‘Don’t Say Gay’ Doesn’t Say That

If you’re looking for a Democrat you might try a graveyard. No, they’re not in residence there yet. That will come in the fall. But you can hear them whistling as they walk past.

The case in point today is education. Republicans have introduced a flurry of bills designed to make a political point. In states like Wisconsin, these bills get vetoed by a Democratic governor. In states like Florida, where the GOP controls everything, they become law. But in all cases the idea is to tee up the Democrats as anti-parent going into November. It looks from here like it’s working.

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (I am not a fan of this guy) will soon sign a bill that Democrats have dubbed “the don’t say ‘gay’ bill.” Now, of course, the bill doesn’t say ‘don’t say gay.’ As a matter of fact, it doesn’t say anything close to that. The bill essentially does two things, both of which will seem sensible to the vast majority of voters.

Democrats’ breathless over-reaction feeds right into Republican strategy for the fall.

First, it says that school districts can’t run official classroom programs on sexual identity for kids in grades K to 3. (It doesn’t ban all discussion of the topic.) Now, why kids that age should be subjected to lessons on sexuality is beyond me. They should be learning the alphabet, basic math and how to judge a really good graham cracker.

And second, it says that parents have to be informed on issues regarding the health and well-being of their kids. That’s designed to get at school policies that come between kids who might want to do things like change their pronouns and those kids’ parents. That problem is real. In fact, here in Wisconsin, the Madison and Kettle Moraine school districts have been the subject of legal action because they have policies that actually prevent school personnel from telling parents what’s going on with their kids. It seems self-evident that that’s just wrong. If a kid is going through something as significant as wanting to change genders, the parents better damn well be involved. Where does a school district get off deciding what’s best for any individual family?

On the K-3 sex ed issue Democrats fall back on their favorite trope: it’s all in your heads, parents. Kids that young aren’t being taught this stuff. Now, of course, if that’s the case, then what’s the harm in the bill? (In fairness, there is a vague provision in the bill extending this ban to situations that are not “age appropriate.” It’s not clear what that means and it’s unfortunate that language is there, but again it’s hardly the clear threat the bill’s opponents make it out to be.)

This brings into focus the deeper, wider problem for Democrats. Republicans aren’t raising these issues at every opportunity because they really care about kids or parents one way or the other. They’re exploiting these things because they see a hot political issue that they can ride, along with other things like inflation, crime and immigration, to victories in November. And the official Democratic line, that this is all made up and that anybody who believes it’s real is also a homophobe, is playing right into their hands.

For a first-rate example of what I see as a breathless over-reaction (but what you might find to be the sensible case on the other side) see this piece by Kara Swisher in the New York Times. Mitch McConnell is trying to position his folks as “the party of parents.” Democrats and liberals like Swisher are doing all they can to help him with that marketing.

In the big picture, Democrats lose on culture wars issues, so it’s best not to fight on that ground whenever they can avoid it. So, for example, 14 Wisconsin Democrats had the good sense to vote for a Republican resolution that would make it easier to keep dangerous criminals accused of new crimes locked up while they await trial. Similarly, in the case of this Florida bill, since it does no real harm, Democrats should just vote for it, or at the very least not make a big deal out of opposing it.

Bill Clinton used this strategy to good effect when he was running for president. Just concede on most of the symbolic, hot-button issues. That leaves Democrats able to fight on the ground of their choosing, mostly on economic issues on which their positions are popular.

Because, here’s the thing. We’re making a great deal of rapid social progress, but that’s happening where it almost always does — outside of government. In fact, it’s precisely because things are changing so fast in the media, entertainment and business that social conservatives punch so far above their weight in politics. It’s the only place where they can still sometimes win. So let social progress happen where it happens first anyway, which is to say in the broader culture. Government will eventually catch up.

It comes down to this. If Democrats continue to rise to Republicans’ bait on the culture wars they will lose every time.

And on another matter… in a victory for local journalism, Lee Enterprises, owner of the Wisconsin State Journal, fought off a takeover attempt by Alden Global Capital. Alden is a corporate raider, specializing in buying newspaper chains and sucking them dry. Last week, Lee was able to manipulate its processes and bylaws to make sure that its corporate directors were reelected and Alden’s slate was shut out. Good.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

6 thoughts on “‘Don’t Say Gay’ Doesn’t Say That

  1. As usual, Mayor Dave, a good run until you hit this pothole: “Republicans aren’t raising these issues at every opportunity because they really care about kids or parents one way or the other.” May surprise you to know that Republicans do procreate. They care very much about their children and not just at those Loudon County school board meetings you may have seen on T.V. To the contrary, the case could be made that Democrats care more about identity politics and burnishing their Woke credentials than the welfare of impressionable little folks. We Republicans ARE the pro-life party, after all.


    1. I have no doubt that many folks in the GOP rank and file are, just as you say, genuinely concerned about these things. But it’s also pretty clear that folks like DeSantis are raising these issues for political gain. While I don’t see much harm in the bill, I don’t see a lot of merit in it either. It’s there to lay down a political marker.


      1. I hope there is political gain in defending children. Or are you saying America is too far gone for that? As for masking school children and shutting down schools, Mr. Yeegads, the verdict has already been rendered on that foolishness. Before you indict Blaska for “climate denialism,” ask why Joe Biden is begging Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela for more oil.


    2. The GOP has effectively thrown away any claim to being a pro-life party with their rampant embrace of disinformation regarding the COVID vaccines leading to hundreds of thousands of needless deaths – mainly by their own adherents, fighting tooth and nail against COVID safety protocols, mocking masks (like DeSantis himself to a group of children last week), and climate change denialism at the behest of big oil donors.


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