Lessons from Virginia

By Dave Horwich, Lead Strategist, 50x2026

We can learn much from Virginia voters’ choice two weeks ago of Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin though there’s even more to fear. Some have cited the Youngkin campaign’s conjuring of the critical race theory specter as a significant part of their strategy to win, and it was for a segment of voters, though the race itself was about education writ large, and that’s precisely where the conversation should be. Specifically, how are we preparing our children to be more engaged citizens in a period of plummeting trust in institutions and skyrocketing polarization?

While enraged parents were decrying their perception of what Virginia’s schools may have been teaching, this was in part tapping into simmering fatigue among a swath of the electorate in the wake of 2020, a year dominated by the George Floyd-related protests and COVID-driven uncertainty. Many of these sentiments do not appear in polling; they stem from latent, emotional veins into which those who wish to discourage civic participation are tapping. They’re stoking the fires of class and racism to further cynicism and distrust in our public institutions.

Stirring up a culture war for electoral gains is not new. In 2004, anti-LGBTQ ballot measures were deployed by the Bush campaign to increase voter turnout. During periods of economic downturn, messaging like “they’re coming for your jobs” has been utilized. In 2016, the Trump campaign targeted migrant caravans heading to the U.S. border. This time, it was faceless educators hell-bent on inculcating suspicion of America’s most profound ideals in our kids.

Rather than working toward unity, some forces are so intent on preserving power they will do anything to destroy the fabric that binds us together. Organizations including the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Renewing America launched a critical race theory (CRT)-centered culture war. From their rhetoric and threats, they would have you believe that it is an existential threat to American values. In reality, CRT is taught in a small number of law schools and is not a focal part of any K-12 curriculum in Virginia or elsewhere in America.

But, as currently constructed, the CRT debate is a distraction, and further engagement in it takes us away from addressing the real crises. Our education system’s limits have been tested over the last 18 months, as have young people and their parents and educators.

The anti-CRT movement’s primary goal is fostering and mobilizing angry white voters, and Virginia served as a test run. We can and should expect more in 2022. But, the real menace to our democracy’s future is occurring in state legislatures around the country. We’ve rightly paid significant attention to restrictive voting laws passed by legislatures in Georgia and Texas. However, we aren’t as focused on the fact that these same forces have also targeted comprehensive civics education, which aims to teach young Americans about our nation’s institutions and democratic practices, thereby helping them develop essential skills like collaboration and critical thinking. In recent days, it has come to light that the same forces are also targeting curriculum that aims to help young people develop self-awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision-making. In short, we’re talking about how best we prepare young people to be engaged, 21st-century citizens.

By defeating comprehensive civics education, they’re further sifting out people from the public square by not aiding in building trust in institutions and our democratic systems. By not assisting young people in developing critical thinking skills, they’re creating the conditions for an electorate receptive to their divisive messaging, such as the rhetoric we saw in Virginia.

But that’s not all they’re doing. Tennessee recently enacted legislation punishing teachers and school districts with multi-million dollar fines each time they “knowingly violate” restrictions about discussing systemic racism, sexism, or privilege. Tennessee’s Moms for Liberty filed a complaint objecting to a teacher telling students about Ruby Bridges desegregating her elementary school.

Our educators are charged with shaping young people’s minds. At best, they’re underpaid, under-resourced, and under-appreciated. Amid COVID, they’ve constantly adapted to changing conditions, students coping with heightened mental health challenges, increased parental engagement on many fronts, and for many, juggling parental responsibilities themselves. And, despite scholarly consensus on the benefits of teaching controversial issues in social studies, policymakers are censoring them for political purposes — not because the teachers are acting politically, but because the politicians believe they can use the teachers as electoral pawns, as they are with parents and students.

These actions’ cost to America’s democratic experiment is high. We weaken our nation and democracy when we permit others to divide us. So, what do we need to do to strengthen our country and combat the efforts of these anti-American forces? We must rebuild the public square by equipping all our students to be engaged citizens dedicated to building a more robust and secure tomorrow. To accomplish this, we must:

  • Pass comprehensive civics education throughout the U.S. to reverse the recent toll the last few years have taken on our nation’s crumbling foundation.
  • Combat efforts to divide us, whether that means defending civics education or refusing a bad faith debate on CRT.
  • Celebrate America’s diversity and welcome more people into the public square so we share a vested interest in strengthening our nation for generations to come.

For America’s founders, the greatest act of patriotism was rejecting the status quo. In the 245 years since our nation declared its independence, countless more gave their lives, protecting it and fighting for its ideals. Many gave their lives in service to building a more robust democracy. Our children deserve access to those lessons that transcend party affiliation and develop the informed skills to continue strengthening our democracy for generations to come.

Dave Horwich is a political strategist and advises the 50x2026 campaign to elevate civics education requirements across the United States. He has overseen winning bipartisan campaigns on several issues, including marriage equality, climate change, mental health access, and criminal justice reform.

50x2026 is a national initiative to elevate civics education policy, in every state, by 2026 — the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.