You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Progressives Fended Off Right-Wing Culture Warriors in a Wisconsin School Board Race

Conservatives predicted a red wave in local elections in the Badger State earlier this month. The results were more mixed, proving the dog whistles don’t always work.

A man waves the Wisconsin state flag on the steps of the state capitol in Madison.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A man waves the Wisconsin state flag on the steps of the state capitol in Madison.

There exists on the broad left the reflexive and terrified assumption that, in politics, right-wing dog whistles work every time. We see an election outcome like Glenn Youngkin’s upset win over Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race, and the media follows with an explosion of hot takes about how the new hot-button issue X—in this case, overwoke education—will surely continue to be the Democrats’ undoing and that electoral disaster is certain.

Tim Nordin is here to tell you differently.

Earlier this month, Nordin and fellow Eau Claire, Wisconsin, school board incumbents Marquell Johnson and Stephanie Farrar ran as a progressive slate and handily fended off a well-financed challenge from three right-wing candidates. The right-wing slate trotted out all the usual dog whistles and a fair sprinkling of plain old human whistles about critical race theory, LGBTQ students, educational equity, and the rest. Nordin received a death threat against himself and his family (he has a wife and two sons)—but he still held the scheduled school board meeting that night. In the face of all that pressure, the progressives won, Nordin says, by about a collective 10 points.

Results were mixed across the state, and conservatives did win in some key school board districts—most notably in the Milwaukee suburbs, traditionally very Republican although a bit less so in the Trump era. But “mixed” is pretty good from a liberal perspective. As Ruth Conniff reported in The Wisconsin Examiner, there was something of a backlash to the intense politicization of school board races in Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Beloit, where liberals won.

Conservatives “worked very hard to amplify [their message] through the local media here, and then onto state and national right-wing media sources, to try to use education as a wedge in the community,” Nordin told me last week. “And especially attacks on LGBTQ students specifically.”

How did the progressives counter? “We really said this community is for children,” Nordin said. “We know that our teachers believe that parents should be the first line of support for their own students. But we recognize that there are cases when that’s not the case, especially for LGBTQ students who may not have a safe place. I think [voters] really stood up behind the idea that our schools are meant for every single student to have a place where they can be safe and welcome and see themselves in the curriculum.”

Eau Claire is a city, a metro area of around 160,000 people, with a small university of around 10,000 students. So it’s pretty blue. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Eau Claire County by about 11 points. And, of course, the progressives were the incumbents.

Still, Republicans were predicting a big red wave in the run-up to the elections, and that wave didn’t really materialize. Turnout, Nordin told me, was through the roof compared to the most recent local elections—more than 80 percent higher.

What’s the lesson? I think there are two. One is simply that despite the reflexive assumption I described above, not everyone falls for alarmist right-wing demagoguery. A lot of people are decent human beings who think LGBTQ kids should be treated with a little compassion and understanding. Likewise, some number of people and parents clearly think students should learn something about systemic racism in the United States.

/   In honor of Earth Day, TNR’s climate coverage is free to registered users until April 29. Start reading now.

The second lesson involves how progressives talk about these matters. Yes, sometimes, people can sound lecture-y or like they’re reading from some white paper prepared by an educational foundation, using jargon that no normal human being uses or even understands. Attaching these issues to actual human beings is a lot better. Nordin says the progressives reminded voters that LGBTQ students exist in the Eau Claire district and aren’t an abstraction, and some of them don’t live in homes where they’re accepted, which makes the role of school pretty important in their lives.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these are fights Democrats can win consistently. As the Wisconsin results showed, conservatives still won a number of school board races. Democrats should still focus their message this fall on economics, not culture, although that’s not easy either, given inflation, and they should steer well clear of “Defund the Police,” which literally no demographic group in the country supports except a narrow sliver of very young voters (in a poll last fall, Black and Latino Democrats supported increased police funding at higher levels than white Democrats, though pluralities of all three groups backed increased funding over decreased).

These are still fairly rough waters for Democrats. But the country is always changing. The idea that these kinds of hot-button issues mean instant death for Democrats dates to the 1980s and the conservative ascendancy. Then in the early 2000s, when George W. Bush won reelection partly on the strength of the anti-gay-marriage referenda that Karl Rove made sure were on the ballots of several swing states, the current conventional wisdom really took hold.

But it’s a different country now. It’s more racially diverse. Same-sex marriage is off the table as a hot-button issue, and if this Supreme Court ever reverses Obergefell, I think the reaction of middle America will be one of, if not outrage, then at least disappointment and confusion. On transgender rights, middle America may still be getting used to a new reality, but even there the news is somewhat encouraging. A Pew survey from February asked respondents whether greater social acceptance of transgender people is generally good or bad for society, or neither. Only one-third said “bad” or “very bad.” In a 2021 Pew poll, 42 percent said they know someone who is transgender. That was up five points from 2017; it’ll continue to go up, and with it will come acceptance—familiarity tends to drive people away from their fears and prejudices. In 15 years or so, trans rights won’t be a big issue.

Naturally, the right will find something else. Its business model depends on stoking cultural reactionary outrage. By then, it will be the fact that white people will soon be a minority, which indeed might lead to the mother of all culture wars. But in the meantime, let’s note that progress does happen, and that hot-button cultural issues don’t have to mean electoral calamity for liberals and Democrats. True, every place isn’t Eau Claire; but there are plenty of Eau Claires out there.