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'Gender Critical' Was Never Going to Work Out as a Long-Term Political Realignment
It's just diverse humanity agreeing women exist
Negative partisanship is the single most unappreciated force in American politics. Partisan tribalism has only increased with social media. A general political realignment is impossible after the Supreme Court decision last week to let states shut down abortion access. As a result, “gender critical” spaces will remain a potent force of ideas, but “gender criticism” will never cohere as a united political movement. There are too many countervailing forces at work.
Because I am a historian with a political science degree and too many years in progressive advocacy organizing spaces, I was intellectually prepared to see the gender critical “movement” follow a familiar pattern. Any social movement of very different people who all just happen to be right about the same thing being true is not going to cohere very long, if at all. Too many differences exist within the coalition of people who believe women exist. Without a unifying umbrella organization to defend human sex difference in law and policy, gender critical politics will always center around leadership figures and be organized in a series of discrete issue silos. Fights will happen because they always do.
Still, the sight has been appalling. At the beginning of this year, a cascade of purity spirals unfolded around intersex conditions, resulting in the suspension or silence of popular, important voices, toxic behavior, and outright harassment. Self-described radical feminists have spent enormous energy hating the most effective activists working against Genderism. “Billboard Chris” and “Posie Parker” have been subject to unacceptable treatment from people who supposedly agree with their priorities, if not their methods or messages.
Both individuals give me hope for the future of activism. Like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, their methods are direct and personal. "A good tactic is one your people enjoy,” Alinsky wrote, and the crowd around Posie — real name Kellie-Jay Keen — in Hyde Park is almost gleeful. "Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy,” Alinsky wrote, and Chris — real name Chris Elston — accomplishes this cognitive feat with a sandwich board. Neither of them cares to take a partisan position; one is probably more conservative than the other, but the issue is more urgent for them than the politics. That’s Alinsky in a nutshell. His title is not a guide so much as a backhand to would-be “activists” who get nothing done, whose “theory of change” amounts to shooting themselves in the foot.
Alinksy felt his guide was necessary in America because there is no “the left” here. Really. Please stop saying that phrase aloud unless you imply air quotes. Anyone who has spent a little time among “the left” understands ideological coherence is the very first problem for “the left.” Under normal conditions, monolithic leftist politics are organizationally impossible: ask any ten avowed Marxists a single question and you might see fifteen different arguments break out. Robert’s Rules of Order are too authoritarian for progressive organizing meetings. Watch a meeting of the Zucotti Park general assembly in 2011 on video and you’ll see what I mean. Which of these rival affinity groups is “the left”? There are so many in an ever-shifting tide of struggle sessions.
Certain elements within “the left” forever insist on grassroots authenticity to the insane exclusion of any help at all from anyone of consequence. Remember the one Occupy activist guy cancelling John Lewis in Atlanta? I can’t remember his name because he is nowhere near as famous or successful as John Lewis, so how much change do you suppose he achieved? Was it more or less than the civil rights legend?
This blaring virtue-siren conceals the fundraising activity that never ends and never, ever suffices. So whenever anyone does inject real resources into an issue space, the activists immediately break into two camps, one trying to slay the dragon and the other trying to milk it for as long as possible, both claiming to be grassroots. I have watched a motiviated, united activist community turn into multiple organizations with slightly different or changing missions, none showing the least bit of “solidarity” with the others, as soon as someone started dropping dimes on the floor. Which one of these shameless whores scrambling over each other is “the left”?
Charismatic personalities can thrive in such an atmosphere, as they attract free-floating, well-meaning, and ardent souls to themselves and their causes. (Also, money.) In that sense, “the left” in America is not altogether different from “the right.” Nevertheless, the adage that “the left” demands to fall in love while “the right” just wants to fall in line is demonstrably true. Put simply, “the left” is prone to fly apart more often, with greater energy. To use a fancy political science word, “the left” is fissiparous. Fissile. Prone to detonate with enormous heat and perhaps a little bit of light. When you say “the left,” which of these bickering factions separated by opportunism and the narcissism of small differences is “the left”? None of them, all of them, or some?
