Plenty of people point out that Attorney General Merrick Garland's decision to deploy federal law enforcement against families protesting public school policies is an abuse of power that threatens civil liberties. Worth adding to the objections, though, is the important point that treating parents who object to school board decisions about masking and curricula as terrorists can only further turn them against the powers-that-be. Garland and other officials are setting up a cycle of reaction and repression that can only destroy the institutions they claim to protect.
"Citing an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation's public schools, today Attorney General Merrick B. Garland directed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys' Offices to meet in the next 30 days with federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend," the U.S. Department of Justice announced on October 4.
The federal move came in response to a hysterical letter from the National School Boards Association demanding officialdom respond to the protests with the full force of "the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the PATRIOT Act in regards to domestic terrorism, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights statute, the Conspiracy Against Rights statute," and other legal powers disproportionate to the "threat" posed by parents offended by what and how their children are taught.
For those who avoided headlines in recent months (and who can blame you?) school board meetings around the country have featured vigorous protests over COVID policies—mask mandates for students, in particular—and racially charged lessons incorporating elements from controversial Critical Race Theory/anti-racism sources. The disagreements are more confrontational than in the past, but you could say that about pretty much any difference of opinion in this era of national fracture. Some protests have turned violent, but such unfortunate incidents are already addressed by state laws. Mostly, though, the protests feature strong views, loud voices, and discomfort for public officials, which is just part of the job when you're in a position to impose your decisions on those who disagree.
Much of the of the pushback to Garland's deployment of the FBI against pissed-off moms and dads rightly emphasizes the threat his order poses to legitimate expressions of free speech.
"You may disagree with parents like me who do not want our children indoctrinated with Critical Race Theory, masked during recess, or told that their biological sex is not real," writes Maud Maron, a New York City mother, lawyer, and city council candidate who, in the past, served as a school board member on the receiving end of criticism. "But in a free society, we don't call the feds to police our fellow Americans because we don't share their politics."
It's true that government repression of dissent threatens the status of a "free society." It also is bound to further erode trust in that government and people's willingness to work with officials.
"Trust in government has been identified as one of the most important foundations upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems are built," noted a 2013 OECD paper that addressed the implications of collapsing trust in government in the wake of the Great Recession. "Trust is essential for social cohesion and well-being as it affects governments' ability to govern and enables them to act without having to resort to coercion." (Emphasis in the original.)
The authors fretted that declining trust would "lead to lower rates of compliance."
Similarly, an article last December in Norway's BI Business Review on pandemic policy pointed out that "positive role models and experts—not coercion—are the most important factors in influencing behavior. Coercion may terminate trust that is needed to facilitate anti Covid-19 strategies."
"Use of coercion, threats, punishment and restrictions as an influence strategy may have the opposite effect of what is intended," the authors added. "Our studies suggest that the use of 'coercive power' often leads to 'counteracting power' that creates conflict and eliminates trust and consensus—thereby reducing the shared responsibility and duty that we need now."
"One of the phenomena that interests me about institutional irrationality is the way that as an institution suffers a loss of trust it turns to coercion, which only increases distrust," economist Arnold Kling observes with specific reference to school board protests. "I refer to this as shifting from a prestige hierarchy to a dominance hierarchy. Public schools appear to be going through this process."
It's not like governing institutions have a big reservoir of good will to burn, right now. "Americans' trust in many aspects of government in the U.S. is low," Gallup reported just two weeks ago. "Only about one-quarter of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right 'just about always' (2%) or 'most of the time' (22%)," according to a May Pew Research report.
State and local governments, which shoulder most of the responsibility for public schools, tend to fare better than their federal counterparts. But "as much as 67% of trust in government can be explained by customer experience," according to researchers. That "customer experience" is going to be pretty negative if it involves investigations by already-despised federal goons of parents who criticize thin-skinned local officials.
Maybe that's for the best. It's long past time for more Americans to learn that the government-run institutions for which their taxes pay are often awful and even malevolent. A wake-up call that pushes them to abandon those institutions could well be a good thing, and the schools that teach our children are a better place to start than most. Families would be well-served to leave school boards to preside over hollow shells while children are educated via alternatives chosen by their families.
But, if the road to realistic assessments of government flaws and failures is lined with FBI agents and invocations of the Patriot Act, people will suffer unnecessarily. It would be easier on everybody involved if Merrick Garland and the federal government just left parents and local functionaries alone to hash out their differences, even if that makes some folks uncomfortable. A little official restraint might even slow the erosion of trust in public institutions.