Banned Books Are About to Be the New Pussy Hats

It was a superlatively glib photo-op: A set restaurant table, a stack of pristine books, and Gov. Gavin Newsom doing his best impression of Rodin’s The Thinker. “Reading some banned books to figure out what these states are so afraid of,” the caption read.

The California Democrat posted that photo to Twitter late last month. In his hands, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, opened to an early page. On a table before him: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s 1984, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that a Tennessee school district had recently stripped from its curriculum. (Never mind that To Kill A Mockingbird has often drawn ire from the left, not the right, for its racist portrayals.)

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Democrats have cycled through a raft of political talismans since Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. The pussy hats that kept heads warm at the Women’s March gave way to swag depicting Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s signature Supreme Court collars. When the pandemic arrived on U.S. shores, liberals amassed prayer candles with saintly portraits of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer even sat for an MSNBC interview with a pillow embroidered with the doctor’s face.

Newsom’s literary portrait suggested the dawn of a new liberal signifier. “I loved it,” said Katie Paris, the founder of Red, Wine & Blue, a national political network of 300,000 liberal-leaning suburban women. She and other like-minded activists view the right’s embrace of book bans as an issue that could energize a Democratic base that’s deflated in a post-Trump era — as well as keep suburban voters on the Democrats’ side come November. It’s an opening, she thinks, for liberals to gain some ground in the culture war.

The American Library Association identified nearly 1,600 challenges to books across the country in 2021, an increase from just 377 challenges in 2019. PEN America, a free expression advocacy organization, tracked bans across 86 school districts that targeted 1,145 titles from July 2021 through March 2022, according to a report released last week. Both organizations found that the titles most often under fire discuss racial, gender, or LBGTQ equality, or are written by authors of color. 

The trend is far from universal. There are more than 98,000 U.S. public schools, after all. But the intensity, frequency, and lack of due process employed in responding to the challenges is troublesome, explains Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education. “School boards are just buckling under the pressure,” Friedman says. “Many have followed a best practice policy for evaluating these requests, but many have not.”

The American Library Association’s report determined that the primary drivers of book bans are parents, some of whom have expressed frustration over lessons they view as counter to their own values. Their grassroots efforts have been boosted by right-wing political operatives who have embraced these “school board moms” as key to gaining a foothold they lost in the suburbs during the Trump era. “I look at this and say, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to win,’” GOP strategist Steve Bannon, the alt-right media personality who gave shape to Trump’s campaign, told Politico last June.

An increasing number of GOP elected officials have leaned into the bans as a means of stoking cultural grievances. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, instructed state agencies last year to develop standards for removing “pornography” from Texas public schools, something many saw as coded language for targeting books with LBGTQ themes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, just signed a new law that requires elementary schools to post a searchable list of books in their collections, legislation designed to make it easier for titles to be challenged and removed.

The energy surrounding book challenges, however, is not Republicans’ alone. Run for Something, which fields first-time Democratic candidates, has seen a record number of recruits this cycle — and its promotions around education “have been more effective than any other issue for getting people to sign up,” says founder Amanda Litman. Local grassroots groups also have materialized to combat the culture wars: Loudoun 4 All, a new organization that mobilized last year in Loudoun County, Virginia, a main stage of last summer’s anti-CRT fights. “By speaking up, the Democratic Party can take the lead on this and rally our base,” says Jessica Berg, a Loudoun County public school teacher and Red Wine & Blue member.

Paris had worried that Democratic victories following the 2020 election would put an end to the women-driven political organizing that the Trump era inspired. But Red Wine & Blue’s network began “lighting up” last summer, she says, as school board meetings grew contentious over “critical race theory” and the book banning spree that followed. The group has since launched online trainings that teach parents how to combat book challenges in their school districts. “It really is possible to win on these issues,” Paris says. “We are really trying to model that for our political leaders.”

Especially since book banning isn’t quite landing as the winning issue the GOP might hope it to be. A February CBS poll, for example, found that an overwhelming majority of Americans reject banning books — including 87 percent who do not think books should be banned for discussing race or slavery. When Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race last November, conventional wisdom quickly hardened around the idea that Youngkin owed his victory to his “parent’s rights” platform. In municipal elections across the country that same night, however, only 28 percent of right-wing candidates actually won their school board races.

Paris points to these outcomes to fault national Democrats for not taking a stronger stand on the issue. “Our frustration has been that Democrats look at this issue and handle it the way Terry McAuliffe did, which is to not wade into the culture wars,” Paris said. (McAuliffe’s campaign, for its part, handed out copies of Toni Morrison’s Beloved at a rally in the campaign’s final stretch, an effort to counter a Youngkin advertisement about McAuliffe’s veto of a bill that would have banned the book during McAuliffe’s past term as governor.)

In recent weeks, Red Wine & Blue shared a memo with Democratic officials that encouraged the party to embrace the war on book bans as its own. “Democrats have an opportunity to appeal to mainstream parents by focusing on an issue hitting close to home,” the memo, shared with Rolling Stone, states. “Some in D.C. may be ignoring book bans, but Americans are not.” The response? “A lot of enthusiasm and support, but not a lot of action,” she says. “I think there is a fundamental conversation happening about how we should handle the culture wars.”

Democrats offered one prescription for how to handle those wars during a House hearing on book bans last week. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who oversaw the hearing, framed the discussion as one over free speech, a subject the right has often accused the left of censoring. “If we cancel everything we find offensive, there will be nothing left,” he said. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), reading from Maus, compared recent efforts to ban books to authoritarianism. “That’s a law that belongs in Putin’s Russia, not America,” she said of new efforts.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, raised the common GOP refrain that “no child should be subject to government indoctrination.” But for the most part, her Republican colleagues spent the hearing raising concerns about “cancel culture” and free speech on college campuses — and didn’t say much about the book bans themselves. The row of mothers, teachers, and librarians Democrats had invited to testify had prepared to answer questions about parents rights, but received few.

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