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The Rise and Fall of Moms for Liberty

Reeling from school board losses, the “parental rights” organization is collapsing on itself.

Bridget Ziegler, a founder of the advocacy group Moms for Liberty, during a meeting of the Sarasota County School Board in Sarasota, Fla., on Tuesday. Ms Ziegler was asked to resign her position at the meeting.,Zack Wittman for The New York Times

On June 30, 2023, a Washington Post headline declared “Moms for Liberty didn’t exist three years ago. Now it’s a GOP kingmaker.” On November 10, 2023,  after a raft of school board elections across the country, the Post ran another headline: “Voters drub Moms for Liberty ‘parental rights’ candidates at the ballot.” Moms for Liberty (M4L) not only didn’t make any kings, it didn’t even make many school board members. What happened?

The pre-election headline reflected the messaging skills that M4L has carefully honed to make itself more palatable. By November, however, the reality on the ground became clear. 

While M4L frames itself as a grassroots organization, in October 2022, a spokesperson for the group confessed to The New Yorker that it is more akin to a “media company.” This is reflected in M4L’s close ties to far-right political technician Morton Blackwell. In 1979, Blackwell founded the Leadership Institute (LI) to train conservatives in political combat, and LI has trained thousands of activists—including M4L’s leaders. 

The Leadership Institute also partners with M4L, in training school board candidates, and it virtually runs M4L’s national summits. A recent Brookings Institute Brown Center for Education Policy study of M4L’s membership found that it has “about 103,000 members across 278 chapters in forty-five states.” And although M4L claims to advocate for “parental rights,” its main focus has been on manufacturing chaos in public schools by, for example: pushing for book bansdisrupting school board meetings, defaming educators as groomers and opposing parents as pedophiles, placing a bounty on teachers’ heads, and generally stoking a culture of fear.

To understand M4L, it’s worth understanding Blackwell’s philosophy. In an essay he published on LI’s website titled “The Real Nature of Politics,” he outlined his lessons for attaining political power:

“Being right in the sense of being correct is not sufficient to win . . . . The winner in a political contest over time is determined by the number and the effectiveness of the activists and leaders on the respective sides . . . . [this] is determined by the political technology used by that side,” and, “[p]olitical technology can be roughly divided into communication technology and organization technology.”

At its outset in January 2021, M4L’s “communications technology” looked like a winner. In July 2022, Media Matters for America documented how the rightwing propaganda network of media outlets publicized M4L. Tina Descovich, the organization’s co-founder, appeared on The Rush Limbaugh Show in January 2021; and since its founding through July 2022, M4L representatives appeared on Fox News up to sixteen times and on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast fourteen times. Attention from BreitbartGlenn Beck, and other rightwing media outlets followed.

The mainstream press has sometimes been as obliging as rightwing media. An October 2021 article in The Washington Post quoted then-Florida Republican Party vice-chair (now chair) Christian Ziegler praising the group for involving women in the Republican Party, stating he couldn’t achieve it but “Moms for Liberty has done it for me.” The article was accompanied by a photo of Descovich in a white jacket, posing like Superman-bursting-from-the-phone-booth to reveal a t-shirt with M4L’s marketing slogan. An American flag stands to the left, with Descovich herself swaddled in a halo of light.

It’s a stunning debut unless you understand the backstory of M4L, as researched by popular blogger and retired public school teacher Peter Greene. 

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According to Greene, Descovich is a former Florida school board member and ex-president of the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members. Her LinkedIn page describes her as “a creative senior communications professional.” Other M4L founding members, Greene explains, included Erika Donalds, wife of then state representative and now Congressmember Byron Donalds; Shawn Frost, a GOP political operative elected to school board with financial backing from former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; and Bridget Ziegler, Christian Ziegler’s wife and Descovich’s predecessor as president. Christian Ziegler is also a paid political consultant to M4L

In February 2021, Bridget Ziegler left the M4L board—to be replaced by LI-trained Marie Rogerson—to successfully run for her re-election to the school board. Then, in 2022, Blackwell hired her to run LI’s school board campaign trainings. (Bridget Ziegler recently resigned from LI after she confessed to a three way sexual relationship with Christian and another woman. Christian is under investigation for sexual assault against the woman. Leadership Institute has scrubbed its website of mentions of Bridget).

At its 2023 summit, M4L awarded Blackwell its “Liberty Sword” award, and Rogerson recounted how Descovich got the idea to start M4L from attending an LI training. Blackwell confirmed he became involved in M4L “in your early days.”

Descovich has stated that her Limbaugh appearance came after making 107 calls to the show. That would be silly when Christian Ziegler or Blackwell could accomplish it in one phone call.

Blackwell is also a co-founder of the Council for National Policy (CNP), which Anne Nelson exposed as a furtive rightwing directorate in Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. In 2017, CNP sent a memorandum to the incoming Trump Administration urging the abolition of public education to be replaced with “free-market private schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.”

Rightwing propagandist Chris Rufo has proposed that “to get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.” 

As Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola show in Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War, Blackwell’s LI created a franchise named Campus Reforms to target liberal professors. Its attacks have led to doxing, online harassment, threats, and pressure on universities to fire faculty. Trinity University in Hartford, Connecticut was once shut down for a day due to threats against a professor generated by Campus Reform. Blackwell’s Campus Reform is a clear example of how sewing chaos and distrust would be useful technologies to bring down institutions of higher learning. Thus, it should be no surprise to see M4L deploy the same technologies to undermine public schools.

Recounting the outrages committed by M4L would take all day—from the Indiana chapter head who quoted Adolf Hitler in a newsletter to M4L members posing with Proud Boys while flashing white power hand signs. M4L has also been called out by PENAmerica for leading the book ban movement, identified by the Human Rights Campaign for its anti-LGBTQ+ crusade and has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-government extremist group.

But on Election Day 2023, when thousands of school board candidates were on the ballot, Blackwell’s first rule of politics turned out to be wrong, and voters showed that sometimes it is important to be right, at least in a democratic setting where right-wing culture warrior calls for banning books and traumatizing LGBTQ+ teenagers repelled voters.

In Virginia, State Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg ousted an incumbent Republican state senator who sponsored book ban legislation. VanValkenburg emphasized that, as a high school teacher, he understands “the difference one book can make for a child.” Delegate Randy Willett, re-elected from a purple district near Richmond, likely won as a result of his focus on the loyalty and attachment that people have to their community public schools. 

It turns out that perhaps voters don’t like the constant havoc practiced by M4L, and it may be the case that a backlash to Blackwell’s political techniques produced more effective activists who cherish public schools than M4L could deploy to destroy them. 

In the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, which had become a model of a disordered rightwing takeover, moderate candidates regained control of the school board, soundly defeating candidates promoted by M4L. Heather Reynolds, who defeated the school board president, explained that voters had grown exhausted by the bedlam at each monthly school board meeting.

People who cherish their community public schools must continue to fight, of course. But the 2023 school board elections may have proved that while rightwing advocacy groups like Moms for Liberty can be very good at breaking things, voters generally prefer building and maintaining institutions, like public schools, which they believe are genuinely working for them.

Maurice Cunningham is a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization (2021).

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