Of course, I am most familiar with American activism. Matters are a bit different in the UK. One important reason why British “gender identity” advances have met so much resistance on “terf island” is that so many feminists and leftists actually do understand Marx and material class analysis. This is because they live in a country where the word “class” has real meaning. Whereas Americans think of class as how much money or resources a person has, Europeans intuit class as what a person does. I am old enough to remember Ronald Reagan running for president. Since then, I have watched Democrat after Democrat attempt to bridge this cognitive gap with wonkery and sloganeering that avoids any mention of the class to which most Democratic officeholders belong. Americans live in a “classless” society of high inequality, for to even speak of class in America is to invite shrill cries of “class warfare.”
This is what happens when a word has been rendered verboten: the politics around it become impossible. See also “woman.” Incredible, yes, that such a word should disappear from the mouths of the very people and organizations which propose to defend the rights of “birthing persons” and “gestational carriers.” How did the center-left, feminist-informed “movement” of “the left” lose its words like that? Who lobotomized this president so that he pretends not to understand what human sex differences mean for sports, prisons, and spaces?
Here is another Atlantic difference with my British cousins. In the United States, our system of winner-take-all elections in representative districts produces two, and only two, viable political parties at any one time. This is not a conspiracy against anyone’s thrid party dream, it is mathematical destiny. As described in the equations of Frenchman Maurice Duverger, the American framework simply eliminates third parties.
Which is not to say that new parties don’t emerge in the American system. On the contrary, they have been key to historic realignments of our politics. Look to the Republican Party, which came to power for the first time in Washington because the two major parties were broken. After the American Civil War, politics resumed with just two parties again, one old (Democrat) and one new, the GOP. The more instructive example, though, would be the Reform Party. Barely remembered now, it culminated in the almost-candidacy of Donald Trump 16 years early. When he won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, I called it “the revenge of class,” for his populist program was an updated version of Bill Clinton-era political counterculture that infused the Reform Party. By 2016, this force-current on the political right had a new word, “globalist,” to name their oppressors. Yet when Trump stopped flirting with presidential ambitions and got serious, he became a Republican. He joined the two-party duopoly.
This default is structured into a system which will not change any time soon. Thus “left” and “right” are used too easily as synonyms for “Democrat” and “Republican,” respectively. This simplification obscures far more than it reveals, and it serves to partisanize everything on absolutist lines. Thus a gender critical “issue party” can only ever have limited success in the United States.
Why are progressives/leftists/Democrats defending Drag Queen Story Hour? Because conservatives/right-wingers/Republicans are attacking it, that’s why. In fact, that’s the only reason. At no point during my time in “netroots” did anyone ever announce that we were planning a drag queen offensive at local libraries and that everyone needed to be a good comrade about it. Quite the opposite: like “defund the police,” this is a very bad idea that someone in “the left” came up with, that has metastasized on “the left” because it seemed like a good idea to people with no larger responsibility than owning the right-wingers, and that effectively torpedoes the Democratic Party at the polls.
No one is policing “the movement.” Authoritarianism, defined as needed to avoid any scrutiny of bad ideas, is abhorrent to “the left.” To police the center-left caucus of American political culture in any way is to violate the liberal principle of inclusion. Best summarized in the phrase “acceptance without exception,” this openness to diversity is a double-edged sword. New issue spaces and affinity groups can enter the coalition. In general, that is a good thing. In the specific, this absence of boundaries invites Drag Queen Story Hour™ and Defund The Police® to strut onto the stage, shout down the adults, and center themselves under the spotlight where they can best empower Republican turnout. Anyone who has ever seen an aspiring Democratic candidate interrupted by BLM protesters in the middle of their moment at a national progressive event will know this feeling. Watching single-minded activists shoot down potential allies on purpose is frustrating.
