Democrats Can Win on Trans Issues—but Only if They Fight

Democrats Can Win on Trans Issues—but Only if They Fight

Democrats Can Win on Trans Issues—but Only if They Fight

Though culture war bigotry loses at the ballot box, centrist Democrats have been too quick to surrender.

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In his campaign to become a Supreme Court Justice in Wisconsin, Daniel Kelly relied heavily on transphobia, accusing his rival, Janet Protasiewicz, of being a hostage to “trans ideology.” Such attacks have become the norm among Republican candidates, especially since 2022, when targeting care for trans kids and the participation of trans people in sports became staple culture-war issues. One text message Kelly’s campaign sent to voters on election day read:

Politicians are ignoring parents and jeopardizing the safety of our children. Woke activists backing Janet Protasiewicz are destroying parents rights and forcing trans ideology into our schools. She will do nothing to stop the sexualization of our children. Today, vote for Judge Daniel Kelly to end the trans madness in our schools and protect parents rights!

But Kelly’s lurid words, while typical of contemporary GOP rhetoric in suggesting that his opponents favor child abuse, did not persuade voters. Protasiewicz won in a landslide, with 55.5 percent of the vote against 44.5 percent for Kelly (a difference of more than 200,000 votes). Protasiewicz’s performance was significantly better than Joe Biden’s in the 2020 presidential election—where he won the swing state by 49.45 percent as against 48.82 percent for Donald Trump (a difference of fewer than 21,000 votes).

Protasiewicz’s victory, in a hotly contested and crucial election in a state that is usually evenly divided between the two parties, is the latest proof of a little-understood political fact: Transphobia is an election loser for Republicans. Despite this fact, the GOP is likely to remain committed to transphobia for ideological reasons. More remarkably, leading centrist Democrats, including some in the White House, don’t realize that trans rights are a winning issue. These centrists are still too willing to compromise on trans rights. The squeamishness of the national party stands in contrast to the stance of grassroots Democrats in purple and red states such as North Carolina, Kentucky, and Nebraska. In all of these states, local Democrats have held the line against transphobia—sometimes with remarkable political success.

The best account of the political impact of transphobia can be found in a lengthy and persuasive Substack post written by a blogger writing under the name “Ettingermentum.” Despite being anonymous, Ettingermentum has gained an underground reputation among political watchers because of his extremely astute commentary on the 2022 election, including his prescient skepticism of the purported GOP red wave. His recurrent argument is that social issues such as abortion and trans rights—far from being vote winners—are an anchor weighing down Republicans.

In his post on “the modern electoral history of transphobia,” Ettingermentum shows that the trans issue became politically salient circa 2015 when social reactionaries started looking for a substitute issue to replace marriage equality, which had been rendered less potent by not just the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision but also rapid changes in public opinion. Initially, the Republican right tried to make hay out of the issue of bathroom access, with the passage of anti-trans laws in North Carolina in 2016 and the attempted passage of a bathroom law in Kentucky in 2015. North Carolina is a swing state with a Republican lean and Kentucky a very Republican state. Yet in both states Democratic candidates that rejected transphobia won the governorship (Roy Cooper in North Carolina in 2017, Andy Beshear in Kentucky in 2019). They did so in elections where the GOP ran demagogic campaigns giving priority to the trans issue.

More recently, Republicans have focused their fire on issues involving care for trans minors and restrictions on trans athletes so they can only compete in sports categories of their birth gender. In Nebraska currently, Democratic state Senator Megan Hunt is conducting a brave and principled ongoing filibuster to stop the passage of anti-trans legislation targeting gender care for minors.

Ettingermentum provides a list of 10 Republican candidates who ran intensely transphobic campaigns with a heavy emphasis on the issue of gender care for minors. All underperformed the predicted results for Republicans in similar elections. For example, when Tudor Dixon challenged Gretchen Whitmer in the Michigan gubernatorial race, she claimed that “Gretchen Whitmer has embraced the trans-supremacist ideology, which dictates that individuals who are born as men can be allowed to compete against our daughters.” As Ettingermentum notes, Dixon was “defeated in the general election by 10.5% in a R+2 state in a R+1.6 year (Raw underperformance: 14.1 points).”

The same pattern of rabid transphobia and electoral underperformance in 2022 can be seen in Tim Michaels’s race for governor in Wisconsin, Doug Mastriano’s race for governor in Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz’s race for senator in Pennsylvania, Adam Laxalt’s race for senator in Nevada, Kari Lake’s race for governor in Arizona, Blake Masters’s race for senator in Arizona, Scott Jensen’s race for governor in Minnesota, Don Bolduc’s race for senator in New Hampshire, and Herschel Walker’s race for senator in Georgia.

As Ettingermentum notes, “Every single one of these contests were races which Republicans, all else being equal, should have won, or at least come close. Transphobia was, and is, the dog that couldn’t hunt.”

It’s likely that transphobia is an electoral loser for the same reason anti-abortion politics and opposition to marriage equality drag down the GOP. All these are social issues that touch the question of personal control over the body and personal destiny. Many Americans, even those who are otherwise conservative on economic issues and foreign policy, have a fundamentally libertarian streak on matters of private life. They want the government to leave people alone. There is something upsettingly intrusive and oppressive about the state’s insisting on what someone’s gender should be. Many people have the healthy instinctive feeling that such issues should be left to individuals to work out with the help of those closest to them: their families and doctors. Conversely, the incendiary reactionary framing of these issues in terms of child abuse convinces few outside the religious right.

Republicans aren’t likely to give up transphobia easily, just as many remain adamantly opposed to reproductive freedom and marriage equality. This opposition makes up a core part of right-wing ideology, which is committed to rigid ideas of sexual and gender identity.

The good news is that the reactionary right is a minority. The bad news is that the reactionary right has a key ally in the form of centrist liberals—particularly those of the older generation who don’t realize how public opinion has shifted on this. In 2019, Michael Bloomberg, gearing up for his unsuccessful bid to buy the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, told a forum of businessmen that “if you go to the middle of the country, people would say, if your conversation during a presidential election is about some guy wearing a dress and whether he, she or it can go to the locker room with their daughter, that’s not a winning formula for most people.” In a 2022 interview before the midterms, Hillary Clinton, another unsuccessful candidate, responded to a question about trans rights by saying, “We are standing on the precipice of losing our democracy, and everything that everybody else cares about then goes out the window.”

While Joe Biden has a better record on supporting trans rights than Bloomberg or Clinton, there are worrying signs that his White House might also be susceptible to the false idea that transphobia needs to be appeased. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported: “The Biden administration on Thursday proposed new regulations that would allow schools to bar transgender athletes from participating in competitive high school and college sports, but disallow blanket bans on the athletes that have been approved across the country.” This regulation seems like a Clintonian attempt to triangulate between the Democratic base (which supports trans rights) and transphobic Republicans. It has the earmarks of White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, a centrist who loves this sort of pointless and counterproductive compromise.

This whole strategy rests on the premise that transphobia is popular enough to be placated. But there’s little reason to think so. Further, attempted triangulation will only demoralize the majority of voters who support Democrats—on not just trans rights but also marriage equality and abortion rights. It risks creating the justified impression that Democrats are willing to back down from a fight about fundamental rights. Such compromises are both morally dubious and politically foolish.

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