What is the key material in this latest Times political-desk news story (as opposed to an analysis piece)? Here is the thesis statement, right up top:
Seizing on education as a newly potent wedge issue, Republicans have moved to galvanize crucial groups of voters around what the party calls “parental rights” issues in public schools, a hodgepodge of conservative causes ranging from eradicating mask mandates to demanding changes to the way children are taught about racism.
Yet it is the free-floating sense of rage from parents, many of whom felt abandoned by the government during the worst months of the pandemic, that arose from the off-year elections as one of the most powerful drivers for Republican candidates.
All of this activity, from the point of view seen in the Times, boils down to arguments about race:
The message worked on two frequencies. Pushing a mantra of greater parental control, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, stoked the resentment and fear of some white voters, who were alarmed by efforts to teach a more critical history of racism in America. He attacked critical race theory, a graduate school framework that has become a loose shorthand for a contentious debate on how to address race.
There were, of course, other issues lurking in the background — some of which could be linked to religious, moral and cultural differences among voters. This is all the Times had to say about that:
While the conservative news media and Republican candidates stirred the stew of anxieties and racial resentments that animate the party’s base — thundering about equity initiatives, books with sexual content and transgender students on sports teams — they largely avoided offering specific plans to tackle thornier issues like budget cuts and deepening educational inequalities.
Way down in this long feature, there was a quote that struck me as both scary, prophetic and a bit tone deaf. Yes, I also sensed “religion ghosts” hovering in the background.
Thus, we will end with this:
Geoff Garin, a top Democratic pollster, said the party’s candidates needed to expand their message beyond their long-running policy goals like reducing class sizes and expanding pre-K education.
“It’s going to be incumbent on Democrats to have a compelling response,” said Mr. Garin, who worked as a pollster for Mr. McAuliffe during his 2013 campaign for governor. “They also need to be prepared to assert the value of public education in terms of a place where there’s a common curriculum and common set of values that most voters agree are the right ones for public schools.”
Ah, there’s the issue that could drive future coverage. What, precisely, is the “common set of values” that unites Americans at this moment in time on religious, moral and cultural issues?
Long ago, when I was doing a Baylor University graduate degree in Church-State Studies, it was safe to say that most voters — especially in flyover country and the Bible Belt — would settle for a kind of quiet, milquetoast Protestantism in public-school classrooms. That wasn’t fair to atheists, Catholics and lots of other people and this approach led to punishments for young people (like me) who refused to offer lowest-common-denominator prayers over school public address systems at the start of each day.
But Christmas was still the shopping-mall version of Christmas. The sex-education classes avoided hot-button topics and didn’t send students home asking questions that freaked out lots of parents. In terms of race, we talked a lot about racial equality and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was shot down when I was in Middle School. We didn’t talk — in classrooms — that much about the obvious racial divides in our city.
I will ask, once again: Is there a “common set of values” that unites Americans at this point? What unites people who watch the Fox News talking heads at night and those who prefer the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, PBS or NPR? What unites old-school First Amendment liberals and the new illiberals who are much more concerned about hate speech, pronouns and violent trigger words?
That’s a question that points to a big news story that isn’t going away. It will help if journalists show some respect for parents on both sides of these debates. In other words, skip the “scare quotes.”
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