The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats must hit back hard at GOP book bans. Here’s a start.

Samantha Hull, pictured on March 2, has been fighting book bans all year as a school librarian in Lancaster County, Pa. (Kyle Grantham for The Washington Post)
4 min

Everyone knows Republicans are good at using congressional hearings to draw attention to the issues they want Americans (and especially their base) to think and talk about, whether GOP complaints are legitimate or not. When Democrats are in control, they don’t use their authority to quite the same effect.

But it’s something Democrats might consider doing more often, especially when important issues aren’t being sufficiently confronted at the national level, such as the disturbing wave of efforts to ban books from schools and libraries.

Which is why Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) is planning to hold a hearing on book banning in the House oversight subcommittee he chairs.

Ruby Bridges, the trailblazing civil rights icon, has agreed to testify at the hearing, Democrats tell us. Bridges could be a compelling witness, not just as a symbol of the desegregation of U.S. schools but also because a right-wing parents’ group seized on a Tennessee law limiting the teaching of race to mount an (unsuccessful) attempt to target a book about Bridges.

Other witnesses will include a parent who will testify about how her transgender daughter was aided by books about transgender issues, and a couple of students who led protests against a book ban in Pennsylvania and succeeded. A librarian who has fought efforts to ban books from school libraries will also testify.

Democrats involved with the hearing say they plan to make a robust public case that such a congressional airing is necessary to protect the First Amendment.

“The Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Pico held that it violates the First Amendment for government to remove books from school libraries because certain pressure groups disagree with the viewpoint,” Raskin told us in a statement, adding that his hearing will spotlight the "escalating threat to academic and intellectual freedom in America.”

Telling those vivid individual stories is also way to make the national trend real. And it absolutely is a trend.

Although the impulse to ban books is an old one, in the past year or so we’ve seen a flood of efforts at the state and local level to banish certain books from schools and libraries. These efforts are driven by the Republican belief that political hay can be made from allegedly dangerous ideas on race and sexuality that might be infecting the minds of children.

A new report from the American Library Association (ALA) found 729 challenges to library materials in 2021, the highest number in the 20 years the ALA has tracked the issue. Most targeted were books about various minority groups, the organization writes.

Yet, there’s little question that most Americans find this trend deeply troubling. Recent polls show overwhelming opposition to the idea of banning books, including after being presented with arguments for and against removing potentially controversial books from libraries.

Yet, Democrats have struggled to draw attention to these issues in a way that imposes a political cost on Republicans. Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican governor of Virginia in nearly a decade after running an ad lionizing a mother fighting against the teaching of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (the ad didn’t mention the book itself), even though his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, hammered him for it.

Since then, Democrats appear to have mostly ceded the field in the battle over such efforts, even as they’ve escalated. Democrats have not found a way to dramatize how such efforts harm real people, or to speak to the very large numbers of Americans who are surely dismayed by them. Underscoring the point, on the night of the hearing the activist group Book Ban Busters is holding a national read-in.

There’s clearly a void to be filled. Many of these banning efforts are happening in states controlled by Republicans, and those state legislatures won’t function as a clearing house for airing the national debate we need. In many places — Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas among them — the banning efforts originate in the state legislatures themselves.

Of course, there’s a risk that congressional Republicans will seek to turn the hearing into another circus. Republican staffers will no doubt scour the shelves for the most outrageous passages they can find, so their bosses can read them aloud, express shock and dismay — and get their canned outrage played in clips on Fox News.

But the majority of Americans who want their communities’ schools and libraries to include a variety of materials, even challenging and provocative ones, don’t really have anyone speaking to their values and aspirations. Indeed, this is the case even as Republicans speak very loudly to those on their side of these arguments.

Can a hearing like this show another way forward for Democrats? One has to hope so.