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The GOP Is Escalating Its War on Ideas

No one ever died from reading a book about gay people. And yet, Republicans, who are determined to loosen or eliminate gun laws in the midst of an epidemic of mass shootings, consider books—and the ideas in them—the real threat to American life. It’s why Republicans have declared war on education, putting the livelihoods of teachers, librarians, and academics at risk. 

Florida has been ground zero for this anti-education crusade, with Governor Ron DeSantis auditioning for the GOP 2024 presidential primary by selling himself as an even more far-right version of Donald Trump. The DeSantis-led “Don’t Say Gay” hysteria has helped put LGBTQ+ education under assault across the country. “Don’t Say Gay” is a Republican response to a manufactured crisis in which, somehow, learning about people being gay or transgender hurts children. The Washington Post, analyzing challenges to books in school districts across several states this week, found that nearly half of those targeted—43%—were “titles with LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36 percent targeted titles featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism.” Many of the challenges, according to the Post, are linked to “a network of volunteers gathered together under the aegis of conservative parents’ groups such as Moms for Liberty.”

Of course, this moral panic isn’t only playing out in Florida. Take a look at Ohio, the same state that was one of the first to birth the wildly restrictive and deeply unscientific “heartbeat” abortion ban bills. There, Republicans have cooked up a bill—“the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act”—which would prevent state colleges and universities from endorsing “any controversial belief or policy.” Yes, you read that right, the goal here is to keep academics from getting involved with anything controversial like, you know, ideas. These Republicans want to scare academics, just like they’ve scared doctors treating pregnant or miscarrying women. “What a Frankenstein’s monster of a bill,” said PEN America’s Jeremy C. Young, adding that it “is the longest and most complex educational gag order I’ve ever seen; it is also one of the two or three most censorious.”

One of the hallmarks of Trumpism is badly written legislation that is wildly popular with the base but often too fraught to be enacted (or make any sense at all to the non–Fox News obsessive). The GOP base is often just so delighted by the “own the libs” news cycle that they don’t really care if the law is passed. Since Trumpism is largely about stunts anyway, it doesn’t much matter if promised legislation (a full Muslim immigrants ban) ever comes to pass. And sometimes these red state house legislators have success with badly written bills, like Texas’s SB8, which put the country on a path toward the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority overturning Roe. While some of the far-right bills cooked up by Republican-state lawmakers will never come to pass, others will. The “Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act,” for one, just moved closer to becoming law. 

Republicans in Texas have also been trying to undermine higher education. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has gone after academic tenure because he couldn’t get Texas universities to disavow critical race theory. (You’ll remember Republicans became obsessed with critical race theory, seeing this decades-old, legal scholarship as racist against white people after it was thrust into the spotlight by activist Christopher Rufo.) The University of Texas faculty earlier this year “approved a resolution defending their freedom to decide for themselves how to teach about race,” which according to the Associated Press, Patrick viewed as a message to “go to hell.” Enter SB18, a bill that would completely eliminate tenure for newly hired professors, and which passed the Texas Senate last month. All this because a guy saw some academic legal framework from the 1980s as “the perfect villain” for today’s culture wars.

Everything from stripping tenure to banning books comes from the same Republican fever dream, a desire to quelch ideas and kill free thought. In Arkansas, Republicans have passed a bill (SB81) that “says school and public librarians, as well as teachers, can be imprisoned for up to six years or fined $10,000 if they distribute obscene or harmful texts,” according to The Washington Post. The Arkansas law, which will take effect on August 1, isn’t the only one being proposed to target librarians or school staffers. But as the Post notes, “most of the laws do not spell out precisely who will decide what counts as obscene but suggest the judgment should come from the courts.” The lack of clarity serves to create an atmosphere of fear, which can lead to self-censorship. The hope is teachers and librarians will be so afraid of possible punishment they won’t even try to educate kids about topics the right deems too controversial. 

These same children who Republicans pretend they want to protect are routinely asked to do active shooter drills. Republicans in Texas passed permitless carry in 2021, despite that in the last eight years, five of the 10 most deadly mass shootings in America have happened in the state. Instead of addressing gun violence, the Texas Senate this week advanced its own “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, a bill (HB 890) which, as the Texas Tribune noted, “would severely limit classroom lessons, teacher guidance and school programming about sexual orientation and gender identity through 12th grade in Texas schools.” (Texas, by the way, also ranked first in a recent PEN analysis of book removals, followed by Florida and Missouri.) 

Republicans have decided that threatening—or even jailing—librarians will keep American children safer than sensible gun control. It’s important to realize none of these bills are about actually keeping children safe; they are about delighting the base, getting Fox News watchers excited, and giving Republicans something to run on. This is not about safety, but power, and trying to control educators, just like how Republicans are controlling OBGYNs since overturning Roe. This is all ripped from the Lee Atwater playbook. The question is, will these manufactured crises fool enough of the American people that Republicans can continue their regressive policies, or will these moves alienate swing voters once and for all?

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