Documenting Righty Success
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
Lately, Team Righty has had some success on the education front, and it’s worth looking at why. A lot of the installments of this column have been about either how good the Lefties are at organizing, or how much the Righties suck at it, but we also need to look at places that Righties have been doing well. And there aren’t that many of those! Lefties are on the march all over the place; Righty confidence that “the people won’t stand for this” usually results in disappointment. So why is education (for the moment) different? What lessons should Righties learn?
The first lesson: You have better odds of building support and achieving effect if you pick an issue lots of people are heavily invested in. The more potential recruits you have, the better. And in the words of historian Robert Conquest’s First Law, as relayed in the memoirs of Kingsley Amis, “Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about.” (Conquest’s second law was “Every organization appears to be headed by secret agents of its opponents.”) Something lots of people know well is effective grounds for organizing. Most American parents have their kids in public schools. Most American parents themselves went to public schools. American parents thus have reasonable expectations of public schools, and while they may have different values, they do overwhelmingly agree that kids who go to public school should actually learn to do things, like math.
Parents are discovering public schools are less invested in this outcome. Alarming numbers of public school teachers believe that “rigor” and “accuracy” are buzzwords for white supremacy, and that it’s more important for kids to vaguely know there are some forms of math where it’s possible for 2+2=5 than it is for them to be able to add two and two and get four in everyday life. This is the sort of thing that makes progressive white math teachers feel very good about themselves, but doesn’t help poor black kids grow up able to figure out how and where and for how much money a boss or a landlord or a bank or a government agency is ripping them off. Nor does it help public-school students of any ethnicity or socioeconomic level to learn more advanced mathematics of the sort that can lead to remunerative careers.
That last is what led to some backlash recently here in California. Elites here trend left, but when “reforms” threatened advanced opportunities for public-school students to study calculus—the sort of thing that California elites want their children to be able to do (because a.) elites pride themselves on their children’s accomplishments in school and b.) see above re: “remunerative careers”)—it was a bridge too far, and those elites revolted. The backlash included an open letter from over one thousand STEM professionals against the curriculum changes. There are limits to what an open letter can do; the result was delay, minor curriculum modifications…and pretty much the same thing sailing forward. But in California, elites objecting to some aspect of public education is noteworthy! Energy and outrage alone aren’t enough to accomplish your goals, but a lot of people caring is the first step to recruiting them and turning them into an effective machine.
The second lesson: Document in detail exactly what your enemies are saying and doing. You can’t talk about Righty success on the education front without mentioning Christopher Rufo’s efforts on that front. But to get anything out of that, you have to look at what he’s doing. Righties have a tendency toward hero-worship: When somebody has success at something, we tend to say that person is awesome rather than asking what they are doing that is effective and can be emulated. Rufo doesn’t just talk about the fact that woke education is bad; he talks about what woke education is, not in generalities, but in specifics, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction after jurisdiction. He collects internal documents leaked by friendly insiders and gathered by himself from filing public-records requests, and posts them publicly. Gathering detailed documentation is essential for effective counter-action, and it’s especially effective when your opponents are liars, e.g., “This isn’t happening.” It’s totally happening; here are examples! “It’s not common.” It’s happening in all sorts of places all over the country; here are more examples! “This isn’t really Critical Race Theory.” Here are documents saying it is! And so on.
The most important thing about Rufo’s or any other information-gathering activist’s work isn’t the activist himself, but what that work makes possible. Documenting what your enemies say isn’t just an opportunity to call them liars or hypocrites, because calling people liars or hypocrites from across the country isn’t enough to pressure them to change. Nor is this one nationwide fight (and face it, how effective have conservatives been at passing federal legislation that isn’t tax cuts?). It’s a nationwide fight, and it’s 50 state fights, and it’s innumerable county and city fights. Information-gathering activists can collect a lot of information and publicize it, but it’s when locals form lasting groups that they can use that information to create pressure locally…and then upward.
That leads us to a third lesson: Create pressure against and within the structure you’re trying to change. Here’s a case study. When parents began increasingly complaining about the direction of schools to their local school boards, the National School Board Association released a letter equating parent involvement in schools as “domestic terrorism.” Parents very understandably added this to the list of things they complained about to their local school boards. This was necessary and good. It did not, however, automatically produce pressure on the national organization. Defiantly standing up and speaking your mind doesn’t do anything if the people you’re speaking to feel they can just ignore you.
What did produce pressure on the national organization? Multiple state groups nationwide began distancing themselves from the statement or even talking about disassociating from the national organization, which (if enough did) could weaken its power, prestige, and most importantly—as the NSBA charged dues payments—its finances. These state chapter disavowals of the original letter were neither spontaneous nor organic responses. They came because the group Parents Defending Education called up these state groups, asked them to stand by or disavow the comments, put their answers on a web site, and kept a running tally of disavowals. The group also used public-records laws to obtain internal discussion of the letter and discovered the head of the NSBA had put it out without consulting the organization’s board. This created internal pressure within the organization to add to the external pressure created by disassociation from state chapters. The organization walked back the letter in an effort to mitigate this pressure from within and without, but at this point so many state-level chapters had left that it raised the question of whether the NSBA could legitimately be called a national organization. (It also raises the possibility of a new competing organization, if those separate chapters can come together to create one.)
It’s important to not just track your enemies, but to also, lesson four: Track your ostensible allies and yourself. The school-choice activist Cory DeAngelis is a fun social-media follow because he merrily points out whenever a prominent figure who opposes taxpayer dollars funding students instead of public-school systems doesn’t send their own kids to public schools, or didn’t go to public schools themselves. What makes his Twitter feed useful and interesting, though, is his work tracking legislation: When a jurisdiction faces a vote over a bill to fund students instead of systems, he notes it. When the bill passes, he notes it. When the bill fails, he notes that, as well as who voted against it, highlighting those whose platforms or parties were ostensibly in favor of school choice—i.e., giving people in that jurisdiction the information they need to challenge those candidates in future elections. Righties like full-throated grandstanders, but it doesn’t matter how onside people say they are if they don’t vote the right way—so you need to keep track of how they vote, and pressure them or replace them if they fall short.
All of these individual efforts are important, emulatable, and lead to progress. One thing that would make them even more effective would be consolidating and archiving the information in concise packages for future reference—not books, which are designed to advance a narrative to an unfamiliar audience, but up-to-date, regularly issued, archived and downloadable reports for use by local activist groups.
Local power is key to winning lasting power. And if we pay attention to the people on our side who are actually having some effect—not just to praise them, but to emulate their successful methods and the tools they use—we can set ourselves up to get more of it.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.