On a Wednesday night last August, the Shippensburg Area School Board held a special meeting. The nine members sat behind a table in the cafeteria of the local middle school, facing several rows of chairs laid out for parents, students, and other attendees. As the meeting began, a crowd of parents packed into the room, swiftly filling each row. Those who could not find seats stood, congregating behind. The room was angry. A podium was placed in front of the table, and one by one, attendees went up to speak. One father, white-hot with rage, pointed directly at the Board members: “I’ll go to war with you people, whoever I gotta fight physically.” He aimed his outstretched finger around the table, clarifying that no member was exempt from his ire. Behind him, some parents—their young children with them—carried signs that read “STOP CHILD ABUSE” and “NO MASKS.”
Over the past two years, this scene has become a familiar one. School boards—a hallmark of local democracy in the United States—have increasingly become the epicenter of the country’s political strife. Spurred by conservative outrage over mask mandates and critical race theory, droves of indignant parents have descended upon their local school boards in righteous, furious protestation. The tumult has dominated national and local news coverage alike, as meetings have devolved into conspiracy-laden castigations, vitriolic arguments, and even threats of physical violence. This anger has enraptured the conservative movement, dominating the airwaves of Fox News and becoming a mainstay talking point for Republican politicians.
This moral panic is the confluence of a web of organized funding, a conservative media echo chamber churning at full force, and genuine public outrage—and therein lies its salience. It is a movement both organic and contrived, with flames of mass anger fanned and fueled by powerful interests. Yet its implications run deeper. The discord that has engulfed school boards across the country is the alarming—and natural—next step in the polarization of American politics. Exacerbated by the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, polarization has spread from the ballot box to social media feeds to now visible incarnations in daily life. National culture wars are being waged in local school board meetings, pitting neighbor against neighbor. And across the country, it is tearing communities apart.
Shippensburg is a town of 5,500 in the hills of south central Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, just about halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Its school district serves 3,200 students in the town and its surrounding areas.
Erica Burg served on Shippensburg’s School Board from 2017 until her term expired at the end of 2021. She traces her involvement in education back to 2011, when Republicans took the governorship and drastically slashed education funding. Incensed by the budget cuts, she partnered with other concerned parents to organize a protest at the State Capitol in Harrisburg. After that, she explained, “I started attending School Board meetings on a regular basis and paying more attention.” In 2017, she won her own seat on the Board
Describing her first years in office, Erica sounded almost wistful. “The first contentious issue was building the stadium, which felt like a never-ending issue.” There were tensions between some of her colleagues—the “good old boys,” as she called them—and the more liberal-leaning members like herself. But for the most part, she emphasized that it was cordial.
On Monday, August 9, 2021, the Shippensburg School Board voted to enact a mask mandate for the coming school year, scheduled to begin the next week. The vote—called in response to the surging Delta Variant—was 8 to 1, nearly unanimous. The reaction was swift and furious. Parents flooded the “Shippensburg Community” Facebook group lambasting School Board members as “shady” and “crooked” and demanding their resignation. Rob Kauffman, the Republican representing the area in the Pennsylvania State House, shared a post linking each Board member’s contact information. Kauffman included the location of the Board’s next meeting, a tacit encouragement for parents to show up and voice their outrage. His post was shared 271 times. The special meeting was held two nights later on August 11—and parents turned out in droves.
Erica recalled the turbulent evening: “It was scary. People showed up so angry. It’s like this room packed with people and no masks.” She remembers being shocked by what she heard. “‘My child, my choice,’ that was a common refrain. Misinformation about masks not working and being child abuse. Some crazy things, like we were paid by the CDC and Dr. Fauci to mask the children.” She found that last charge particularly absurd, as school board members in Pennsylvania receive no compensation whatsoever. “It’s basically a volunteer position,” she explained. Parents hurled invective at the Superintendent and Board Members, while the Board President—who cast the lone dissenting vote against the mask mandate—did little to subdue them. One of her colleagues walked out in protest.
During that and subsequent meetings, Erica noticed the presence of a group called Moms for Liberty. Moms for Liberty is a non-profit organization with chapters in 35 states. Its mission, as stated on its website is “fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” In a Washington Post profile, the organization’s co-founder detailed ambitions to expand to every county in the United States. The group has become infamous for its heavy-handed tactics and rhetoric, rowdily disrupting school board meetings, describing mask policies as “segregation,” and wearing T-shirts exclaiming: “We do not CO-PARENT with the GOVERNMENT.”
