Nancy Cohen is most recently the author of Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Getting in touch with his humanist side.
Author: Nancy L. Cohen
Subjects Discussed: Rep. Darrell Issa and the contraception hearing, Komen for the Cure, when the Republican Party was better about women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, the McGovernik principle that has crippled progressivism, challenging Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the 2010 special election in Massachusetts in which Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat, Stanley Greenberg and Reagan Democrats, why gay marriage is only accepted in certain states, Prop 8, the Defense of Marriage Act, civil unions, the Democratic reluctance to embrace gay marriage, Chris Christie, parallels between civil rights and gay rights, Howard Dean’s early efforts to embrace the Internet, Democrats who “run into the present,” Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, Reagan’s silence on AIDS, conservatism as a three-legged stroll, silly attempts at a political Theory of Everything, Phyllis Schlafly, Ford’s support of the ERA, Carter blaming the feminists, political pragmatism as an excuse for diffidence, reproductive rights as a core right, Carter’s personal opposition to abortion, the Tea Party Express’s financial contributions, the influence of money on politics, the Arkansas Project, David Brock’s Blinded by the Right, why birth control hearings is now a wedge issue, the Tea Party as a rebranding of the Christian Right, efforts to dismiss Hillary Clinton, Gail Sheehy’s attacks on Hillary, attracting mythical male voters through the Margaret Thatcher strategy, motivating young people to vote as a winning progressive strategy, Obama’s timidity on reproductive/gay rights, the clown car of presidential candidates, the lingering effect of Sarah Palin, whether Republican women voters can be courted by Democrats, Lieberman as the first Democrat to denounce Bill Clinton about Lewinksy from the Senate chamber, Sen. Moynihan settling a score with Clinton, the mythical conservative middle, the problems with the 2000 Presidential election, Gore’s centrist campaign, the influence of the far right sexual fundamentalists, Mitt Romney’s effect on the sexual counterrevolution, and women’s rights in 2013.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Your timing is quite impeccable. Because I’m talking with you the day after Representative Issa to basically not allow a woman to testify at the all-male hearing on contraception. I’m talking with you a week after Komen for the Cure initially pulled its funds from Planned Parenthood, saying, “Well, we can’t support any organization that is under congressional review,” and then changing this to be “Well, we can’t support any organization that is referring out its mammograms.” So I gotta say, maybe this might be the opportune time to discuss how we got to this point in American political history. How does this constantly wavering excuse fit into the political strategy of the religious right and the forces of what you identify as the sexual counterrevolution? How did this come into play?
Cohen: Well, I’m an evil genius. And when I came up with this idea a couple years ago, I planned for these hearings to take place.
Cohen: No, seriously, the first line of my first chapter is “Perhaps if the pill hadn’t been invented, American politics would have turned out very differently.” And at the time, it was kind of a literary allusion. A way to get some history down. So what we’re seeing is really the logical end point of what I call the sexual counterrevolution. Delirium tells the story about how a small group of reactionaries who want to control sex have hijacked American politics. And what we’re seeing this week, and last week, is really the essence of the Republican Party. The id of the Republican Party coming out to play because they are so intoxicated with the power that they got in the last elections.
Correspondent: Yes. Well, the id wasn’t always there. As you point out in the book, I mean, it’s become increasingly id-like over the years. What of the sensible conservative idea? What of the rational reactionary?
Cohen: The sensible conservative ideas Back in the ’60s and the ’70’s, the Republican Party was the small government/personal freedom party. They actually meant it. They were better on women’s rights. They were better on sexual freedom really. Even before the sexual revolution, the Republican Party was better. But what happened was, with the sexual revolution and feminism and gay rights, a group of people — surprisingly mostly women — were appalled, freaked out about all these changes and sexual life and women’s roles and gays coming out of the closet. And they organized on a grassroots level against these changes. And so they went up against the Equal Rights Amendment. And they won. And then they went after publicly financed child care. And they won. And then they took civil rights away from gays. And they won. And then they methodically started taking over the Republican Party from local, state, and county committees on to the school board until 2008, when they had one of their own, Sarah Palin, on the presidential ticket.
