Writing at The Plum Line blog, Paul Waldman has accurately identified the deeply strange and insufficient Democratic response to the Republican Party’s current onslaught on public education. As the GOP’s hysterical anti-critical race theory rhetoric is now leading to actual policies and laws that threaten to profoundly change the nature of American education, he describes the Democrats as being in a state of “paralyzed confusion,” without any concerted effort to counter this tide of awful that Republicans see as a winning issue going into the 2022 midterms.

This is indeed a baffling and infuriating stance by Democrats, given the essential racism of the GOP’s anti-CRT crusade and the essential rightness of promoting school curricula that are based on truth and reality, not white supremacist propaganda. Waldman zeroes in on a Democratic tendency as underlying the deer-in-the-headlights routine: “Devoted as they are to facts and rational argumentation, liberals can’t help themselves from responding to Republican attacks first and foremost with refutation, which allows Republicans to set the terms of debate.”

Instead of getting sucked into a back and forth with an opponent that doesn’t care about facts, he suggests that the Democrats simply hit back, with something like, “Republicans want to subject our kids to fascist indoctrination. Why do they want to teach our kids that slavery wasn’t bad? Why are they trying to ban books? Who’s writing their education policy, David Duke? Don’t let them destroy your schools!” Concludes Waldman: “Maybe Democrats need to begin not with a response to Republican lies about what happens in the classroom, but an attack on what Republicans are trying to do to American education.”

The Democrats’ acceptance of Republican framing here is indeed glaring, and I couldn’t agree more with Waldman’s suggestion of a counter-attack. But beyond the issue of framing, the current inaction also strikes me as a somewhat inexplicable Democratic alienation from basic values that would seem to form the moral center of the party — among them, commitment to civil rights, to facts, and ultimately, to a vision of the public good.

Republicans are proposing outlandish and racist changes to American public education that are aimed not simply at providing a winning issue in 2022, but at actually changing how American schoolchildren are supposed to think about their country and their fellow citizens, in ways directly opposed to ideas of the United States embraced by both Democratic politicians and voters. It makes zero sense that Democrats would feel insecure about asserting that schools should teach such basic values as racial equality and the evils of slavery. If the GOP is profiting from lies about history classes teaching white kids to hate themselves, then the solution is to oppose the lies, not tacitly assent to them.

But the Democrats’ disarray on this issue at least helps us grasp a broader disarray in confronting the authoritarian, amped-up GOP. Confronted with an opponent that is able to effectively and comprehensively articulate its illiberal values and its perverted vision for American society, Democrats remain unwilling or unable to counter with their own vision of a progressive American society. This is not to say that we don’t see glimpses of it here and there, from the social safety net-strengthening features of the adrift Build Back Better Act to President Biden’s energetic and pointed January 6 speech vowing to fight authoritarian politics — but there is a general lack of investment in making this vision explicit.

I’m not saying I want a 100-point enumeration of Democratic Party values, but I do think it’s reasonable for the party to, at a minimum, explicitly, repeatedly make clear that it’s in favor of transforming the United States into a full multi-racial democracy with equality for all. After all, the underlying reality of this vision is well understood even by the Republican Party, many of whose efforts are explicitly aimed at rolling back these Democratic aims while painting them in the most ominous light possible to white Americans. To bring this back to the conflict over schools — it is not at all hard to imagine Democrats putting the various GOP school initiatives in the context of the larger GOP assault on American political institutions and free society (not least because this happens to be true). An aggressive response on this particular issue would also be an opportunity for Democrats to articulate their larger vision for a free and fair American society, if they dared to take it.

The Democratic disarray in responding to the GOP’s war on schools is also reflected at the level of basic emotional appeal. The Republican Party has no qualms about inciting its base into rage and action to promote a white supremacist backlash against liberal educational offenses. The upside for the GOP, of course, is that this will motivate its voters to go to the polls, as well as inspire Republican rank-and-file to get involved in local politics. Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t publicly showing the very reasonable anger and righteousness which should be the natural reaction to the opposition party declaring that America’s number 1 problem is not Covid, climate change, or economic equality, but that a teacher somewhere might tell her students that the South started the Civil War or that Jim Crow made the lives of African-Americans a living hell. It is also deeply offensive for the GOP to pretend to care about public education when its decades-long project has in fact been to defund and privatize our nation’s schools, viewing them as a corporate profit center. If the stakes weren’t so high, the Republicans’ sudden professed interest in the minds of students would be laughable. The overall effect of Democrats’ apparent lack of outrage is to signal to their base voters that they’re not willing to fight for basic democratic values in education, helping to further demobilize the Democratic base from either voting in the next election or getting excited about involvement in local politics.

As Waldman notes, the GOP has chosen to make education an issue, so to that degree the Democrats can’t simply ignore it. Moreover, the anxiety over covid’s impact on schools is playing into the potency of Republican demagoguery on the make-believe CRT front, so that Democrats would also be well-advised to take this opportunity to reiterate their long-standing commitment to public education. Many teachers are badly burned out, if they haven’t already left the profession, and the post-covid era will require massive investments in hiring new educators and ensuring schools are prepared for the hard work of catching up a generation of kids who have seen their learning interrupted. Such an initiative would help both neutralize and overwhelm the GOP’s bogus concerns, while offering real solutions to actual problems. To echo Waldman’s message: what are Democrats waiting for?