Far right movements are insurgent in the United States and other parts of the “West,” upending North Atlantic fictions of democratic liberalism that promise the eventual inclusion of racially, colonially, and sexually oppressed groups (Trouillot 2003; Povinelli 2011; see also HoSang and Lowndes 2019). Long framed as marginal by national media and political elites, far right movements are accused of instigating “culture wars” over liberal inclusion but are ultimately consigned to the realm of cultural values rather than political power. In this short piece, however, I consider how far right agitators use so-called “culture war” issues to build an insurgent politics, particularly around the institutions of the family and the public school. While popular renderings of the far right often frame “culture wars” as flashpoints of ideological contestation, I argue that far right political mobilization relies on culture wars to create a collective feeling of crisis around the social reproduction of the white heteronormative settler family.
I use the concept reactionary reforms to name their practices of cleaving together a liberal mode of civics – reform – with an illiberal retrenchment of the promises of political recognition. To flesh out reactionary reforms, I also sketch out the creation of incivil intimacies within the public sphere and the work of far-right crisis actors in public forums and popular assemblies. Showing how the far right mobilizes reactionary affects, I consider how purported “culture wars” are in fact struggles over the material conditions of social reproduction in late liberalism.
My reflections are grounded in ethnographic collaborations I pursued with public education advocates in the city of Phoenix – Arizona’s state capital, most populous metropolitan area, and a conservative electoral stronghold. Beginning in 2018, education advocate groups identifying as “progressive” encountered parents and activists whose counter-organizing had roots in the 2016 conservative electoral coalition built through attacks on refugees and migrants, Black communities, and Indigenous nations. After the election, many far right organizers in the Phoenix area turned their attention to local and regional issues, especially focusing on progressive organizing for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in public schools. Since then, I have considered how reactionary reforms generate modes of civic engagement, popular assembly, and insurgent illiberalism and that can be thought of alongside other accounts of the late liberal politics of recognition and settler whiteness.1
At a suburban school board meeting in 2018, my friend André asked me if I could read a statement in support of his sister-in-law, a school board member in a neighboring district.2 Many families had children attending both districts, and his sister-in-law had come under scrutiny for her support of racial equity programming. People can only give one public comment per meeting, and so if I read the prepared statement, then André, the father of two Black queer children attending local schools, could give a personal comment about his children’s’ experiences with racism and cisheteronormativity at school.
I quickly agreed and submitted a comment card before the meeting began. In Arizona, school governing board meetings require time for public comment, creating ritualized public forums in which citizens can hail the state. Often, they require people to show up ahead of time to fill out “request to comment” cards, including names, city of residence, and topic of comment. During public comment, a board member pulls cards and calls speakers to the podium one by one.
My name was called early out of ten speakers. Getting to the podium, I couldn’t help but notice a small group of people in the front row with matching shirts, and a man wearing a hat with the slogan “Make Education Great Again,” a riff on “Make America Great Again.” Pushing them out of my mind, I introduced myself and described the work I was doing alongside advocates before reading the letter. The professionally worded missive encouraged the district to continue and expand its work on racial equity while acknowledging the “uncomfortable truth” that “systems oppress, and school districts are systems.” Finished, I returned to my seat. We then noticed that the parents in the front row were snickering and whispering to each other.
A few days later, another parent showed me the YouTube page of the man in the “Make Education Great Again” hat, where he posted versions of the district’s public video streams of school board meetings, editing them into clips and captioning them with his own descriptions like “Low-IQ Man Child” or “Insane SJW Feminist.” For mine, he wrote “Valley board member sent a little man to read her statement supporting equity and inclusion.”
Scrolling through posted videos covering the last two years of school board meetings, I noticed that the descriptions used capitalized words to highlight specific behaviors they found egregious or vindicating.
Parents HECKLED by SJW mob
Mom MOCKED by leftist mob
Superintendent OBSTRUCTS parent access to equity material
Equity is BRAINWASHING students
Parent TRIGGERS superintendent
Parent EXPOSES anti-American press
My and André’s statements were calls for progressive education statecraft, delivered by an “expert” and a parent. We doubled down on the intimacy of the public school community – in the sense of a shared commitment to care for children, specifically queer Black children – to anchor our bids at political recognition in support of efforts at inclusion and equity.
