The Hill: Democrats, parents’ rights and Election 2024

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis may have a glass jaw. His presidential campaign apparently is reeling amid worries that Donald Trump and his henchmen could smash DeSantis to smithereens.

Whether that’s premature or not, Democrats should not easily dismiss the cultural broadside — he’s the self-styled “anti-woke” governor — DeSantis has launched in Florida. The bigotry, book banning and assaults on gays and transgender kids are the acts of a bully. But DeSantis has shrewdly wrapped much of this in the mantra of “parents’ rights” — as has Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

When Democrats focus more on criticizing than countering, they lose.

This is underscored in Anne Selzer’s poll for Grinnell College. She found most respondents oppose book banning and cracking down on transgender kids and support discussing race and gender identity in schools. Yet they have strong reservations about teachers talking politics in the classroom and express a desire for parents to play a larger role, she observes.

“The polls show signs that parents, particularly suburban moms, want to play a larger role in taking back their schools,” she notes. Almost two-thirds of suburban moms, a key voting bloc for Democrats, oppose teachers discussing politics in the classroom.

“Parents’ rights” has been a central theme for DeSantis’s educational crackdowns in Florida. Youngkin seized the issue when — in the closing days of his 2021 campaign — the usually sure-footed Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin won by a narrow two points.

Both DeSantis and Youngkin have, with success, distorted the theme of parents’ rights. Youngkin’s first executive order was to ban the use of “inherently divisive concepts” in public schools. This was an edict not from parents but from a politician.

Is talking about slavery “inherently divisive”? Or discussing Virginia’s mandated defiance in the late 1950s of court-ordered desegregation of schools?

Inspired by Youngkin’s edict, the Isle of Wight County school board banned teaching about race, claiming “there is no systemic racism or bigotry perpetrated by the United States or any government entity.” 

The most drastic changes, under the “parents’ right” false flag, is in DeSantis’s Florida. The infamous “Don’t say gay” measure which prohibits teaching younger students about gays or lesbians is under legislation entitled, “Parental rights in education.”

Similar to Virginia, Florida businesses and schools are prohibited from teaching or giving instruction about anything that makes people feel “discomfort or guilt” on account of their race. Also outlawed is gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

Florida also has led the book banning parade. DeSantis says this only applies to material that is “pornographic, and inappropriate.” Yet the language of the law is so broad that under the guise of protecting families, some counties have banned books about Black athletes and Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrisons’s “The Bluest Eye.” One of the educational materials prepared for K through 6 students had a report on Rosa Parks, the Black woman in the 1950s who refused to move to the “colored” section at the back of a bus, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. In response to Florida’s law, the publisher deleted all reference to race in the Rosa Parks story. Later they said this was an error.

Two findings in the Grinnell poll should be politically instructive.

By better than 2 to 1, the public is more concerned about “valuable” materials being removed from school libraries than they are “harmful” materials remaining. By a decisive margin, people want statewide elected politicians to stay out of what’s in school libraries.

Yet DeSantis and Younkin have dominated the dialogue in their states by framing their positions as pro-parents, which, as Selzer says, resonates.

If Democrats want a guide on how to counter this, they might look to Virginia delegate Rip Sullivan’s stump speeches, taking on Youngkin on the parents narrative. Here’s how he put it to me:

“The governor seems to think that he invented the concept of parents being concerned about their children’s education and their future, and his allies in the General Assembly seem to want this election to be about who can use the word ‘parent’ more often.

“I’ll take that challenge,” said Sullivan.

“How many parents want their kids to earn a living wage? How many parents want their children not to have to worry about being shot in school, church or at the shopping mall? Or not have to hug their third grader after he or she is traumatized by that day’s active shooter drill in school?

“How many parents cherish our public schools and the teachers in them and want their children prepared for the future by learning everything there is to know about our past?

“We cannot cede this ground to Glenn Youngkin or the Republicans,” said Sullivan. “We are the party for parents’ rights.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.