In recent months, Republican lawmakers in Texas and Florida have rallied behind a suite of efforts related to schools, children, issues of race, and issues of sexuality. At a glance, each represents an isolated case study in conservatism’s wider cultural offensive. Taken together, however, all tell a much larger story about the Right’s professed commitment to personal freedom and freedom of expression — and the inconsistency with which its partisans apply their own chosen idioms.
The past decade has seen conservatives aggressively rally around a narrative about censorious college professors and an intellectually stifled culture increasingly averse to ideas some find uncomfortable. More broadly, the Right has tended to present itself as the only reliable steward of free speech in a society which now deems certain questions out of bounds and has seen the ongoing creep of a state empowered to suppress individual expression. However you come down on what are sometimes complex debates about education or pedagogy, it’s a story that’s simply impossible to square with the kinds of moves Republican politicians are now willing to entertain, let alone what many are already using political power to do.
Recent developments in two states are especially instructive in this respect.
Last month, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick signaled he’ll push to end tenure for new hires at the state’s public universities and colleges in a move to combat “indoctrination” and the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) — also opening the door to reforming local laws so that those who currently have tenure can have it revoked if authorities decide they’ve engaged in wrongthink.
In Florida, which has also become a CRT battleground, the Republican-controlled house of representatives just approved a measure to prohibit discussions concerned with gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms. Though the bill’s language refers specifically to children in a specific age range, its many critics rightly point out an obvious loophole that could potentially make its implications even more expansive — the text referring to “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity . . . in kindergarten through grade 3” with the caveat “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Also empowering parents to sue districts perceived to have violated the new rules, the bill is transparently a first step toward what some conservatives clearly hope will be the eventual purging of some discussions from public schools altogether.
Given the Right’s espoused commitment to freedom of speech and opposition to state overreach, you might think this would be a difficult circle to square. In relation to both CRT and discussions of sexual identity, however, the favored frame has become the idea of “parental choice”: a rhetorically useful way of packaging the agenda of social conservatism in the language of individual freedom and moral neutrality. One only needs to return to Texas to see just how hollow and selective the Right’s application of this very concept actually is.
In what is easily the most grotesque of all the various efforts Republicans are currently pushing at the state level, Governor Greg Abbott last month asked the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to launch investigations into instances of what he calls “abusive procedures” related to parents, children, and gender identity. Effectively, it means that the parents of transgender children can now be criminally investigated for affirming their child’s identity — and that a range of licensed professionals from doctors to teachers will be required to snitch on those who do. Less than a week on from Abbott’s decree, two Texan parents — one of whom is a DFPS employee — are already being investigated (and are rightly suing).
Republican lawmakers, in short, will embrace the concept of parental autonomy in one instance and abandon it in the next. Freedom of speech is said to be under attack, but teachers and college faculty must face professional discipline if they transgress against the standards handed down by politicians. The state and its organs, it is said, should remain neutral on particular questions, but are also morally obligated to criminalize and punish certain lifestyles and viewpoints.
In one obvious sense, there’s no internal consistency here — the operating principle being “free expression for me but not for thee.” Then again, this apparent lack of consistency may offer us a deeper clue about what’s really animating the Right’s wider cultural offensive. Parse the language and aims of these various efforts, and it’s clear that their inspiration is nothing more nor less than a socially conservative idea of society in which individuals have prescribed roles and identities and the function of public institutions is to help bolster this natural order. Look at various polls on a range of issues, and it’s very difficult to make a convincing case that anything resembling such a worldview is shared by a majority of Americans — which is probably one reason conservatives have tended to package their objectives in the bogus rhetoric of neutrality and choice.
Unfortunately, as Jennifer Berkshire observed in an essay for the Nation following November’s Republican victory in Virginia, liberals’ embrace of instrumentalist slogans like “College, Knowledge and Jobs” and “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” has left Democrats ill-equipped to mount the more principled and holistic defense of public education that the Right’s current onslaught demands. Since the 1990s, America’s liberals have increasingly seen the state as little more than a vehicle for facilitating markets and individual opportunities within them. Conversely, the Right understands that education potentially has much a thicker role to play and is more than happy to make heavy-handed use of the state to impose its minoritarian value system on public schools — and beyond.
Given the creeping privatization of education and the punishing nature of higher ed tuition fees, it’s hardly possible for mainstream liberals to claim their politics have helped foster a vibrant culture of free inquiry or expression. Nevertheless, the kinds of measures at play in places like Florida and Texas are clearly irreconcilable with the binary fable of censorious liberals and freedom-loving conservatives through which the Right has increasingly framed recent debates.