As I wrote last week, my broad read on American public opinion on “social issues” is that most people are in favor of inclusion, but that most people dislike being told that they ought to change what they, personally, are doing.
So naturally there have been efforts by social conservatives to frame transgender rights issues as being not about inclusion but about imposition on the broader public: That people are trying to make you or your child share a bathroom with someone of a different sex.
But I don’t think this is winning over the public. Polling from the Public Religion Research Institute in March found 53% of respondents oppose laws requiring transgender people to use restrooms that correspond with their sex at birth.
So, while President Donald Trump’s choice to tweet plans of a ban on transgender military service may shore him up with social conservatives upset about his badgering of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I don’t think it puts him on the majority side of a national wedge issue, either.
As long as Democrats message this issue correctly, they do not have to worry about choosing between being right and being popular. The key is to keep the frame about inclusion and service: Allowing capable Americans who wish to serve their country in the military to so do.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has the right framing:
Every patriotic American who is qualified to serve in our military should be able to serve. Full stop.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 26, 2017
Liz Mair, a Republican consultant who favors transgender service, says Democrats should be wary of the ways this issue might work in Trump’s favor, and in particular of overestimating how far along the public is on this issue. She notes that some people of broad goodwill toward transgender people may also be skeptical of their fitness for combat.
I would be more worried about this if Trump had rolled out his ban in the politically smart way: by having the Pentagon announce it and then saying he was supporting the decision of his generals. That would have put Trump in a strong position, politically, to say his choice was in the service of military readiness.
Trump’s obvious blindsiding of the Pentagon – which was in the process of a long, bureaucratic review on the issue of transgender recruiting – undermines his claim that this choice was necessary for military readiness. Instead, Trump made himself the face of the decision. Trump is unpopular, and a lot of people will default to assuming whatever choice he made on an issue they had not considered deeply was incorrect.
I do think there is an avenue for overreach on gender issues for liberals, which is ending up in a position where they are telling people who are not transgender that they need to change the way they think about gender in their own lives.
This is popping up occasionally in the culture, from Brown University’s choice to address its entire incoming freshman class with the singular “they/them” (seemingly in violation of the principle that people should be addressed with their preferred gender pronouns) to the backlash against gender-reveal parties.
The increasing pressure against single-sex social organizations at colleges – valued by a lot of people who have fond memories of their time in such organizations, and who did not view their membership in those organizations as a political act – is another cultural flashpoint on gender that risks cutting against the left.
But these are not public policy issues.
My contention last week was that it’s to Democrats’ disadvantage when “cultural politics” get detached from public policy.
By seeking to bar transgender people from the military, Trump makes the fight all about public policy. And he moves the public discussion of transgender people to some of the most unfavorable political ground possible for conservatives: Should people who wish to serve their country in a way Trump never did be allowed to do so?
Democrats shouldn’t worry they’ll get in trouble for saying yes.