Netroots Nation is arguably the most important annual event in the progressive community and a telling barometer of what is on the minds of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Paul Wellstone, the late U.S. Senator from Minnesota, once put it.
This year’s conference, held in-person in Pittsburgh after two years of virtual meetings, featured keynotes and panels addressing standard progressive fare: reproductive justice, labor rights, climate change, universal healthcare, racial and economic justice, immigrant rights, gender and marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and strengthening public education.
But perhaps more now than in the pre-MAGA years, there was an underlying theme of how progressives can effectively respond to the current rightwing assaults on democratic governance and the common good, which have only grown louder and more extreme since 2016. In session after session, panelists and speakers exhorted progressives to counter these assaults by asserting their positive progressive values and by calling attention to the villains leading these assaults and what motivates them.
This theme is especially welcome to public school advocates who’ve long argued that many of the issues progressives care about most have their origins at the schoolhouse door and that those who attack public schools are, in fact, waging a war on democracy.
Democrats have traditionally been viewed by the public as a positive force for public education. But a recent poll in key battleground states conducted by Hart Research for the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, found that voters now trust Republicans more than Democrats on education, at 39 to 38 percent.
Another poll, conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for privatizing schools with charters and vouchers, found a more lopsided Republican advantage, with 47 percent saying they trust Republicans and 43 percent trust Democrats.
Speakers at Netroots Nation advised Democrats to turn those polling numbers around by proclaiming education as a core value of the progressive movement while portraying Republicans as pitting themselves against public schools.
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym, in her opening keynote, laid out the progressive movement’s “fierce racial and economic justice agenda,” that includes, among other familiar progressive causes, “public education” and “modern, clean and green, air-conditioned buildings that should be every single public school in this nation.”
“When the GOP came for our kids,” said Gym, “when they came for our trans and nonbinary youth in particular, [Philadelphia progressives] made sure to expand local antidiscrimination laws and mandate access to gender neutral facilities to defend their rights.”
In keeping with the theme of hailing the values of education while vilifying the villains coming after public schools, AFT president Randi Weingarten, in her remarks at the final keynote, called attention to her union’s new efforts to promote the love of reading and to distribute one million free books to children and families.
She also explained what is behind the right wing’s efforts to ban certain books in schools. Calling out rightwing efforts to ban books such as “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and books about Ruby Bridges,” she declared, “Why? Because [these books] create community. They create empathy … [and] they say to other children that this is what happens in another religion or another race when kids are oppressed, and let’s unify and fight that oppression together.”
Public school advocates have long argued that many progressive causes have their origins at the schoolhouse door and that those who attack public schools are, in fact, waging a war on democracy.
These sorts of messages rooted in progressive values and the need to ascribe the motivations of the opposition were especially effective in local school board races, according to Eleonore Wesserle, in a live-streamed panel on “Telling Our Truths: Winning In 2022 in the Face of Right Wing Fearmongering.” Wesserle works for a firm that helps political communicators across the Midwest sharpen their narrative and messaging skills.
She described how progressive candidates in school board elections in Minnesota effectively used a “freedom to learn” message to defeat rightwing candidates peddling a false narrative about schools indoctrinating children under the catchall umbrella of “critical race theory.”
“[Republicans] attack public schools because they want to make sure the next generation isn’t actually as educated as they could be and isn’t able to pursue their dreams,” she said. “They started with race-baiting, then gender-baiting and attacking trans kids.”
Another panel, “Avoiding Past Mistakes: Lessons Learned in Virginia in 2021,” looked at the importance of education issues in the results of the 2021 governor’s election in Virginia, where Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe was blindsided by Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin.
Education was one of the three key issues in the race, along with healthcare and the economy, according to panelist Jennifer McClellan, who serves in the Virginia state senate. Youngkin and the Republicans used parents’ anxieties about schools staying remote during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic to pivot to a campaign whipping up outrage over schools teaching truths about race and gender in American history and society, according to McClellan.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, was “mostly disengaged” on the education issue, she said.
“McAuliffe handed the education issue, and to some extent the race, to Youngkin,” said McClellan, “when he showed a failure to engage in parent anxiety about schools and the attacks on public education that Republicans manufactured when they saw an opening to turn parent anxiety into a false political narrative.”
In another panel (organized by The Progressive’s Public Schools Advocate project) called “Democrats Desperately Need a Winning Strategy for Public Education,” Jennifer Berkshire, Diallo Brooks, and Susan Nogan each discussed where Democratic candidates have often fallen short in addressing education politics and how they could correct course.
The panelists pointed out that most of the education positions being pushed by Republicans, including privatization schemes and attacks on teachers and specific student populations, are widely unpopular and, when enacted, tend to alienate voters. Yet Democrats often fail to respond to the right’s agenda or even articulate a progressive vision for education.
A frequent mistake Democrats make, according to the panelists, is to talk about education either as a commodity that benefits only the parents of children attending public schools or as solely being about a narrowly defined concept of workforce preparation. Panelists recommended that Democratic candidates should instead focus on how society at large benefits from a well-educated population.
Democratic candidates should understand that Republicans have put schools at the center of the party’s culture war because they know their race- and gender-baiting will undermine faith in public schools and boost the rightwing agenda to shift money away from public institutions toward private enterprises.
Democrats, the progressives at Netroots Nations seemed to conclude, should counter these messages by emphasizing where there have been genuine collaborative partnerships between schools, families, and communities. They need to articulate their vision of what education should be, what schools should look like, and how to secure that vision.
Although the panelists acknowledged that public opinion is fluid, Democrats still have a historic advantage on education issues—especially among Democratic, liberal, moderate, and educated voters, and with people whose top issue is education. Democratic candidates need to remind this base of voters why they are still the education party.
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