The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans found a new phony ‘issue’ to demagogue. They should be so proud.

Anti-vaccine mandate protesters gather for a school board meeting in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 26. (Reuters/Sergio Olmos)
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Like Popeye chugging down a can of spinach or Steve Rogers being injected with super-soldier serum, the Republican Party has found the magical elixir that will give it the power to vanquish its foes: the “issue” of education.

Just look at these headlines about Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial contest:

  • The Post: “Parental say in schools, resonant in Va. governor’s race, bound for GOP national playbook.”
  • The New York Times: “Republicans Hit on Schools as a Wedge Issue to Unite the Party.”
  • Reuters: “Republicans aim to repeat Youngkin’s schools tactic in 2022 elections.”

But what exactly do we mean when we call this an “issue”? Are we saying that Republicans will be drawing attention to their proposals for how to improve the U.S. education system, to have a debate on differing approaches to this enormously complex policy challenge so voters can assess each one and decide on a path forward?

Don’t make me laugh.

In fact, calling this an “issue” at all is an insult to our intelligence. “Issues” generally involve a debate between policy alternatives, and sometimes it actually works that way. Republicans want to cut taxes for the wealthy, Democrats want to raise taxes on the wealthy; they make their case for which approach is better, and the winning party tries to pass legislation fulfilling their vision.

But what exactly is the policy agenda Republicans are advocating as they raise education to the center of their identity?

It might include more charter schools, something they’ve advocated in the past. And in states around the country they’re practically banning discussions of race in classrooms, at least discussions that imply that racism is anything more than a problem we solved decades ago (in some cases they’ve even produced a list of words that would be illegal for teachers to utter).

Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia’s governor on Nov. 2, defeating his Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

But beyond that, on what is supposedly now their most important “issue,” the GOP has a campaign agenda — some slogans meant to capitalize on people’s anger and fear — but almost no governing agenda.

In this way, Youngkin is the prototypical Republican: A private equity CEO whose true passion lies in tax cuts, he discovered that schools were a good vehicle to exploit the anger of the Republican base, made a ludicrously empty promise the centerpiece of his campaign (“On day one, I’m going to ban” critical race theory!), and once he takes office he’ll promptly forget about it, since he has virtually nothing resembling a substantive agenda on education anyway.

If you asked the average Virginia voter what Youngkin wants to actually do with the state’s schools, they couldn’t tell you a thing beyond some vague catchphrases about “letting parents have a say.”

If you go to Youngkin’s website, you’ll search in vain for anything beyond a few bromides on any issue. The education section comes in at a grand total of 85 words: He promises “Keeping Schools Open Safely Five Days a Week,” “Restoring High Expectations & Getting Every Student College or Career Ready,” and of course, “Ridding Political Agendas from the Classroom by Banning Critical Race Theory.” There are no details on any of it.

His opponent Terry McAuliffe, in contrast, had a six-page education plan with some genuine proposals. But like any good Republican, Youngkin didn’t bother. He and his voters made a bargain: This is something you’re riled up about, so I’ll tell you that you’re right to be angry, you’ll vote for me, and then we’ll all declare victory over the dastardly liberals and forget about it until the next election.

Now that Youngkin has demonstrated the effectiveness of this template, hundreds of Republican congressional candidates will center their campaigns on the “issue” of education in next year’s midterms, despite the fact that Congress has almost no say over education in America. Wherever you are, you’ll be seeing Senate and House candidates decrying critical race theory and promising to give parents more control over their schools.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced that in response to the election, he’ll be creating a “Parent’s Bill of Rights.” This issue, said the head of the conservative Heritage Action for America, will “be at the forefront of every narrative, of every grassroots campaign, of every political expenditure going forward.”

To hear this from a member of Congress is the equivalent of candidates for your local city council arguing over who has the better approach to containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It’s just not something they have authority over. But it will be inescapable.

For Republicans, it’s the new Willie Horton, or Hillary Clinton’s emails, or Benghazi.

There’s no question that schools will be an important political issue, or that Democrats need to find a way to talk about it that resonates with voters. But please, let’s not pretend that the way we’ll be talking about it makes it a real policy issue in any sense. This is an old playbook, and the fact that it might be politically effective for the GOP doesn’t make it any more legitimate.