Reactionary parents, however, upended the intimacy of the public altogether. Beyond snickering and social media, this manifested in vocal outbursts, staged disruptions of board meetings, veiled threats of violence, the creation of a “dossier” of students and parents participating in racial equity programs, and the harassment of school board members both online and in person. They found space to congregate and circulate information on social media platforms, particularly Facebook communities, where dozens of active posters reached thousands of members daily.
To counter progressive advocacy’s reliance on the intimate community for political recognition, they developed a parallel public. By presenting progressives as abusive, the school as a conspiratorial institution, and themselves as victims, reactionary parents cultivated a new mode of civic engagement that was based not on fellow-feeling, but enmity; and a new identification not as part of the broader community, but as an insurgent antagonistic one within it.
A few months earlier, on a scorching June morning, the Arizona Board of Education met to consider changes to state guidelines on sex education. Under threat of federal lawsuit, Arizona needed to remove state laws banning sex education promoting “a homosexual lifestyle.” The State Superintendent, a progressive who won office thanks to the 2018 teacher strikes, proposed new guidelines that would allow school districts to develop sex education curricula with positive framings of queer and trans youth that parents could opt into, but would not be mandatory. The proposition of voluntary, locally controlled inclusive sex education led to calls from far-right organizers to assemble at the State Department of Education during the next board meeting.
Signing in around 10am, we all shuffled through metal detectors into the overflowing board room. I spotted three state legislators and a former state Superintendent there to oppose the rule change and a few “Make Education Great Again” hats. Snippets of conversation suggested everyone was anxious for the meeting to start. Excess visitors, including me, moved to a nearby break room or conference rooms on the floor above where the meeting was being livestreamed.
The Board President called the meeting to order with the Pledge of Allegiance, during which voices rose in excitement to a crescendo of “and justice for all!” A few voices added the belated addendums “American citizens!” and “America first!” More than 70 people who filled out comment cards were allotted 2 minutes each.
About halfway through, a petite, angular white woman in jeans and MEGA hat came to the podium and launched fluidly into her comment.
My name is Barb, aka the California Refugee. [Pause] That’s not just a funny title. I really did have to flee from my home state, of which I was a native for 44 years. We gave up everything to escape. I sold my home my deceased father built for me, closed our family business of 29 years and left our friends and family to move to a place we’ve never seen before.
The number one reason that we left is the education system. I come here to warn you and the good citizens of Arizona. This explicit sexual curriculum that is currently being pushed is literally the beginning of the end. I watched it unfold in front of my very eyes. California public schools were already failing severely academically and topping that off with the over-sexualization of our kids paved the way for such a rapid decline on all fronts. I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would open the door for socialism, racism, suicide, and violence, which turned our schools into warzones. People not only pulled their kids out of school but are pulling their kids out in mass exodus.
You have an opportunity to stop this before it starts. Please. I haven’t even unpacked all the moving boxes yet, and this is already showing up on our doorstep yet again. I’m already a California refugee. I have zero interest in becoming an Arizona refugee.
Later during my fieldwork, Barb became a familiar sight in Arizona education politics. She would give versions of this speech at school board meetings and post it across social media. Her sentiments would resonate with the rallying cry “Don’t California my Arizona” that was sold as merchandise during election campaigns in 2018 and 2020.
Barb’s fixity within reactionary reforms is a testament to the affects and effects of far-right crisis acting. On the far right, the term “Crisis actor” is frequently used to accuse progressives of staging crises for political gain: Alex Jones infamously accused the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary of being crisis actors. However, when reactionaries show up at board meetings, they act out a crisis of their own, narrativizing reactionary sentiments for broader circulation.
In Barb’s telling, an American apocalypse comes into view where California is the site of the sexual decomposition of the white heteronormative settler family, bringing it into proximity with “socialism, racism, suicide, and violence.” Dozens of similar statements, including from elected representatives, called on the school board to protect “parents’ rights” and accused schools of “mental molestation.” It worked. The state Board of Education voted nearly unanimously against the progressive sex education curriculum, while the lone holdout, the State Superintendent, apologized for putting forward the motion. Barb’s performance of crisis in a place of public assembly becomes a demand for state recognition, using liberal avenues of civic engagement to draw the state into legitimizing reactionary populist sovereignty.
