Published July 25, 2022
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is famous for calling voter ID laws the new Jim Crow. Her heedless charges of racism over virtually any attempt to prevent voter fraud chased the MLB All-Star game from Atlanta and earned her the sobriquet “fount of disinformation” here at National Review. So how about letting Stacey Abrams run your child’s civics class? Sounds absurd, but that’s what’s on tap if Abrams becomes Georgia’s next governor.
What’s worse, if Republicans don’t wake up, a civics law quietly passed at the close of Georgia’s last state legislative session could hand Abrams de facto control of civics education in much of the state — even if Governor Brian Kemp is reelected. Sadly, GOP officeholders remain largely clueless about the left’s co-opting of “civics,” and about Democratic plans to use the new leftist civics as a tool to achieve dominance. Let’s have a look, then, at politicized civics, Georgia-style — before it’s too late.
Abrams’s lobbying and voter turn-out group, Fair Fight Action, is credited with helping to juice Democratic turnout in Georgia and 19 other states in 2020, flipping many Republican-held offices to Democrats. One of Fair Fight Action’s projects is “Civics for the Culture,” a continuing series of five-minute videos designed to mobilize voters — especially minority voters — behind candidates and causes favored by Abrams. Civics for the Culture videos blend legislative lobbying with mini-civics and history lessons. So, for example, a lesson about police reform “or even abolishing that sh*t” (as the video puts it), is blended with a civics lesson about the difference between the local level of government and the state and federal levels.
Civics for the Culture videos use street slang to appeal to younger voters. When a rapper says he’s doing something “for the culture,” he’s claiming to be rapping for the art of hip-hop, not for money or fame. The phrase eventually came to mean doing something for the black community generally, or for hip-hop-influenced street culture, regardless of race. In short, Civics for the Culture is designed to appeal to young hip-hop fans. Don’t think Hamilton the musical, though. Think identity politics à la Stacey Abrams. Civics for the Culture videos don’t draw young people into an updated but still unifying vision of traditional American civics. Instead, they epitomize the new CRT-dominated “civics” orthodoxy — that America is and always has been systemically racist. According to Civics for the Culture, voter-integrity laws are just Jim Crow 2.0. That means white men are “big mad” about minority voter turnout, and that state legislators will supposedly pass any law they can that strips power from people of color.
Civics for the Culture videos occasionally strike a nonpartisan pose. One video explains the differences between the parties (Republicans=conservative; Democrats=liberal) and makes a show of not favoring one party over the other. More often, however, the mask slips. One video calls on Congress “to prevent any of the bullsh*t that Republicans are trying to do in our state legislatures” and celebrates Biden’s election. Another calls the Democrats “our” party.
A typical media puff piece on Civics for the Culture calls it “Gen Z’s Schoolhouse Rock.” A profanity-rich series aimed at young-adult voters isn’t exactly your father’s civics, though. The text of the “sad little scrap of paper” who first sang “I’m just a bill” in 1975 for Schoolhouse Rock read, “School bus must stop at railroad crossing.” Civics for the Culture is light-years away from old-fashioned nonpartisan civics like that. For example, the series pushes for bills said to protect trans people and “non-binaries” (“but instead we doing this [Don’t say gay] sh*t”). Above all, Civics for the Culture presses viewers to contact their senators to demand passage of the federal For the People Act and the federal John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. (NR’s take on these two troubling bills can be found here and here.) This is “civics” as flat-out lobbying. It’s also civics that gets around. Civics for the Culture reportedly reached millions of young people in 2020, getting close to 300 million impressions across multiple social-media platforms that year.
You might object that none of this has anything to do with civics education in public schools. Yet that misses the left’s recent co-opting of civics. The explicit goal of the new “action civics” is to funnel students into political protests and legislative lobbying expeditions for course credit. The slightly less open goal is to use civics classes as a recruitment resource for the Democratic Party and its favorite causes. The process has already begun in Georgia, and Stacey Abrams is on the cutting edge.
This past school year, New Georgia Project (NGP), a group founded by Abrams with the help of George Soros, teamed up with Atlanta Public Schools and Rock the Vote to offer roughly 2,000 Atlanta high-schoolers a course called “Democracy Class Atlanta.” As reported by both Fox News and the Washington Examiner, the lesson plan for that class attacked voter ID laws and directly promoted both the federal For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, just like a Civics for the Culture video.
