Are School-Closure Moms the New Soccer Moms?

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.

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