July 20, 2022

Democrats and Messaging

I am a liberal Democrat. I believe that governing by Democrats will make America freer, fairer, safer, and more prosperous than will governing by Republicans. In an ideal America, the two major parties would share power and act together for the good of the country. The parties once did that, but it cannot happen again as long as the GOP is dominated by Donald Trump and Donald Trump wannabees.

The Democratic Party cannot advance a liberal agenda—or pretty much any agenda—given the current makeup of Congress and the party’s weakness in the legislatures of many states. This situation demands that we elect more Democrats at every level of government.

Building Democratic majorities requires strong candidates and well-stocked campaign chests. Gerrymandering and voter suppression laws enacted by Republican legislators make this project especially difficult. But Democrats can improve their prospects by crafting their messaging to appeal to more voters rather than scaring them away. (I have written elsewhere about policy positions in 2022. Here, I am more concerned with how the Democratic message is delivered.)

A classic past messaging mistake is the failure to disavow, in the strongest terms, the ill-conceived slogan “DEFUND THE POLICE.” One cannot blame people for having concluded that the slogan implied disbanding the police without concern for the consequences. Even many (most?) people using the slogan did not take it literally, but any slogan that requires paragraphs of explanation is a bad slogan. Many people—notably Joe Biden—disavowed the slogan. Too few Democrats did, and some actually embraced it. Party leaders should have insisted that the slogan was mindless and counterproductive and, although they acknowledged that policing needed some rethinking in this country, defunding the police was not an idea that the party neither embraced nor condoned. The lesson here is that, although a simplified message has its attractions, one can simplify to the point of incoherence. Messages must be carefully crafted.

Liberals—mostly Democrats, I assume—are being equally stupid with regard to transgender people. They label any suggestion that transgender people should be treated any differently than cisgender people of the same “gender” as transphobia. And they insist that transgender people be acknowledged whenever people are spoken of. Democrats need to recognize that there is a difference between sensitivity to personal differences and pandering or virtue-signaling to what is seen as a disfavored minority. Yes, liberals should support sexual minorities, but they should avoid seeming unreasonable.

The increased visibility of trans people is a fairly recent phenomenon, and, for most people, it takes some getting used to. Anyone who doesn’t harbor at least some ambivalence or consternation regarding such folks probably hasn’t thought much about them. This is not to say that Democrats should throw their trans friends under the bus, but it does mean respecting honest concerns and being willing to engage in discussion about the trans phenomenon.

No discussion of transgender rights can be productive if the audience does not accept the legitimacy of transgender people. Unfortunately, to avoid pointless discussion, it may sometimes be necessary to assert that trans people are real and honest. Everyone has known pansy boys and tomboy girls, and such people may wish to be—or believe that, in some sense, they are—properly members of the opposite sex. That may be hard to understand, but it isn’t inconceivable. This is a reasonable and caring message. Medical care for trans children is a tricky subject and is probably best framed in terms of parental rights. (Republicans seem to like the concept of parental rights regarding their children.)

Anyway, if one can get past the idea that being trans is simply a way for children to spy on members of the opposite sex, issues such as which bathroom they should use become easier to discuss without alienating too many voters. If one thinks of oneself and dresses and acts as someone of the opposite sex, using the bathroom “of the sex you were assigned at birth” is simply embarrassing for all concerned. Avoiding such embarrassment can be justified as a matter of simple human dignity.

Discussing the participation in girl sports by transgender girls should be approached carefully. There are legitimate concerns here. If a transgender girl has experienced male puberty, it should be admitted that she may have an unfair advantage when competing against cisgender females. Insisting otherwise makes one look dogmatic, not sensitive. FINA, which administers international competitions in water sports, has ruled that trans females who have undergone male puberty cannot compete. One can argue that, for younger competitors, a similar rule should be applied or that, at lower competition levels, it just isn’t that important. Arguing that trans girls are being denied their rights if, for example, they cannot swim as females, will simply make one seem unreasonable and more concerned for “unusual“ than for “normal” people. (One wonders whether there is some sport in which a transgender boy would be expected to have an advantage over a cisgender male. I’m not sure what sport that would be. It doesn’t seem to be something state legislators are concerned about.) 

Then there is the use by liberals (and, sad to say, mainstream journalists) of such phrases as “pregnant people,” “birthing people,” “menstruating people,” and the like. This drives me, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, up the wall. Think how the average voter must react. The motivation behind these locutions is, of course, “inclusion.” Yes, a transgender man can be pregnant, but only because he has the biological mechanisms—ovaries, uterus, vagina, etc.—characteristic of a female. However he presents to the world, he must be treated as a woman by any doctor monitoring his pregnancy, irrespective of his “pronouns.” To mangle one’s language to somehow accommodate very rare exceptions is not only self-serving virtue signally, but it is demeaning to cisgender women, who, ironically, feel dismissed, rather than included by the use of such phrases as “pregnant people.” After all, when addressing an audience, one does not normally say “ladies and gentlemen and transgender ladies and transgender men and intersex folks and non-sexual people.” Being “inclusive” just isn’t worth it, and it irritates most of the audience. Democrats, take note.

A bit of an aside: Apparently, it is at least theoretically possible for an intersex person to become pregnant, although this is unlikely for most such persons. In any case, the intersex folks don’t seem to have much of a lobby and probably don’t want to advertise their condition anyway.

Finally, there is the matter of the word “Latinx,” which has been adopted by liberal Democrats (and, again, journalists) and that polling establishes is disliked by most of the people to whom it is intended to refer. Besides the fact that it alienates the very people it seeks to attract, it is a linguistic abomination and should therefore be avoided. We used to get by calling people from Latin America Latinos (Latinas, if only females were being spoken about). No one seemed to get out of sorts at that usage, but the inclusive crowd decided that this was somewhat sexist. (One can see the point.) Thus, they invented Latinx, where, I suppose, the x can represent either o or a (or perhaps both at once). This follows no orthographic rule I have ever encountered and only sort of works for adjectives. Does anyone use the word Latinxes? (Does that word refer to Latin American divorced people?) If Democrats insist on being more inclusive, why not use Latin American—a plural works just fine here—or, to be more creative, just Latin?

Admittedly, in 2022, public speaking is a minefield. Politicians who want to be elected (or re-elected) would do well to seem humane and reasonable and to avoid pitfalls that, sadly, too often seem obvious only after the fact.

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