Paul Waldman and Greg Sergeant of the Washington Post described the social pressure within the community that cause dthe book censors in the county to back off.

It isn’t every day that the ruminations of local bureaucrats in a small rural Texas county become national news. But when commissioners in Llano County — population 21,000 — voted Thursday to keep its three-branch library system open, the moment was closely monitored by the biggest news organizations in the country.

That’s because Llano County has become a national symbol of local right-wing censorship efforts after officials threatened to close its libraries entirely rather than allow offending materials to remain on shelves. Under intense scrutiny, the commission blinked. Its leader acknowledged feeling pressure from “social media” and “news media.”

The commissioners’ apparent reluctance for Llano to be seen as a locus of censorship points to an unexpected development: Skirmishes emanating from book bans at schools and libraries in red states and counties, once localized affairs, are becoming viral national sensations. And the American mainstream appears to be paying attention.

Like many other similar conflicts, this one was triggered by a single Llano resident, Bonnie Wallace, who objected in 2021 to library books she pronounced “pornographic filth.” A bunch were removed, including unobjectionable materials such as Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” and Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

The county also dissolved its libraries’ advisory board and reconstituted it with advocates of book removal, including Wallace herself. After other residents sued for the books’ return, a judge ordered the books placed back on the shelf, prompting the county to consider shutting the libraries pending the suit’s resolution.

At Thursday’s hearing, several of Llano’s self-designated commissars of book purging read explicit sex scenes from young adult books, but they went further, advocating for closure. One said: “I am for closing the library until we get this filth off the shelves.”

When the national media paid attention, other residents of Llano County realized that extremists were taking the lead and giving their community a bad name. Shame is a strong motivator.

But one of the big surprises of these sagas has been outbreaks of resistance to book purges in the reddest places, and here again, some locals dissented. One said: “We have to be a community that values knowledge.” Another fretted: “We are all over the media, and this is making us look pretty bad as a community.”

It turns out that even in an overwhelmingly conservative place (Donald Trump won nearly 80 percent of Llano’s votes in 2020), plenty of people value free expression. Many Republicans aren’t on board with the right’s censorship agenda. And these folks can organize.

To be fair to Llano County’s conservatives, many insist they don’t want to burn or censor books. As they told one of us (Paul Waldman) in interviews in Llano last fall, they only wanted material to be age-appropriate.

But that doesn’t explain opposition to books about racism. And even if some conservative voters are more measured, these efforts are open to abuse. In places such as Florida, they have allowed lone conservative activists to remove dozens of books from schools based on flimsy or absurd objections.

The book-banning impulse is taking on a crazed life of its own. At a Llano County tea party meeting in November, Waldman witnessed Wallace passionately pleading that “I need more conservative friends” to help get “pornography out of the library,” adding: “We must, must, must keep fighting.” It was obvious that, for people like Wallace, the prospect of controlling which books their community can access has been a thrill.

Such right-wing activists thought they had good reason for confidence. After Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia governor in 2021 on a dishonestly termed “parental rights” platform, some censorship-minded activists imagined they had a national mandate. But arguably only the GOP base was paying attention to that issue at the time (swing voters were focused on school closures).

Now, the national media — and perhaps the mainstream of the country — are watching these local abuses unfold. “Every day it seems there’s a new book banned, an art exhibit canceled, or a drag performance under threat,” Jonathan Friedman of PEN America told us. “People are waking up to the fact that state and local governments are running rampant.”

National opinion isn’t cooperating with the censors. In the 2022 elections, many prominent culture-warring GOP candidates lost. (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is an exception.) Polls show large percentages of parents are concerned about schools banning books and that Americans overwhelmingly reject bans based on teachings about history and race.

Therein lies a trap for the GOP. The activist base is demanding increasingly reactionary censorship measures, and officials such as DeSantis are obliging for 2024 primary purposes. Yet as these local far-right lurches attract attention, they taint the national GOP as extreme.

Democrats should take heed. Some still appear skittish about culture-war issues, as evidenced when Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told TPM’s Hunter Walker that “we want to stay above” censorship controversies, as if ignoring them would make them go away or is good politics.

But when the national spotlight falls on censorship, the right is exposed, the left is energized and moderates balk at seeing their communities controlled by a small band of extremists.

Democrats must speak to those resisting these outbreaks of hysteria in deep-red places such as Llano. In some of them, fundamental liberal values still endure. The way to respond to this wave of censorship isn’t to hope it burns out, but to flush it into the light and confront it head on.

Overall, the story in Llano County is encouraging. It shows that civic leaders don’t want their community to be known for book banning.

But what’s really discouraging is the loud silence from the U.S. Department of Education. Why is Secretary Cardona silent? Why does he want to stay out of censorship controversies? Why isn’t he defending teachers and librarians? Why isn’t he standing up for the right to read?

This is a perilous time. American schools, teachers, and librarians need a champion not milquetoast. Teachers and librarians know that their jobs are at risk if they stand up to the vigilantes. What does Secretary Cardona have to lose? He should be speaking out against vouchers. He should be speaking out against censorship. He should be defending the accurate teaching of American history. He cannot float above the issues without appearing weak.

Democrats must speak out against censorship and privatization. That is a winning strategy.