At the very beginning of a midterm election year, as a handful of large school districts clash with teachers’ unions over in-person instruction, the Democrats’ perpetual preoccupation with the mom vote is back in the news. Last election cycle, the demographic was referred to somewhat paternalistically as the “Facebook empathy mom” vote: female suburban voters imagined as disembodied scrolling fingers ravenous for uplifting memes. Before that, it was the 9/11-era “security mom” and before that, the “soccer moms” of the 1990s. The demographic is notable for how often it’s rebranded: Last summer, Axios used the term “Zoom moms” to describe educated women who had an outsize impact at the polls and spent a lot of time video-conferencing, even if only one in four of those polled said they cared about what was going on in the news. But with the backdrop of the omicron surge and the attendant rehash of Covid-era school policies, we’re beginning to see this voting bloc reborn as school-closure moms. I predict something like this moniker will be attached to parents who are furious about how educators have handled the pandemic and believe Democrats are to blame. Two nearly identical first-person essays appeared in national outlets recently to argue this point, suggesting the party had lost this all-important vote.
Both stories were written by mothers who justified their liberal bona fides—“I hated Donald Trump,” Angie Schmitt wrote in The Atlantic, while in Politico, Rebecca Bodenheimer described herself as a “red-diaper baby”—before launching into complaints ostensibly about Democratic lawmakers but which were really more about how mean people could be online. These mothers, according to their essays, had been good liberal foot soldiers following the party line; one went so far as to describe Democrats and liberals as her “tribe.” These mothers had accepted school closures that left them with few childcare options and dragged their kids into depression and stasis, all of which is undoubtedly true. But what was almost as bad as the school closures, the stories implied, was that when these moms spoke out about their preferences for in-person schooling, they were ostracized by people who should have been on their side. “On Twitter, mothers who had been enlisted as unpaid essential workers were mocked, often in highly misogynistic terms,” wrote Schmitt. Bodenheimer invoked rude tweets from an anonymous account with fewer than 300 followers that compared her to Marjorie Taylor Greene. (Since the publication of her article, Schmitt has fallen into the eerily 2016-era trap of mistaking trolls for party politics, tweeting that male socialists on the internet aren’t listening to mothers and are instead telling “ladies” to “fall in line.”)
In the end, both writers pulled their kids from the public school system, disgusted by policies that they said privileged extreme caution over hard science. Such discomfort with conversations around schooling has recently taken on the tenor of an election-year meme, with liberal parents exhausted by the perpetual chaos of closures and reopenings described as crucial votes that will determine the midterms later this year. Republican strategists are scrambling to portray Democratic politicians as beholden to the unreasonable demands of powerful and corrupt unions, even as Democratic politicians on the state and national level fight those same unions aggressively over closures and safety procedures. Never mind that in Chicago, before striking a recent deal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said teachers were holding kids “hostage” and had “abandoned their posts.” And that Joe Biden has been insistent that schools remain open at all costs. If there is a party in the pockets of Big Union, this doesn’t seem to be it.
The Democrats’ loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race this fall is being seen as a bellwether for how education issues will play out in elections. Many commentators (including some here at The New Republic) blamed Terry McAuliffe for failing to connect with burnt-out parents. A recent New York Times story suggesting that education issues significantly contributed to McAuliffe’s defeat has revived the debate; the article cited polling suggesting school disruptions in the state were an important swing issue for voters who went Republican, particularly among the female white suburban demographic that might previously have been described as the soccer mom vote. Notably, though, that polling was performed by Democrats for Education Reform, an anti-union political action committee founded by hedge fund managers with connections to Rupert Murdoch and Charles Koch.
These stories come during a moment in which the school-closure issue has been elevated to the national level, if not evenly dispersed: According to Burbio, a company that tracks pandemic-related school closures, there were just over 4,000 school disruptions nationwide during the week of January 10. But the intense clash between the Chicago Teachers Union and Lightfoot, along with school closures in large districts like Newark and sick-outs in San Francisco and Oakland, can make it seem like every district is in the midst of a roiling crisis. And while the closures that are happening trigger memories of the perpetual mess of earlier disruptions or recall the painful, seemingly endless remote schooling that occurred pre-vaccine, it’s not as if this is really about Democrats forcing schools to close: In Massachusetts, for instance, a state with a Republican governor, reopenings were delayed because of logistical testing issues and a teacher shortage exacerbated by a staggering number of educators who have recently gotten sick.
If all of this feels somewhat exhausting, it’s probably because these lines have been drawn over and over again. Over the summer, a similar spate of stories appeared arguing that Democrats had lost the mom vote over another hot-button education issue, critical race theory. The party was “underestimating parents’ anger in places where critical race theory was top of mind,” Politico argued in a piece that interviewed Biden voters who thought schools shouldn’t be overly divisive on issues of race. More recently, pollsters have argued that, at least in Virginia, the critical race theory conversation bled into school-closure issues, making voters who might have swung Democrat wary of a party that appeared overconcerned with social justice issues but was unable to commit to commonsense measures that would help parents navigate the stresses of their actual lives. And if there is a useful through line here, it’s probably that members of a party allegedly dedicated to broad social spending initiatives have a terrible track record when it comes to following through.
To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with wanting children back in school, and the pandemic has wreaked havoc on families in ways both preventable and unavoidable. But courting the mom vote seems a little more complicated than making sure every teacher shows up to class amid a Covid caseload spike or being nicer to mothers online. It does seem like there are other reasons these voters might be souring on Democratic policies. To her credit, in the Atlantic piece, Schmitt does briefly mention that the lack of paid medical leave compounds the problem of caring for a child should one get sick. In the space of a few months, the party that had promised to support working families failed to pass signature legislation that would have made life in a pandemic slightly more tolerable, and it abandoned the child tax credit; on both the federal and state level, testing systems that might have made teachers more willing to return to the classroom failed to materialize or just broke. Winding up for another endless election cycle, pollsters will keep trying to draw political caricatures from exhausted parents. These arguments will be recycled endlessly for the next 10 months, which in turn will encourage everyone to spend their energy telling one another to get back to normal lest they lose the Democrats an election. But it’s already been awhile since both parties abandoned the most basic infrastructure that normalcy requires.