Following the coverage from North Carolina, you might think that Americans are about evenly split on which restroom transgender people ought to use. You might even think, given the rage on the anti side, that most people support the restrictive bill. After all, let’s face it, for a lot of people out there, the whole idea of transgender people probably comes with a certain ick factor, as was the case for gay people 20 years ago.
You might think all these things, but it turns out that you would be selling your fellow Americans rather short. A heartening poll out from CNN this week shows that a substantial majority of Americans opposes HB2. It’s 57 percent against and just 38 percent in favor. Indeed, “strongly oppose” outpointed the combined “strongly” and “somewhat” favor by 39-38.
More: Fully 75 percent of Americans support laws guaranteeing “equal protection for transgender people in jobs, housing and public accommodations.” And 80 percent support such laws for people based on sexual preference, laws that we don’t yet have on the federal level.
So America’s mind is made up on the question. Even Republicans in the survey were evenly split on the bathroom question, 48-48.
And yet the Republicans who matter, the official ones, the legislators and the governor, are 100 percent for the bill and 0 percent against. I mean literally zero—one ex-Democrat-turned-independent who caucuses with the Republicans voted against HB2, but other than that, every Republican who was present and voting backed the bill.
You might wave this away by saying “Oh, they’re from the South, what do you expect?” But there is very little reason to think that if a similar bill came up for a vote in Madison or Harrisburg or practically anywhere outside of New England, the results would be much different. They sure wouldn’t be much different in Washington, D.C., where maybe two GOP senators and three or four GOP House members would vote against such a bill. It’s more extreme down South, but across the country, the elected Republican Party is basically representing only half of the Republican rank and file. Those 48 percent of Republicans in that survey who oppose HB2 have no representation and might as well not exist.
This is a huge problem in our political discourse, and it’s made worse by certain media assumptions, one in particular. Ever since Reagan’s time, political journalism has collectively kind of assumed that Republicans represent “normal” Americans. The Democrats were granted that assumption, once upon a time. But then the Democratic Party became the party of African Americans and feminists and same-sexers and so on, and the white working classes went Republican.
And ever since, our political-journalistic discourse has operated from the default assumption that Republicans represent the real Americans. Republicans eat steak, drink beer, go to church, while Democrats eat tofu, sip sauvignon blanc, sneer at God—you know the sort of thing.
It’s time to re-examine this, no? I say the 57 percent who declare themselves to be on the side of our transgender friends are the real, normal Americans. They are, after all, the majority. The clear majority. That 57 percent includes 62 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents, and the aformentioned half of Republicans. They’re majorities in the Northeast (57 percent), the Midwest (56 percent), and the West (60 percent). They’re majorities of every age group, including 65 and over, who say they oppose HB2 by 51-41 percent! They’re majorities of every income group. They’re majorities of college graduates and non-college graduates. All these cross-tabs, by the way, are here (PDF).
These are today’s real Americans. I’m not saying they’re flaming liberals. Indeed, this is the very point: It’s not “liberal” anymore, one-eighth of the way into the 21st century, to be in favor of decency, a little understanding of difference, and the conviction that intolerance does all of us, even those not affected by it, a little harm. That’s not being liberal. It’s just being American.
And what are the other people? Well, Jon Chait just called people like them idiots. I don’t want to say that. And I don’t want to say they’re bad people. People are complicated; lots of people with enlightened politics are crappy human beings, and vice versa.
But I will say this. The idea of what it means to be American has changed quite a lot in the last 20 or so years. The “typically American” place, so long presented to us as nearly-all white town where everyone went to church on Sunday, is now a much more polyglot congeries of white, black, brown, yellow, straight, gay, in-between, religious, irreligious, religious but in their own idiosyncratic way; and of people who might fill this or that demographic slot but who are in other ways entirely unpredictable—the urban hipster with a soft spot for Carrie Underwood, the white working-class man who took Prince’s death really hard. That’s America today.
And one of our two major political parties will not acknowledge it. In fact Republican leaders fight the new reality tooth and nail, to the point that they have effectively chosen to represent just 12 percent of the population—that is to say, half of the 25 percent who identify as Republican. There isn’t anything that’s normal or real about that.
The media need to wake up. The Reagan-era dividing lines are long gone. And America isn’t bitterly divided about transgender people’s bathroom rights, or same-sex marriage rights, or climate change, or the need to do something about guns, or a dozen other things. Real Americans agree on all these things. The Republican Party will of course never reflect this new America. Can journalism ever find a way to?