And as with Abrams’s civics videos, New Georgia Project CEO Nsé Ufot dances around the issue of partisanship. She told Politico in January that while she was “not in the business” of electing Democrats, nor is she shy about treating Republicans as a “criminal enterprise that is intent on attacking our democracy.” When the partnership between New Georgia Project (NGP) and the Atlanta Public Schools was announced, NGP COO Kendra Cotton praised the project for “ensuring that we are training up the state’s next generation of progressive champions.” While Cotton quickly committed to “uplifting the voices of all Georgians,” the partisan thrust of her overall effort is unmistakable.
Former Georgia Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, whose group exposed the troubling “civics” curriculum with a FOIA request, condemned the politicized course in no uncertain terms: “Allowing partisan groups like the New Georgia Project to advocate for liberal policies in the classroom is wrong. Schools fail to serve the best interests of their students when they promote a political agenda and push them into partisan activism rather than academic success.” Exactly. But Atlanta’s Public School system defended the course as a “nonpartisan, two-month, voluntary program to increase civic education, participation, and leadership.”
Don’t buy it. This was obviously partisan activism under cover of “civic education.” As for the voluntary nature of the course, it ended with a free concert sponsored by the parent company of the Atlanta Falcons, in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools. That means the course was “voluntary” in the sense that sixth-graders might “voluntarily” rush to a class that included excursions to amusement parks. The same woke businesses that drove the All-Star game out of Atlanta can drive Abrams’s politicized indoctrination into Atlanta’s schools with schemes like this.
Stacey Abrams has been a close ally of Georgia’s teachers’ unions for years. That also helps explain how her political surrogates managed to shoehorn themselves into Atlanta’s “civics” curriculum. And thanks to her blending of civics and politics, Abrams’s partnership with the teachers’ unions has now gone national.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) got plenty of publicity in the summer of 2021 when their national conference featured Ibram X. Kendi and Deena Simmons, leading practitioners of teacher training based in critical race theory. The fuller list of headline speakers at the 2021 AFT conference is even more revealing, however. In addition to officials from Biden’s pro-CRT Education Department, and leading lights of CRT itself, the conference featured Stacey Abrams and Danielle Allen speaking on the new action civics. (Allen is a leading action civics advocate, a former field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign, and a former Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts.) CRT and action civics are the yin and yang, so to speak, of the woke education Left. That’s why both CRT and action civics were represented by headlining speakers at last year’s big AFT conference. This means that, far from being considered too political to influence schools, Stacey Abrams’s synthesis of civics and lobbying is considered a model to emulate by today’s progressive educators (i.e., most educators nowadays).
Republican officeholders still have no idea that civics — especially action civics — as often as not means Democratic activism and recruitment instead of traditional lessons about federalism and the three branches of government. That’s why SB 220, the Georgia Civics Renewal Act, is so dangerous. Among other things, the bill establishes a Georgia Commission on Civics Education and charges it with recommending changes to the state’s civics programs. Republican commission appointees could easily be lured by Democratic colleagues into approving an action civics requirement, without quite realizing what’s at stake. That would allow Abrams-style lobbying groups to propagandize in Georgia’s schools unchecked.
Should Abrams be elected governor, action civics will surely be enshrined in Georgia’s schools, with or without the support of the new commission. Whether by law, state education standards, bureaucratic subterfuge, or executive order, Abrams will see to that. She’ll also throw open Georgia’s doors to national action civics advocates such as iCivics, and to Danielle Allen’s other leftist allies in Massachusetts. But if Republicans mishandle the commission, action civics will invade Georgia’s schools, whether Kemp defeats Abrams or not.
Here’s what Governor Kemp can do to block the politicization of Georgia’s schools: 1) pledge to keep action civics out of Georgia’s public schools; 2) ensure that appointees to the Georgia Commission on Civics Education are pledged to the same policy; 3) pass legislation that blocks action civics (model provisions here); 4) highlight the choice between a governor who will keep lobbying and political activism out of Georgia’s public schools, and one who will not.
To all appearances, Speaker of the House David Ralston, Attorney General Christopher Carr, and State School Superintendent Richard Woods have yet to announce their appointments to the civics commission. Like the governor, they should make those appointments or sit on the commission themselves where the SB 220 provides that option, with opposition to action civics top of mind.
Action civics has become the hands-on do-it-yourself version of CRT. No one illustrates that equivalence more clearly than Stacey Abrams. Unless and until Republicans wake up to the dangers of action civics, Stacey Abrams has every prospect of politicizing civics instruction in Georgia, and in many states beyond. She needs to be stopped — for the culture — that is, for the very idea of a common American civic culture that transcends “identity” lines.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).