o war but the class war” is an old saying in leftist circles dating back decades. While initially an anti-war statement, it also became an argument for the American left to embrace class reductionist thinking in lieu of the “culture war,” which is typically a reference for issues pertaining to racism, sexism, and the LGBTQ+ community. But winning the culture war is just as paramount as winning the class war—and is arguably more urgent in 2023.
Proponents of class reductionism (the belief that focusing on class politics and economics should take precedence over all other issues) argue that subscribing to intersectionality (the belief that all struggles are interconnected) benefits the ruling class, as it diffuses the energy of our organizing efforts and further enables the upward redistribution of the rapidly dwindling wealth of the working class. But in reality, we ignore the culture war at our own peril: Ceding the culture war to conservatives will only further alienate marginalized populations, and widen the divide within the working class at a time when building universal working class solidarity is more urgent than ever.
2023 and 2024 will be decisive years for the American culture war, and when a winner emerges, we will be a radically different country, either for worse or for better. That outcome is entirely dependent on how willing the so-called “allies” of marginalized populations—in particular, the transgender community—are to get their hands dirty in today’s culture war.
The culture war has the left feeling frustrated and exhausted
As the Occupy Wall Street movement’s energy faded in 2012, there was a sentiment among activists at the Occupy camps I participated in (including Houston, Texas; Jackson, Mississippi, and New York City) that the movement’s focus on identity-specific issues was the reason for its dissipation. And this wasn’t just communicated by white leftists: Wilfred Reilly, an associate political science professor at Kentucky’s oldest historically black university, made a similar argument in a USA Today op-ed from 2020, stating that “economic leftists must ditch wokeness.”
“Occupy Chicago, possibly the largest gathering of Guy Fawkes-mask wearing radicals outside Manhattan’s Zucotti Park, fell apart largely because of the endless bifurcation of members’ agendas,” Reilly wrote of his Occupy experience. “Whenever a task force of leading members was proposed to discuss some almost-consensus working-class issue like support for an increased minimum wage, the call would immediately come for a women’s task force. Then, what about a Black women’s task force? A Black gay women’s task force?”
Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) 2016 campaign was widely viewed as the electoral manifestation of the Occupy movement. And, similar to the Occupy movement, Sanders’ 2016 campaign was criticized for its saturation with white, male supporters. Sanders himself admitted on MSNBC that struggles with diversity were one of his campaign’s biggest stumbling blocks. His 2020 campaign, on the other hand, made great efforts to diversify its leadership. Whereas his 2016 endeavor was led by white male consultants like Jeff Weaver and Tad Devine, his 2020 campaign was led by a more diverse team. Women of color were centered, like former Ohio state senator Nina Turner and former San Juan, Puerto Rico mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz as two of the campaign’s four co-chairs and Briahna Joy Gray as the campaign’s chief spokesperson. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) was one of the campaign’s chief surrogates. Other “squad” members like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) loudly endorsed Sanders. Yet for all of his efforts at inclusivity, Sanders lost the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden in 2020 by an even wider margin than he lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sanders’ 2020 loss led to condemnations of identity politics in leftist spaces.
After Sanders’ concession to Joe Biden, Angela Nagle, a contributor to leftist magazine Jacobin, co-wrote a lengthy American Affairs article with journalist Michael Tracey (formerly a contributor to progressive YouTube network The Young Turks) blaming Sanders’ failure on his capitulations to conventional progressive identity politics:
“[I]n fruitlessly catering to this demographic, Sanders jettisoned another quality that gave his campaign an aura of excitement in 2016, when he exuded the sense of being distinct from the rest of the mainstream Democratic Party. Four years later, there he was, participating in the obligatory anti-Trump sweepstakes—competing with the other candidates over who could inveigh the most vociferously against Trump. While Sanders never lost what always came across as a genuinely felt populist fervor against the billionaire class, he often sounded like he was half-heartedly reading from the script of a liberal afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome when he would go through the motions of listing Trump’s various crimes: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., etc., etc. After four exhausting years of this from all liberal quarters, many of those who chose Bernie over Hillary last time were neither convinced nor impressed.”
Jacobin published an article in response entitled “We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War,” disagreeing with the original premise of Nagle and Tracey’s article, but agreeing that “if we want to win, we have to leave the culture war behind,” and that “we should drop the alienating ‘woke’ rhetoric.”
