It sounds like the plot of an over-the-top action movie or a political satire: mothers joining local school boards across the country are actually part of a radical network infiltrating government from the bottom up, determined to take power, punish their opponents and eventually rule with an iron fist. But this seemingly outlandish plot is actually a disturbingly accurate description of Moms for Liberty, a rapidly growing non-profit that has its members pressuring local school boards to ban LGBTQ and race-related materials, remove COVID-19 restrictions and adopt other conservative measures.
In a political climate marked by violent insurrection, unhinged conspiracy theories, voting restrictions, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ censorship and denials of basic history and science, a group of mothers attending local school board meetings seems like the least threatening thing coming out of the current conservative movement. Yet the veneer of respectability and benevolence that comes with the image of “concerned mothers” is in fact a thin veil for a broader and more sinister movement. Moms for Liberty is an offshoot of the far-right movement that has come to dominate modern American conservatism, with its tactics representing a dangerous shift in strategy for this movement.
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With a name that sounds righteous to the group’s supporters and Orwellian to its detractors, Moms for Liberty’s beginnings were fairly innocuous. The organisation was founded by Tina Descovich, Tiffany Justice and Bridget Ziegler – three women who had been members of local school boards in Florida. Initially, the group focused on opposing mask mandates in Florida public schools. But as membership grew in Florida and spread to other states, Moms for Liberty quickly grew into a federation of local chapters throughout the country fighting a wider array of culture wars-inspired issues. The group has pushed for bans on critical race theory – prohibitions that have been broadly interpreted to essentially ban discussions of racism – and LGBTQ-friendly content.
The group’s leaders proudly tout their close relationship with the Republican Party. Rising stars of the party – including governors Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Kim Reynolds of Iowa, and Ron DeSantis of Florida – make a show of their close ties with and the virulent support they receive from Moms for Liberty. The group has launched several political action committees and has indicated a desire to move beyond school board elections to endorsing political candidates more generally.
Moms for Liberty has come under scrutiny not only for its right-wing agenda but also for its tactics. The organisation has been blamed for loudly disrupting school board meetings, harassing officials at their homes, and even making false accusations of child abuse. One early target of this treatment was Jennifer Jenkins, who defeated Moms for Liberty co-founder Descovich for a local school board race. Jenkins reports that Moms for Liberty began disrupting school board meetings, accusing board members of being “paedophiles” and making thinly veiled threats of violence against them. Jenkins’ cell phone number was publicised by a state senator with ties to Moms for Liberty, and she was even falsely reported for child abuse, sparking an official investigation. Moms for Liberty, of course, denies any involvement in such aggressive and potentially illegal tactics, while openly espousing the ideas behind them.
As Moms for Liberty expands in membership and influence, its agenda has become more comprehensive and aggressive as well. Members of the group aggressively advocated for the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that passed in Florida. A quick perusal of the group’s official Twitter accounts shows it promising to “fight against forced masking” in schools, harkening back to the organisation’s original rally cry. But the page is also filled with posts or retweets condemning “transgender indoctrination,” linking LGBTQ-inclusivity to paedophilia and calling for jail time and fines for teachers who teach critical race theory, social-emotional learning and other concepts that have become distorted and demonised by the right.
Indeed, as mask mandates – the group’s original mobilising issue – have largely been dropped, racial and LGBTQ issues are increasingly becoming the group’s main areas of focus. A new tactic, for example, has been to equate gender and sexuality-related content in schools with “grooming” children for sexual abuse and exploitation. Co-founder Justice dismisses criticism of such inflammatory language. “If anyone says that they don’t like that label,” she says of the unsubstantiated grooming accusations, “then I say stop messing with our kids.”
Such increasingly radical stances place Moms for Liberty alongside other right-wing movements that were once fringe but have become mainstream within the Republican Party. In a sign of synergy between these various extreme-right movements, one prominent Moms for Liberty member who was appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Board of Education has demonstrated support for the QAnon conspiracy theory and the Capitol Hill insurrection.
In many ways, Moms for Liberty is a symptom of a larger pathology within the Republican Party, which has increasingly courted and mobilised prejudiced, anti-democratic forces in a cynical attempt to seize and maintain power at any costs. But while movements like QAnon and militia like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have grown in influence and acceptance within conservative circles, they are still kept at arms length by mainstream Republicans who fear being associated with the more radical elements of modern US conservatism.
By contrast, the danger of Moms for Liberty comes from not only its far-right stances and its aggressive tactics, but also from its ability to gain mainstream acceptance in ways that other fringe elements of the Republican Party cannot. On the contrary, Moms for Liberty is already being compared with major conservative movements like the Moral Majority and the Tea Party. If a group with the radical agenda of Moms for Liberty can gain the type of sustained political influence that these past conservative movements have exercised, it could seriously damage civil liberties, shut down political discourse and further weaken the democratic institutions that have been under attack in recent years.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.