Pondering Political Strategy

Fun fact for you: According to a study commissioned by the Palm Center back in 2014, there are (or were) somewhere around 15,000 transgendered people serving in the American military; another 134,000-ish veterans are also believed to be transgendered. According to that study, the overwhelming majority tend to be male-to-female. Even if you throw that out, it’s worth noting that at least one member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden is transgendered, as is one of the highest-ranking civilians dealing with energy issues for the military.

Courtesy of HB2, none of these people can use the right bathroom if they go to North Carolina.

Why Cat
This is the only picture here. Enjoy it.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I don’t really have to go into detail on all the economic and social repercussions that North Carolina is facing right now; there’s a deluge of stories covering everything from Bruce Springsteen to PayPal and more. But what I can offer you is a possible long-view on why HB2 and bills like it keep getting pushed by state legislatures.

Put bluntly: The transgender bathroom issue is a smokescreen intended to move the Overton Window so that when one part of the bill is inevitably struck down, other parts will remain unchallenged, most likely because nobody will focus on anything but the transgendered bathroom issue.

Bear in mind that HB2 does not just target transgendered people – they’re simply the most vulnerable, visible population that it affects. The bill also goes so far as to effectively negate local laws on minimum wage. It also overturns existing local laws concerning discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, or race and prevents cities from making or extending new ones. The Charlotte Observer has a nice rundown if you’re interested.

This isn’t the first time that this sort of thing has happened. It’s just that prior instances of it were mainly aimed at gun laws instead of things like minimum wage or discrimination. Something similar arguably happened with Indiana’s infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act (additional reading here)– it effectively obliterated local laws in favor of state-wide ones, setting a certain precedent that could one day trickle down elsewhere, if it hasn’t already, all while providing a neat social smokescreen in the process. Other examples of this could be seen with the Arkansas RFRA and the Mississippi RFRA.

Proposed bathroom bills in South Carolina and Tennessee are almost refreshingly narrow by comparison – they actually limit their targets to transgendered people, and don’t appear to have a ton of leeway to be used for other purposes. That’s probably one of the main reasons why both states’ governors are pushing back against them. It’s probably also why South Dakota’s governor vetoed a bathroom bill outright. There’s nothing new about being mean-spirited in politics, especially if you have an easy hot-button target that can’t fight back, but if it doesn’t serve an actual strategic point then why bother? Sure, you might shore up some support among the dwindling older segments of your base, but young conservatives are leaning more moderate, if not outright liberal on social issues. They’re already less likely to identify as Republicans than their parents, presumably out of embarrassment for things like this. Wanna make that dissociation worse with nothing to show for it?

I’m of the opinion that the Wage and Hour Act – the part of HB2 that authorizes all of this – is intended to serve as a test bed for future legislative pushes in other states. If anything, HB2 is more honest in its actual intent than the RFRAs and its equivalents in other states – it actually includes the real long-term goal right there in the bill’s text, sandwiched between assorted slabs of nonsense aimed at hurting transgendered people. It’s not that different from how certain investment firms will propose absolutely ludicrous stuff to distract from attempts at splitting a company’s land ownership from their actual business, thereby forcing them to pay rent to themselves and increasing the firm’s profits in the process.

In horribly simple, probably not very accurate story terms, it’s a form of flaw exploitation. You know your opponents will focus on this one thing. Why the hell wouldn’t you try to make use of that to do something else?

And to be fair, it is within a state’s rights as a governing entity to overturn local laws for pretty much any reason. However, it’s worth noting that while most state legislatures right now are dominated by conservatives, a fair number of cities have been getting more and more liberal lately, oftentimes leading the way on certain social issues (see the many pushes for $15-an-hour minimum wage laws, especially in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC; success there pretty much guarantees a measure of success elsewhere).

Now let’s look at this and say I’m a conservative political strategist and I can’t make headway in these major cities for whatever reason. I’m in this for the long haul so my next best bet is to stymie my urban rivals via state legislatures. Since a lot of my base voters don’t actually care about, or even stand to benefit from, minimum wage increases, I’ll wrap my actual goals up in something else, like pro-gun laws or religious freedom.

Odds are pretty good I’ll chant states’ rights and yell really loud about federal encroachment while I do it.

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