Bathroom Bills and Wedging: The Sequel

So our last post ended up stirring up far more controversy than I had imagined. People believed I was making a case for the North Carolina bathroom bill, being deliberately deceptive, or deliberately trolling for an emotional response. So obviously some lessons to be learned as a blogger, as of course the response I was looking for was "oh that's interesting I learned something." 

I got to think about it in a lot of dead travel time over the weekend, and I want to take my best crack at my current hypothesis about what the reponse suggests to us about the state of play in American politics.

Quick Summary of the Responses to the Transgender Bathroom Bill Post

One of the common threads I noticed in people's objections was the belief that conservatives don't care about the physical safety of women, thus the word of these friends of mine should not be taken at face value. One common form of this was, "if conservatives really cared about protecting women, they would be doing X;" the implication being that a lack of X is evidence that conservatives don't really care about the physical safety of women--or at least not much. The other thing that I think I am reading from some of the responses--but am not sure--is that conservatives--especially men--have as a group victimized women and need to change their behavior in some way for their word (concerning protecting women) to be valuable.

The third and probably most interesting/plausible response is that some people (who knows how many) feel icky about transgender people in their bathrooms, and have either consciously or unconsciously grabbed hold of a morally righteous and agreeable argument (protecting women from predatory men) as a "cover," of sorts. This is certainly plausible for an unknown portion of people on one side of the bathrooms question--I'm not sure we can really ever know for how many. 

Response Elements That Were Missing

Each of what I'll list below had glowing exceptions, so I don't want to pretend everyone that responded was of a particular bent, but I think there were important elements missing from most of the responses:

1.      Acknowledgement that tribes don't think all the same. So there was an implied lumping of most/all conservatives into thinking a certain way or having a certain bias, rather than a suggestion that, "maybe some people are motivated primarily by X argument and others by bias."

2.      Questions that suggest wanting to learn more. There was a strong vein of belief among many respondents that they knew the inner motivations of these conservative folks that they hadn't met. All they had about them was a paraphrased summary of a long conversation, and I'm surprised nobody really wanted any detail about these folks--more on who they are, what they thought, what they said--before reaching a very decisive conclusion.

Current Hypothesis

Based on the patterns I’m seeing here, the same wedging effect that haunts issues like guns, abortion, and the like, haunts this one. The story looks a bit like this:

1)      Extremes at either end get highly amplified

2)      Less-extreme parts of either side freak out, thinking that the amplified extremes make up the entire set of opposition

3)      The less-extreme elements of each side dig in hard and create a narrative that the whole other side has actively bad intentions, and cannot possibly have good or reasonable ones

4)      This is validated as people share around (on social media and the like) anecdotes of the statistically rare, but egregious, cases of ridiculousness by some elements of the other side

So that may be what’s happening here. I think it is hard to contest the idea that there are transphobic people, though it’s hard to say how many. There are probably some people that have little or no care about women’s physical safety, though it’s hard to say how many.

The key claim is that the bulk of those opposed to people picking their own bathrooms, or almost all of them, are transphobic—and that this is their primary motivator. The secondary claim is that it is unreasonable to believe someone’s claim that their primary motivator is women’s safety.

What the Data Says

First thing’s first: it is absolutely impossible to actually determine the percentage of opposition that is motivated by transphobia. So I won’t estimate the number, just let you think about it.

We have less sophisticated polling about the transgender bathroom issue because, on a national attention level, it’s brand new. So I can’t do the deep dive into what I did with abortion, guns, etc. But let’s just do a quick gut-check.

So currently about 60% of Americans oppose people getting to pick their own bathrooms.

That means, at least, that some women, and many non-Republicans (Republicans make up about 24% of the electorate) are in opposition. This would suggest it includes a fair number of people that probably care a great deal about women’s safety, even if we assume that not a single Republican does.

It’s also a much larger number than those that oppose gay marriage (about 30% these days) or want abortion to be illegal all of the time (about 10%). So we can safely say that the “tent” of people that happen to currently oppose people picking their own bathrooms is a much larger tent than the group of people we conventionally think of as quite morally conservative.

So that’s all I can give you. I can’t say whether that means 60% of Americans, including many women and Independents and probably some Democrats, are transphobic and primarily motivated by this. But hopefully this can help you think about whether there may be more diversity of belief and opinion on this issue than previously thought. At the very least, it’s held fairly true for other wedge issues that we’ve gotten to dive into, and the size of the “tent” suggests, I think, that it’s pretty hard to believe that the motivators for that 60% are monolithic in nature. 


Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.