“[C]ouldn’t we strive to capitalize on Bernie’s popular economic agenda and ditch the Left side of the culture war? Nagle and Tracey are pessimistic. No doubt, it is a challenge. Left-wing candidates and campaigns are currently held hostage by a toxic brew of alienating language, like the term ‘Latinx’ (unpopular with Latinos themselves), fashionable maximalist slogans that make heavy use of the word ‘abolish,’ and bizarre postures like Kirsten Gillibrand harping about her “white privilege.”
“These are serious liabilities for any candidate (and countless articles were written about how the ‘wokest’ candidates did the worst). But fortunately for us, left-wing candidates don’t adopt these stances because big money donors insist on them. Instead, insurgent candidates run on issues they think their base will find it appealing. Therefore, shifting campaign rhetoric away from the kind of language that Nagle and Tracey rightly identify as alienating is possible, so long as we can prove that such appeals are unpopular among most social-democratically inclined working-class voters.”
It’s true that Bernie Sanders performed worse in 2020 compared to 2016 despite higher name recognition, more money, and a robust grassroots campaign infrastructure already in place. The chief reason for Biden’s victory wasn’t due to superior organizing or financial advantages, but simply because he was seen as the most electable candidate against Donald Trump in a general election. But postmortems like the aforementioned are an indicator that Sanders supporters’ nauseating condescension toward any issues not pertaining to kitchen-table economics could be a large reason why his campaign struggled to gain more diverse cross-sections of supporters.
Opting to ignore the culture war isn’t just a tactical blunder that could imperil future leftist political campaigns: It could also endanger the lives of the people we need to build broad working-class solidarity altogether.
Trans rights: The front line of the culture war
Right now, Republicans are winning the culture war largely unimpeded, given their widespread assault on transgender rights and unchecked genocidal language toward the transgender population. Very few public officials—with notable exceptions like Nebraska state senator Machaela Cavanaugh (D), who waged a months-long filibuster against anti-trans legislation—are fighting back in any meaningful way.
Kentucky state representative Josh Calloway (R) recently called the LGBTQ+ community a “disease,” and doubled down on his comments instead of apologizing. Daily Wire host Michael Knowles told the Conservative Political Action Conference he wanted to eradicate “transgenderism” to applause. And fascist regimes in the past have carried out genocide after first practicing on the LGBTQ+ population. As Occupy.com previously reported, Hitler’s reign as chancellor began with a brutal campaign targeting gay people across Germany:
The police established lists of homo-sexually active persons. Significant numbers of gay men were arrested, of whom an estimated 50,000 received severe jail sentences in brutal conditions. Most homosexuals were sent to police prisons, rather than concentration camps, where they were exposed to inhumane treatment. There they could be subjected to hard labor and torture, or they were experimented upon or executed.
An estimated 10-15,000 men who were accused of homosexuality were deported to concentration camps. Most died in the camps, often from exhaustion. Many were castrated and some subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Collective murder actions were undertaken against gay detainees, exterminating hundreds at a time.
Bans on gender-affirming care for minors have already passed in 19 states and counting in 2023, and several other states, including Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas, are considering banning it for adults up to 26 years old. But it isn’t hyperbole to say that Florida in particular is leading the war on trans people: In May, Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 254 into law, which, among other things, allows the state to take transgender children away from their families if parents allow their children to receive gender-affirming care.
The bill not only bans gender-affirming care for minors, but also effectively for transgender adults: SB 254 makes it so nurse practitioners are no longer allowed to prescribe gender-affirming care, which, according to the Los Angeles Blade, means up to 80% of Florida’s transgender population – including both youth and adults – will no longer be able to access the safe, FDA-approved care they’ve received for years. This is despite both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsing gender-affirming care as necessary for the well-being of anyone experiencing gender dysphoria. It becomes clear that SB 254 isn’t about “protecting children” as its proponents claim, but about making life even more difficult for an already marginalized population, and providing the state with an apparatus which could potentially be used to oppress other undesirable populations in the future.
The transgender population numbers just 1.6 million people nationwide according to a June 2022 study from UCLA, with youth between the ages of 13 and 17 making up roughly 20% of that population. That comes out to just one half of one percent of the population. Mathematically, that makes it essentially impossible for the transgender population to win the culture war on their own. Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s “first they came for” Holocaust poem is cited often in making the case for solidarity, but the underlying message is just as prevalent in 2023 as it was during World War II: If we don’t all come together for marginalized people when they have become official targets of state cruelty, then there will be no one left when the weapons of the state are turned against us.