Barb stands out to me because she says the quiet parts out loud. Here, the story of the white “native turned refugee” is a racial script of the decay and displacement of the white heteronormative family, and the reactionary populism needed to save it. By narrativizing the plight of the white “refugee,” crisis actors assert that white families have been internally displaced within the settler nation, forcing them “to a place [they’ve] never seen before.” Acting out this crisis over and over again, Barb forges a sense of collective crisis among far right organizers, feeding into the creation of a statewide movement for reactionary reforms.
Such narratives of white decay and decomposition, of course, belie how the ground is prepared for whiteness in advance. Barb’s identification of Arizona as a place of white settlement is made possible by the infrastructures of occupation, policing, finance, labor, extraction, and logistics that facilitate the settlement of white citizens. Such an arrangement is a feature of Sunbelt suburbs stretching from San Diego to Tampa. Despite “refugee” status, then, the Sunbelt remains a place of possibility where Barb and others can both feel “native” again but retain the latent identity of “refugee” for moments of crisis.
Eric, the parent who had edited YouTube clips of past board meetings, ran for school board on promises to oppose the “socialist” policies of racial equity and comprehensive sex education. Online and offline he reveled in incivil interactions, gloating over chasing someone off the road for sporting a decal supporting progressive teachers and creating a parody social media page of a local school board member that posted fatphobic and antiblack meme content.
A month before the election, there was a mall shooting in Phoenix that prompted a real-time social media search for the attacker. Eric identified him as “a leftist,” “LGBTQ student,” and proof of progressive violence against the suburban social fabric. He was wrong, and his mistake quickly became the center of its own news cycle. He suspended his campaign and reactionary parents and activists retreated from local school boards. It seemed that reactionary reforms had reached their limit.
But less than a year later, reactionary parents and their allies returned with leverage over established political leaders during the 2020 election and struggles over school closures in 2021. In the midst of COVID-19, their unmasked demonstrations at the capital and schools asserted that economic closures infringed on their rights to work and consume. They even won positions within the state’s conservative party apparatus and legislature.
The suspension and resurgence of reactionary reforms in moments of crisis reflect different political temporalities of crisis between progressives and the far right. Progressive education advocates identify a present state of inequality and move through efforts of improvement toward political inclusion. Reactionary reforms, however, locate citizens in a state of bondage that requires revolt and offers the redemption of the white cisheteronormative settler family and nation. As progressives pursue improvement through the procedural functions of the state in the hopes of expanding its protections, reactionary revolts invert histories of white settler violence to claim political recognition as both victimized and normative citizens, preempting liberal sovereignty.
Mislabeled as “culture wars,” far right mobilizations have moved far beyond the purported symbolic garb of culture, and into the material conditions of political recognition and social reproduction. And since 2018, reactionary reforms have increasingly gained footholds at all scales of governance.
In 2023, over 500 bills have been introduced in state legislatures that restrict gender-affirming care or athletic participation for trans youth. Conservative media campaigns have resignified initiatives for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as “critical race theory” in an effort to ban it across public sector workplaces. “Grassroots” groups have found patronage from established networks of moneyed conservatives to run for local school boards, and demagogues across digital, televised, and radio platforms have called for a conservative long march through United States public schools and universities to recapture them for “traditional” American values.
In the United States, where reactionary reforms target public schooling, critical disciplines, teacher unions, and tenure protections, they impinge on broad formations of political life and the conditions of knowledge production, precipitating a crisis for anthropology as well. This crisis takes two forms: a new threat of censorship in addition to the neoliberal de-skilling and austerity of university governance, but also upsetting the discipline’s epistemological division of the world and its peoples into a liberal democratic North Atlantic and an illiberal, irrational, affectable elsewhere (Berg and Ramos-Zayas 2015, Trouillot 2003; see also Mazzarella 2019). As such, anthropology is not outside the crisis, but a constitutive part of the institutions targeted by reactionary reforms. Such a conclusion invites a critique of liberal presumptions and senses of progress within North Americanist anthropology, and a search for more capacious practices of ethnographic critique within and outside the university.
Matthew Chrisler is an ethnographer of racial and colonial formations in what is currently the Southwest United States. His research follows the publics formed around K-12 education and the modes of affective citizenship engendered by public policy advocacy in the wake of social movements against austerity and mass incarceration.
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