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Claire McCaskill’s MSNBC comments revive a tired argument over the Democratic Party’s future

We’re going to argue about “pocketbook issues” versus “social issues” again, it would seem.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

So Claire McCaskill, a former senator from Missouri, said some bullshit on MSNBC last night.

I probably shouldn’t start this article that way. I should probably start with something like: “In the wake of a better-than-expected election performance by Republicans and President Donald Trump, Democrats are wondering just what path to take to ensure better performance for their candidates in the future, even as former Vice President Joe Biden looks likely to win the presidency. Republicans’ built-in advantage in the Electoral College continues to be a massive headache for the Democratic Party (which has now won the popular vote in seven of the past eight elections). But a schism the party perpetually faces in the eyes of pundits who informally advise the party is whether it needs to refocus on so-called pocketbook issues over social issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion rights.”

Then I should say something like, “On MSNBC Wednesday night, after anchor Brian Williams asked former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill what her party could do to appeal more to blue-collar voters, she offered an answer that played exactly into this line of punditry”:

Around cultural issues, the Republican Party, I think, very adroitly adopted cultural issues as part of their main theme. Whether you’re talking guns or issues surrounding the right to abortion in this country or things like gay marriage and the right for transsexuals and other people who we as a party have tried to look after and make sure that they’re treated fairly.

As we circle those issues, we’ve left some voters behind, and Republicans dove in with a vengeance and grabbed those voters. You’ve seen this shift. You see it in the South. I see it in the rural areas of my state. So we’ve gotta get back to the meat-and-potatoes issues. We’ve gotta get back to the issues where we are taking care of their families, and we’ve gotta stop acting like we’re smarter than everybody else. Because we’re not.

Then I should embed the video clip, which I would do anyway, so here it is:

But, as mentioned in my actual lead paragraphs, this framing of the choice the Democratic Party faces as being between economic issues and social issues is some bullshit, and it keeps coming up. (See here and here and here and here and here. And that’s just for LGBTQ issues. You could find even more if you went looking for similar articles on, say, abortion rights.)

Here I should note that McCaskill apologized on Twitter this morning, particularly for using the term “transsexuals,” which should be replaced by “trans people” or “transgender people” in statements that seek to turn us into a monolith for one reason or another.

Briefly: Transsexual is an outdated term that is still used by some trans people to describe themselves on an individual basis but that should be replaced with “trans people” in almost all instances when referring to us as a group. And regardless, it should be used with great care by a cisgender person, unless it’s referring to a specific person who you know prefers to use the term. McCaskill’s use of the term, apology notwithstanding, suggests to me she’s very detached from this conversation.

What’s more, the ways Democratic pundits and candidates too often stumble over trans nomenclature plays into a larger fear many in the trans community have that the Democratic Party wouldn’t hesitate to cut us out of its policies if it meant passing, say, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, because that literally happened. Even Kamala Harris, the current vice presidential nominee, has a problematic past when it comes to trans issues.

From her apology, it seems clear McCaskill genuinely believes the Democratic Party can make room for trans people and rural voters, and that her larger point was that the Democratic Party should combat Republican demagoguery on social issues by pointing to its economic positions. That she seemed to play into a framing that harms trans people was likely an accident. She was on cable TV. It was late. She just glossed over her larger points.

But the fact that she jumped to this particular framing in answering Williams’s question underlines how ubiquitous that framing has been for the party throughout the 21st century. (Remember Howard Dean getting in trouble for saying he wanted to be the candidate of “guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks” in 2003?) And even though the party increasingly seems to include LGBTQ rights as a fairly mainstream part of its platform, pundits continue to advise reconsidering this in the hopes of reaching some mythical blue-collar voter who could be persuaded to vote Democratic by the party’s economic policies if the party just sacrificed the “right” social issues.

But as the National Women’s Law Center’s Gillian Branstetter points out, the only people who’ve clearly lost elections for being particularly interested in trans people are Republicans:

Any framing that presents choices on social issues as either-or is a false choice, I think. So-called bathroom bills — which seek to ban trans people from using bathrooms congruent with their genders — were largely a Republican Party invention to attempt to paint Democrats as being “for” trans people in bathrooms. (Yes, we use bathrooms.) Yet bathroom bills haven’t been particularly popular, and indeed, North Carolina’s bill ended up backfiring massively for the state.

That framing also creates a false conclusion that there are, say, no working-class people who are trans or who require an abortion. I don’t even need to link to data to prove to you that there are working-class trans people and working-class people who have had abortions, because those statements are obviously true on their face.

So who, exactly, is supposed to be appeased by the idea of, say, the Democratic Party performatively tossing trans people out of the coalition? And how will doing that not suggest that Democrats will cave on a whole bunch of other social issues in the name of chasing some mythical white guy in a pickup truck who would vote for Democrats if they just stopped reminding him LGBTQ people exist? Considering the rates at which Republicans backed Donald Trump in this election, I’m not holding my breath.

The Democratic Party has been the “big tent” party for decades now, and the problem with having a big tent is that you have a whole bunch of people underneath it who often have different ideas they hold as particularly important. But that’s also what makes the Democratic Party so big that it has, again, won the popular vote in seven of the past eight elections.

When the party boasts increased energy on its leftward flank, particularly from younger voters, who tend to be more supportive of LGBTQ rights, it feels very silly to revisit the “Well, if you just did this and this and this, it would appease this extremely narrow slice of voters in Pennsylvania.” But why is that the assumption so many pundits (especially those associated with the Democratic establishment) leap to, instead of the assumption that pushing people out of the big tent would make the tent smaller?

So anyway, Claire McCaskill, probably accidentally, said some bullshit that played into a very old schism the Democratic Party itself seems to have moved past. I hope the argument over “pocketbook issues” versus “social issues” doesn’t consume Democratic punditry or even the Democratic Party itself, particularly if — as seems increasingly likely — Joe Biden were to win the election.

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