Little wonder that subsurface resentments are everywhere on “the left.” Hardly anyone defends BLM activists under scrutiny for alleged financial fraud. One, they all know the charges are probably true; and two, by now the all-consuming nature of BLM activism, sublimating other causes unto itself, has inspired the usual jealousies. Remember when the crusade against ACORN, an organization which primarily served the same ostensible communities as BLM, caused nary a peep on “the left”? By contrast, a single tea party organization had its nonprofit status application delayed, suffering no inability to raise funds in the meantime, yet served to empower a Republican Congress to hold sensational hearings in 2013, consuming months of media oxygen. The organizers of this nontroversy included Steve Bannon, Ginni Thomas, and Ali Alexander, all of January 6 infamy. Democrats seldom wave bloody shirts for activists on “their side” like that because again, no one is actually organizing a spirited public defense from inside “the left.”
Functionally speaking, there is no “the left.” That is the left’s problem.
Genderism came to the left because of this openness, this lack of policing, targeting the space where progressive politics was bound in affinity with the L and G and B. Alphabetical expansion of that former sex-based rights movement confuses many outsiders. It is the colonization of this space by T and Q, with an ever-growing assortment of microidentities in tow. I will have more to say later about why this worked, what hole it filled in the “progressive movement” after 2010. For now, what matters is that Lia Thomas was in the pool before most Americans even knew what was happening. Policy was captured and power was in place before anyone except a few marginalized feminists knew about, or could raise a fuss about, intact rapists in women’s prisons. That issue is gathering steam and so “the left” will soon find itself reflexively defending men raping women in prison. Democrats are already married to it. The deliberate complicity of the ACLU in this horror deserves its own ACORN-level focus by a congressional comittee. We might hope for a new Republican Congress to do that next year, though I am not holding my breath.
Which brings us to the essential problem of coalition-building across partisan lines of difference. Plenty of gender critical left/liberal types are leery of such alliances for obvious reasons, not least of them being that even the perception of such a fusion is fodder for Genderist claims that their critics are all paid right-wing allies. We saw this early in the history of GC reaction when some feminists spoke at a Heritage Foundation event. No money changed hands. To date, no claim that right wing American money pays for GC politics in the UK has ever been substantiated by so much as a public-facing tax document. Nevertheless, the power of the taboo is demonstrated every time someone is excluded from the circle of victimhood for reaching out to “the other side.”
Some of the voices that I value most in GC spaces are also the most unyielding. They make a valid argument, the reverse of what I asked above: why are conservatives/right-wingers/Republicans voting for Donald Trump? Because they want to win, and for progressives/left-wingers/Democrats to lose. As I said at the beginning, negative partisanship is an underappreciated force in American politics. I abhor everything that Democrats are doing in terms of “gender” these days, but I was not eager to sacrifice Roe v Wade in order to appease the right and somehow win a place at the table under a new regime. That was never going to work even if I had been willing.
You know who did that very thing, though? You know who did actually throw abortion access under a proverbial bus? “The left.” By which I mean the reproductive rights organizations and the LGBTQAlphabetsoup. Yes. Big Abortion and Big Rainbow, as I call them, calculated years ago that Roe v Wade was doomed, and that Genderism held possibilities for remaining in business after the inevitable happened. This is why you see Planned Parenthood clinics turned into hormone dispensaries, with laws and regulatory enforcement so loose that children can have them on demand. Democrats have no interest in unearthing such scandals. Like it or not, those of us on “the left” calling ourselves critics of Genderism must ask “the right” to do that for us. No one else will, and we have to accept that whatever follows will be politicized against us.
As acknowledged above, grassroots movements can cross party lines in America to introduce innovations in one direction or another, or both. American history is replete with consequential ideas that began at the meeting-place of contrary views. If we have forgotten that clashes of opinion are healthy for democracy, we can use this moment to buck the trend. Rather than changing sides, we can focus on each of us changing our sides together.
Republicans need advice on how to attack Genderism and how not to attack it. Democrats need to hear from the half of their base that objects to men in women’s sports and prisons and spaces. We have to grab the media by the ears to get their focus on us, and our message, so they stop amplifying silly conspiracy theories about where we came from, and what our intentions are.