lot were successful. The ERA was defeated when the vote failed by three states. Although so much has changed since then—the economy for one—the Republican realignment around Donald Trump parallels that which prefaced Reagan. Trump, mulling a comeback campaign, has adopted the new discourse, exclaiming that his supporters should be willing to “lay down their lives” to remove CRT from the classroom in order to save the country. Trump promised an audience in South Carolina: “We will proudly uphold the Judeo-Christian values and principles of our nation’s founding. We will restore patriotic education to our schools. We will teach our children to love their country.”
It is alarming that Republicans took the confirmation hearings to replay their same tune at the derisive expense of Jackson. Her seat does nothing to threaten their majority on the Supreme Court. It is a signal that these state matters have become the foundation of the GOP’s new national message. As Republicans try to move past Jan. 6, 2021, they yearn to redirect voters’ anxiety toward the wholesome terrain of home and school, with education purportedly suffering outside of parental prerogative. They are bent on legislating out of the classroom certain modes of critical thinking, diversity, and empathy, hoping to bolster their new American family.
An earlier version of this article misstated that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu proposed a teacher loyalty bill. He supported the bill, by signing it into law.