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It's the Sex, Stupid: An Interview With Author Nancy Cohen About How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America

Saturday, 11 February 2012 05:40 By Susan Sherman, Truthout | Interview
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Its the Sex Stupid An Interview With Author Nancy Cohen About How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America

Nancy L. Cohen, author of "Delirium."

Nancy L. Cohen: "Delirium" tells the story of how a small group of religious zealots captured the Republican Party, took control of the nation's political agenda - and how Democrats let it happen.

American politics today - the dysfunction, the polarization, the vitriol - isn't just about a reaction to the economy or hostility to President Obama. It has its roots in a shadow movement that started about four decades ago.

The key point is what drove these people, what motivated them, in the first place. It's honestly quite strange when you consider we're talking about the politics of the world's oldest democracy and largest economy.

They believed that sex was destroying America. So, you could say, it's the sex, stupid.

SS: You trace this shadow movement to the sexual revolution.

NLC: Yes. Consider what America was like exactly 50 years before Obama took office. Birth control was illegal in some states. Gay sex was a criminal offense in every state. Most of cable TV would have been run off the air for violating anti-obscenity laws.

In the space of 15 years, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against birth control, pornography, and abortion were unconstitutional. At the same time, the women's and gay rights movements revolutionized popular culture, the family, and the workplace. Almost half the states repealed their anti-sodomy laws.

It didn't take long for a majority of the nation to embrace these changes and take this new world of sex, family, and gender for granted. But a small minority became unhinged by all the change.

That's when what I call the sexual counterrevolution began.

SS: What exactly happened?

NLC: The U.S. government had long been in the business of policing sex between consenting adults. So it was logical for those who wanted to reverse history to wage their crusade through politics.

First these activists - surprisingly, mostly women - went after the Equal Rights Amendment and they killed it. Then they organized to stop the government from funding child care. And they succeeded. Then they ran a referendum to take civil rights away from gays. And they won again.

These campaigns all happened in the 1970s, but it wasn't just a passing backlash. There is a direct line between this sexual counterrevolution and today's dysfunctional politics.

After these victories, these sexual fundamentalists methodically took over the Republican Party. They were key to Reagan's election. Their movement grew in the 90s - they called themselves the pro-family movement or the Christian right. They were the voters who gave Newt Gingrich and the GOP control of Congress in 1994, the behind-the-throne power during Newt's radical tenure as House Speaker. They demanded Clinton's impeachment over a private sexual affair. They were George W. Bush's base, the ones who stopped John McCain from choosing Joe Lieberman as his running mate, and the people who raised Sarah Palin onto the national stage.

And today, they are the voters behind Gingrich's resurrection in South Carolina and Santorum's surge in Iowa, and the reason the GOP Congress has been obsessed with birth control, gays, and abortion - instead of jobs.

SS: "Delirium" also shows that this isn't confined solely to the Republican Party. Democrats have had their own problems with the sexual counterrevolution.

NLC: In power, Democrats tend to be paralyzed by their divisions. When they're kicked out of power - usually for not getting enough done - they overreact.

Now their collective panic almost always takes the same form - and it comes out of their own sexual counterrevolution. Influential Democrats blame progressives and social liberals - women, gays, the "elitists" - for scaring away "mainstream" America. This has been going on since 1972.

It's self-defeating. Democrats blame their base and then they have a hard time getting the base to vote. That's exactly what happened in 2010. Democrats fell into the trap set for them by the Tea Party. They got scared; they shut up about their progressive values and they ran to the Right - and 40 million people who voted in 2008 stayed home and the Tea Party swept into power.

Besides that, the analysis is just flat out factually wrong. Democrats win for being culturally progressive.

SS: What was most surprising to you in writing this book?

NLC: My biggest surprise was that this shadow movement started with women, and women have been its most ardent champions. Palin and Bachmann weren't some post-Hillary, GOP affirmative action fluke. They were the logical endpoint of the right-wing sexual counterrevolution and its capture of the GOP.

It was sex: feminists, and gays - not abortion - that fueled the rise of the Right. Before there was a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, a Moral Majority or a Christian Right, or an antiabortion movement, ordinary fundamentalist women had forged a grassroots movement - aimed at keeping women in their place and gays as second class citizens and pariahs. They were absolutely explicit that they were defending the Biblically-ordained submission of wives to their husbands, as well as the Christian Bible's unremitting animus against sex.

My next biggest surprise was that it was often the most liberal men in the Democratic party who were the most backward about sex and gender issues.

So, for example, in 1972, George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO asserted that the Democratic party had been taken over by "abortionists," by "boys who want to marry boys," and "Jacks that look like Jills and have the odor of Johns about them." Thanks to Meany, it was the only election since FDR that organized labor didn't endorse the Democratic presidential candidate. When McGovern lost by a landslide, influential Democratic liberals pinned the blame on women, gays, young people, and cultural progressives. Not true, but that didn't seem to matter.

