The ongoing far-right strategy of targeting local politics—school boards and city councils and public health boards—to gain traction for their politics of bigotry and menace is clearly a daunting concern. Adam Harris has a good piece in The Atlantic this week about how it’s so effective at driving ordinary civic-minded people away from democratic institutions and replacing them with conspiracist ideologues that it’s a chilling exploration of what democracy’s defenders are all up against.
However, there really is still hope. There are increasing signs, as BlueMonday recently reported, that these tactics are beginning to backfire. Moreover, there already is a blueprint for fighting back successfully: One small town in the Pacific Northwest has demonstrated the power of local community organizing to stand up to the right’s bullying politics, as it did in last fall’s elections.
Harris’ piece focuses on the Michigan town of Grand Blanc, a reasonable stand-in for the ordinary rural towns across the country that have suddenly faced this bewildering barrage from the far right. The school board’s monthly meetings—once the most mundane and boring of affairs, typical for communities everywhere—have become battlegrounds for conspiracists who pack the seats with people who take over the open-question sessions and dominate the gatherings with talk about critical race theory and grooming.
In the case of Grand Blanc, the problem is aggravated by the presence of a QAnon-quoting extremist already on the board—one who now claims no connection to the conspiracist cult. “I’m a victim of cancel culture,” says Amy Facchinello. “I think they’re using the QAnon narrative to cancel conservatives … If you question their narrative, they label you a QAnon conspiracy theorist.”
Local residents say it’s less her beliefs in QAnon theories and more “the division and the chaos that she brings” that concerns them. And that’s not just a concern in Grand Blanc.
The same fate is befalling places like Eatonville, Washington, and Shasta County, California, as well. Around the nation, as more and more local political entities are confronted with this organized onslaught, the people who traditionally have held those jobs and run for those seats are backing away, as Harris observes:
[W]ith the increasing hostilities of the job, many school-board members have seen resignation or retirement as their only way forward. In Wisconsin, a board member resigned after receiving threats and seeing a car idling outside his house while his children were home; in Tennessee, members were called child abusers and harassed for supporting mask mandates. “My most recent time on the board has impacted who I am as a person and my inability to have peace and joy in my life,” one school-board member in Indiana wrote in a resignation letter last year. “If the past two years have taught me anything, it is that life is precious and that time is short.”
This spate of departures will leave seats open, seats for which only the loudest voices in the room might be willing to run. Who else would want to?
But after the past two years, researchers worry that the temperature around this vital institution has been raised irreversibly. They worry that, even as districts sunset mask mandates and vaccines become standard, the battles at school-board meetings will rage on. And they worry that too few reasonable people will want to devote themselves to ever getting things back on course.
This concern was recently front and center in the Shasta County elections in which longtime establishment Republicans were driven from office by “Patriot” movement ideologues. Militiaman Carlos Zapatas—fond of threatening county supervisors that “it’s not going to be peaceful much longer,” and “good citizens are going to turn to real concerned and revolutionary citizens real soon”—led a successful recall against Supervisor Leonard Moty.
“Their agenda is, ‘If you don’t agree with us then we have to get rid of you,’” Moty told the Los Angeles Times. He added: “I am concerned for individuals in our community.”
Extremists likewise have largely taken over the machinery of Oregon’s Republican Party, particularly on the local level. In Idaho, they’re attempting to take over local Democratic Party apparatuses as well.
One such small town—Sequim, Washington, located on the northern rim of the Olympic Peninsula, a retirement-oriented community where the QAnon-loving mayor and his bullyboys on the city council took over local politics—fought back, however, and succeeded.
After the mayor forced out the city’s popular manager and began issuing dubious health directions during the COVID pandemic—and the subsequent coverage of Sequim’s takeover by QAnon, which embarrassed many longtime locals—concerned residents organized the Sequim Good Governance League (SGGL), which lined up a slate of candidates to run in last fall’s elections.
As Sasha Abramsky reported for The Nation:
When the votes were counted, they showed that the SGGL-backed candidates had ridden a wave of genuine popular fury against the faux populists aligned with Armacost. In Sequim, the five SGGL candidates for city council—[Lowell] Rathbun, [Brandon] Janisse, Vicki Lowe, Kathy Downer, and Rachel Anderson—all got between 65 and 70 percent of the vote. Both hospital commissioners’ positions in the county went to SGGL candidates, as did the fire commission and school district posts up for election last year.
“Our community has spoken and they want a change,” said Lowe, who had 68% of the vote against the incumbent. “Now we can take the focus back from everything else that doesn’t have to do with Sequim City Council, and start talking about housing and sidewalks and how our recycling is really getting recycled,” she added.
Those kind of results could point to a blueprint for pushing back against extremists at the local level, Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights told CityLabs’ Laura Bliss. He noted that the candidates’ success began with repeatedly calling attention to their opponents’ affiliations with QAnon, as well as their excessive devotion to non-local issues, and was sealed by their strategic and energetic combined organizing and door-knocking during the campaign.
“That combination is going to be a key for defeating far-right efforts to take over local government around the country,” he said.
“It does have a national ramification,” Bruce Cowan, a politically active Port Townsend retiree, told Bliss. “Folks who don’t believe in government—populists, people who don’t have faith in the institutions of governance—shouldn’t be in charge of the government. One of the things that happened in Sequim is that people were not engaged enough to see how important it was to find candidates for city council. Now they understand the importance.”
As Blue Monday notes, the right’s politics of menace and intimidation directed at local school boards is beginning to run into organized opposition, with encouraging results so far in places like Missouri and New Hampshire, and mixed results in others, like Wisconsin.
The key critical factor in all of them is simple: Recognizing that you have a radical-right problem. Once communities can be persuaded out of being in denial about what they are up against and what they are dealing with—and that the only effective answer is to out-organize them—there is a very good chance of success.
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