The trans distraction: how conservatives use identity politics to dodge actual governing

Joan Westenberg
4 min readDec 6, 2023

There’s no doubt that transgender rights have become a major focus for conservative politicians in recent years. From bathroom bills to sports participation bans, many on the right have introduced legislation attacking transgender people.

Rather than tackle complex issues like economic inequality, health care reform, climate change, and job losses from automation, conservatives drill down on the less than 1% of people who are transgender. These familiar cultural battlegrounds fire up their political base but do little to address the kitchen table concerns most voters care about.

Here’s the truth: it’s laziness. Fighting culture wars is easier than doing the messy work required to create shared prosperity.

By fixating on the transgender community, conservative leaders avoid accountability for their lack of solutions to the major crises of our time. Where are their serious plans for reducing unemployment, making health care more affordable, updating infrastructure, or transitioning workers displaced by technology and globalization? What is their vision for leadership on climate change? On issue after issue, they’d rather divide voters with alarmism about LGBTQ people than unite citizens behind constructive policies.

This diversionary strategy is nothing new. Throughout history, politicians have blamed marginalized groups for diverting attention from their governance failures. In the 1930s, right-wing extremists in Europe scapegoated the Jewish community to deflect scrutiny of their inadequate responses to economic turmoil. In the United States, “Southern Strategy” politicians fueled white racial anxieties about integration to court Dixiecrat votes. Authoritarian regimes routinely target minorities and immigrants to consolidate power at the expense of real reforms.

There is a clear playbook when politicians make bogeymen out of vulnerable populations. First, they signal that these groups threaten traditional values. Values they get to very conveniently and narrowly define. Second, they propose bans, walls, or crackdowns that appeal to fear. Third, they portray cosmopolitan elites as complicit in coddling these groups and disregarding “real” citizens. It is textbook division politics designed to inflame tensions and avoid economic priorities.

We see this time and again in how the right politicizes transgender people. Despite no evidence of systemic dangers, transgender bathroom access is framed as jeopardizing safety. Progressive corporate and media voices that defend these transgender rights are attacked as part of cultural elitism that disregards heartland values. It is fearmongering straight from the playbook of distraction politics.

Progress on hard problems requires pragmatism, compromise, and empathy — all much more difficult for politicians than turning minorities into villains for quick voter traction.

People deserve leaders focused on expanding opportunity, not those trying to turn us against each other as a smokescreen for inaction. We can address sensitive social changes with maturity and wisdom while tackling the severe challenges threatening our nation’s future. But it will require seeing through the cynical distractions.

What are the real issues conservatives should be focused on rather than trans scapegoating? Here are a few glaring problems they seem happy to ignore:

The Decline of Good Jobs: Automation and offshoring have displaced millions of blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and clerical work. This transition is projected to accelerate, especially after COVID-19 accelerated workplace automation. We need policies to provide skills retraining, relocation support, apprenticeships, and incentives to create new jobs.

Unaffordable Healthcare: Medical costs rise faster than overall inflation, taking huge bites out of family budgets. Tens of millions remain uninsured or underinsured. The priorities should be broadening coverage, lowering drug costs, and investing in preventative care. Cancer shouldn’t bankrupt a working family.

Crumbling Infrastructure: From highways and transit systems to dams and the power grid, our infrastructure gets a D+ grade from engineers. Upgrading it would create good construction jobs and boost productivity. Infrastructure investment enjoys bipartisan support but never gets done.

Tax Reform: Our complex tax code favours special interests and the wealthy. Simplification and tax relief for the middle class would boost growth and economic security. Bipartisan proposals have been made but not enacted.

Concentrated Markets: Years of lax antitrust oversight have allowed corporate consolidation across technology, telecom, finance, and other sectors. This increases prices and holds back innovation. Reversing this concentration should be a priority.

There are feasible proposals to make progress in each of these areas: infrastructure banks, subsidies for renewable energy and battery technology, tuition assistance for displaced workers, a public health insurance option, and so on. But these policies require attention, debate and skilled legislative work.

The transgender moral panic is tailor-made to distract from these complex challenges. It triggers primal us vs. them instincts. It’s emotionally charged and easily reduced to slogans about “men in women’s bathrooms.” It delays the left and rallies the right. That’s why the GOP returns to it rather than tackling health care reform, job creation, or climate change mitigation — issues on which their positions are unpopular and require compromise.

Will conservatives keep getting away with using trans people as pawns while ignoring the nation’s real problems? Maybe, but the tide of history only flows one way. In the past, politicians also exploited fears around integration, immigration, and gay rights to duck economic priorities. But in the end, inclusion prevailed. No doubt, the same will happen for transgender rights.

The question is how much distraction and damage will happen before then. As long as politicians can gain votes by scaring people about vulnerable minorities, they have little incentive to do the hard work required to expand opportunity. So, when we hear bathroom bills debated on the House floor instead of infrastructure investment, we should recognize it for what it is — an attempt to divide citizens to avoid economic reforms. The people deserve better.