Coming across these stories sent me back to do more research - where I was forced to conclude that just about everything we think is true about our politics is wrong.

SS: Such as?

NLC: Gay marriage had no effect on Bush's 2004 reelection. Democrats win elections for supporting abortion rights, not the reverse. The GOP shed voters over the last 30 years because it's perceived as intolerant, hostile to working women and gays, overly religious, and extreme on issues of sex and culture. The conventional wisdom that white working class men vote for Republicans and against their pocketbook interests is just not true.

SS: Hasn't the economic collapse and the rise of the Tea Party put all these social questions on the back burner?

NLC: The Tea Party was essentially an effort by the sexual fundamentalists, post-Bush, to rebrand. The Tea Party at first did fool the media - and the Democratic Party.

The Tea Party is not libertarian. It is disproportionately very socially conservative. Half of Tea Party identifiers are fundamentalists, half identify with the Christian Right, two-thirds are against abortion and gay rights. Two-thirds were against repealing DADT [don't ask, don't tell]. This is not where the majority of the American public is on these points.

SS: But economic issues have also been prominent in the presidential race and 111th Congress.

NLC: I think the question is what unites the sexual fundamentalists and market fundamentalists in the Republican establishment. There are two parts to this: shared ideology and practical politics.

The sexual fundamentalists want small government - except in your bedroom - because one, they're Protestant individualists. Economic success proves your virtue, and if you're virtuous you're successful. Second, they want to shrink the federal government to deprive Democrats of the money and power to impose sex education, gay marriage, family planning, and science on the American people.

Here's where practical politics comes in. The sexual fundamentalists bring voters to the table - up to half of the GOP base in some states. And that's what the market fundamentalists have always lacked.

The 1 percenters know that there has never been anything close to an electoral majority in favor of ending Social Security and Medicare, slashing taxes on the wealthy, eliminating unions and the Clean Air Act. Their alliance of convenience with the sexual fundamentalists goes back to the Reagan era.

Back then, Reagan and the free market, pro-business elite called the shots in the GOP and they were able to ignore the more extreme demands of the sexual fundamentalists. During the 90s, the tables turned. Ultimately, that's the historical takeaway from Clinton's impeachment and the Right forcing Gingrich to resign his speakership - the puppets became the masters.

The Republican party is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the sexual counterrevolution.

Romney and Gingrich are the latest incarnations of the devil's bargain the GOP establishment made with sexual fundamentalists in the GOP base: give me your votes for tax breaks and deregulation and I'll outlaw abortion, gay marriage, and birth control.

SS: How do you think the sexual counterrevolution has influenced the 2012 GOP presidential race?

NLC: Since the sexual fundamentalists became the most powerful bloc in the GOP, the party has oscillated between two modes of operation in elections: stealth and ideological extremism.

2012 did call for stealth. Someone who appears sane, competent, and focused on the economy to mainstream voters, but who is attractive to the base and has promised the base he will make gay marriage, abortion, and birth control illegal.

Gingrich pioneered this approach in 1994 and Bush's rope-a-dope in 2000 is the gold standard here. Pretend to be a mainstream moderate and hold your knockout punch: the under-the-radar electoral mobilization of the sexual fundamentalists in your favor. In another environment, Romney - who is much farther right than the media generally acknowledges - would be a perfect candidate for this kind of stealth campaign.

The other classic GOP mode is ideological extremism and overreach, and that's what we've seen this year. All of the Not-Romneys were homegrown organic products of the sexual counterrevolution. The problem was, of course, that Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain all had fatal weaknesses as presidential candidates.

SS: I have to say, this is a frightening and depressing story. We have these enormous challenges - the economy, the Afghanistan war, unemployment - and you're telling us that our politics is being driven by sexual fundamentalism?

NLC: Thirteen million Americans are unemployed and the GOP candidates and Congress are focused on birth control, abortion, and gays? This is no way to run a country.

It is alarming, but there's no reason to despair. Surprisingly, it would be pretty easy to put an end to the sexual counterrevolution.

SS: Really?

NLC: The sexual fundamentalists make up less than 20% of voters. They're outnumbered at least 3 to 1 in the national electorate. Polling consistently shows that a large majority of voters disagree strongly with them - about abortion, about the modern family, about mixing religion and politics, and even since late 2009, about gay marriage.

If we want to get America back on track, it's pretty simple. Tune in and vote. That will be only the beginning of fixing our broken politics - we face difficult and serious challenges that don't have simple solutions. But it'll be a huge leap forward in putting an end to our national political delirium.

"Delirium: How The Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America," Nancy L. Cohen, Counterpoint Press.

Susan Sherman

Susan Sherman is the author of the novel "The Little Russian," the story of a Jewish woman's struggle for survival amid the political upheavals of the Russian revolutions and the Russian Civil War that followed.


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