The Racial Astroturf Campaign That Elected Youngkin

The Racial Astroturf Campaign That Elected Youngkin
Photo by: Thomas Hawk/ CC BY-NC 2.0

Reprinted with permission MediaMatters

Born in a constellation of right-wing think tanks, the outrage against "critical race theory" spent over a year in the metastasizing embrace of right-wing media, churning up hatred against discussions of race in schools.

As this deceptive marketing reached a fever pitch, there was an explosion in Facebook groups being formed or shifting their focus to opposing critical race theory in schools. These groups were a nexus for supporters to organize in-person disruptions at school board meetings.

This astroturfed frenzy against supposed CRT in schools led to threats and harassment against school board members nationwide, and, in Virginia, helped propel Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin to the governor's mansion.

Assigning national importance to a statewide election can be reckless; anti-CRT outrage did not prevail everywhere in the 2021 election. But for the effort and money that conservative activists and media put into defining the Virginia gubernatorial race with critical race theory, it is clear that these charlatans will attempt to export the Virginia playbook nationally in 2022 and beyond.

As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, who helped launch the campaign, has explained, the goal is to "put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category" so that people "read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.'" Other right-wing institutions and groups, like the Heritage Foundation, joined in the fray with events, activist toolkits, model legislation, and pushes for bans made in concert with lawmakers.

From there, advocacy groups use this think tank framework to generate local outrage against critical race theory. According to an NBC News analysis, there are now "at least 165 local and national groups that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender," and several of the most prominent ones are headed by Republican activists and strategists. These groups cram local controversies into the CRT framework established by Rufo and others, disrupt school board meetings, and place spokespeople in media appearances -- sometimes professional spokespeople, who are instead described as local parents.

The noise and attention from these professionally operated, think tank-inspired groups then generates coverage from an obsequious and obsessive right-wing media, champing at the bit for any angle that will hurt Democrats and help Republicans. Empowered by the outrage suddenly all over TV -- to the tune of hundreds of Fox mentions per month, plus loads more from OAN and Newsmax -- GOP politicians find incentive to take legislative action to drastically limit the teaching of civil rights, sometimes even banning books altogether.

This feedback loop is a concerted strategy whose first trial run was the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. It is not a grassroots movement, it is not a natural response to alleged left-wing excesses, and it is not about what is best for children. It is a top-down attempt by professional political operatives to morph political landscapes to suit their racially regressive needs. And, at least in Virginia, it seems to have worked.

As Rufo promised, the professional outrage against critical race theory has only just begun. As the next election looms, critical race theory (or similar dog whistles like "parents' rights") will suddenly get thousands of TV mentions again, and professional GOP operatives will again call themselves mere concerned parents. Think tankers may even publicly discuss their exact plans again, because they know it won't cause any harm; enough of the mainstream media will still cover these anti-CRT outrages as grassroots "education" issues, instead of what they are: a think tank astroturf project.

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