A Media Matters investigation into Moms for Liberty exposed myriad connections between the organization and high-profile GOP officials, including associates of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The group hosted big-ticket fundraisers with Megyn Kelly and received funding from Conservatives for Good Government, a prominent Florida right-wing PAC. The group’s “Resources for Parents” webpage includes numerous links to the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, the notorious conservative think tank that has taken up the mantle of combatting Critical Race Theory. The full extent of Moms for Liberty’s donor network remains a mystery—the organization was only incorporated last year. But the information publicly available reveals that the group’s grassroots bona fides are likely less than sound.
Moms for Liberty has chapters across Pennsylvania, including in Franklin and Cumberland Counties, where Shippensburg lies on the border. At one of the School Board’s contentious meetings, Erica recollected members of the organization actively recruiting other attendees.
Erica did not doubt that much of the backlash stemmed from genuine hurt and anger from parents in the area. “When school boards were making decisions about how to reopen schools, in the beginning, I think parents just found each other. I don’t even think it was really political at that time.” As the pandemic raged on—and Covid-19 policies and education became the latest culture wars—she observed a shift. “I think that organizations, and maybe even the Republican Party, found that was an issue that could really move people and juiced it up. And so when you already have Republicans leaning that way, and people who are only listening to Fox News, they’re going to become more passionate about it.”
The extent of the fallout was not confined to a few raucous meetings. Around that time, Erica began to notice yard signs with anti-mask, anti-vaccine, and anti-government slogans emerging around Shippensburg. One man, a regular antagonist at Board meetings, created an alternate Facebook group for the town, which he dubbed “Our Shippensburg Community.” His message was clear—there’s us and there’s them, and we are not the same. Erica explained, “I thought he was just one of the regular people. And, he’s just controlling the narrative of the school district now. It was now deliberate and you could tell there’s a strategy going on.”
The ferocity of anti-mask opposition likely quelled any public support for the mandate. One meeting saw the sole parent who spoke in favor of masking met with belligerent heckles and boos. “People who maybe think differently are afraid to go to these meetings because they’re… like…violent,” Erica remarked, pausing with trepidation to consider her choice of adjective. She remained resolute: “Violence never happened, but it feels like it could at any moment.”
In the face of constant demands for her resignation, Erica admitted there were moments she considered acquiescing. She recounted truly cruel treatment from her neighbors, directed at her and her fellow Board members throughout the pandemic, reaching its zenith in the aftermath of the mask mandate. “After we passed the masking requirement in schools, that was the first time I truly felt for my safety. I did fear for my safety then.” Ultimately, she refused to relent.
Reflecting on her term, Erica speculated that the Board could have avoided the backlash by going mask-optional, but reaffirmed her confidence in their decision: “I’m not just responsible for my child, I’m responsible for every child in the district. And I, personally, was not willing to risk one student or staff or teacher getting sick and dying. That just wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.”
Shippensburg is a small community; even its most controversial and consequential happenings have few reverberations outside its boundaries. But even the most local governing bodies in the smallest of towns have been besieged by national political turmoil. Shippensburg’s mask mandate and the ensuing upheaval reveal the functioning of the entire American conservative movement—a symbiotic relationship where public outrage, dark money, media, and political interests cyclically empower one another—and portends the next stage of US political polarization.
But this story is not meant as a scientific case study on national themes. On the contrary, the saga elucidates the tangible, human impact that the rapid polarization of American politics has wrought upon communities—and the people within them. Increasingly, Americans across the country are waking up to find that they no longer recognize their neighbors—that the people they live among and work with, with whom they used to share a common identity, now frighten them.
This movement’s instigators have transparent political motives, but its participants would not respond so fervently and ferociously were these emotions not genuine. The polarization tearing the polity apart is so irreconcilable because the resentments and fears and furies powering them—though so often predicated upon falsehood and prejudice—are very real. And that authenticity is what makes the Republican Party’s increasingly violent and anti-democratic turn so terrifying.
As the American right-wing proudly marches forward on the path to authoritarianism, the tears in the social fabric grow wider. And each day, amelioration grows less likely.