Correspondent: Let’s get into this. You point out that George McGovern is one of the key figures responsible for Democratic timidity in relation to the sexual counterrevolution. You suggest that McGovern losing his temper, telling a voter to kiss his ass — that was one factor. The really terrible decision he made involving ordering milk with a liver sandwich in a Jewish deli. Not exactly the smartest choice. There was also this idea that McGovern, because he encompassed this cultural radicalism and failed, that this was what encouraged the Democrats to backpedal. So I’m wondering to what degree is this political temperament and to what degree is this, I suppose, a cultural radicalism that Democrats are afraid of? I mean, 2004, you have Howard Dean’s famous scream. And even before that, everybody was like, “Wow, this guy’s finally standing up for progressivism.” I mean, it seems to me that if you have a situation where the Democratic presidential candidates are limited in what they can say and how they can act, that this kind of progressive idea of, say, supporting something like the Equal Rights Amendment, you’re almost not allowed to do that. So how did this state come to be and what solutions do we have for the future?
Cohen: Good question. So the sexual counterrevolution has affected both parties. And in the Democratic Party, it’s really about their overreaction to every time they lose. And the way it goes back to McGovern’s election is that they convinced themselves that the reason McGovern lost by a landslide is because of all the gays and feminists and multiculturalists that he associated himself with. And so there’s this idea that Democratic progressives alienate mainstream America. Mainstream America is conservative. That idea is a fixation of the Democrats. But if you look at the studies of elections and you look at the studies of public opinion, it’s not true at all. Democrats have actually won elections for being the more culturally progressive party on women’s issues and gay issues and race issues. And so Democrats, I believe, would actually do better if they did embrace their voters’ live and let live attitude about people’s personal lives and stood on principle for civil rights for every American. But Democrats are timid and they have convinced themselves that they lose on this issue. So it would be good for them to start to recognize that it’s a winning issue.
Correspondent: But what data are they using? I mean, it can’t just be McGovern that’s the linchpin for this.
Cohen: No. So what they generally look at is exit polls and focus groups. And to get a little wonky here…
Correspondent: Sure. Feel free.
Cohen: What I looked at in the books so that no one else really has to — except maybe Democratic strategists can start looking at this stuff — is a lot of research by political scientists and sociologists that do regressions of public opinion polling and elections, and conclusively show that all the things we think are true — you know, that the white working-class man is an economic populist, but a social conservative? Wrong. It’s the reverse. He’s pro-choice and doesn’t like the Democrats’s economic policies. That Bush won the election on gay marriage? Wrong. No evidence. That Democrats lose elections for being pro choice? Wrong. Clinton won the election in 1992 on a huge upsurge of pro-choice women and pro-choice men.
Correspondent: You challenge Thomas Frank’s ideas in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by saying that he was condescending in believing that Kansans were duped into voting for more right-wing candidates and so forth. How do we go ahead and factor in, oh say, scenarios like Scott Brown in Massachusetts? Which is very much a scenario in which arrogance and technocratic approaches tend to destroy a Democratic seat. I mean, how does this play into the sexual counterrevolution? And how do you reconcile this, what seems to me, legitimate Thomas Frank idea with this?
Cohen: So I do criticize Tom Frank for being condescending. But I also criticize him for having no empirical evidence for his argument. And that’s the main case. His idea is premised that, one, the working class doesn’t vote for Democrats. They actually do. It’s premised on the idea that Kansas has been some bulwark of Democratic politics. It’s actually been a bulwark of right-wing evangelical fundamentalism. So there’s a number of other factual errors. I actually went into the book assuming that I was going to extend Tom Frank’s thesis. And I found that it actually went back to this anti-McGovern idea and discovered that there was no evidence for it. And that’s when I started moving in this other direction on the sexual counter-revolution. So an election like Scott Brown’s, a lot of health care money went in there. A lot of the people that they say are white working-class populist men are actually middle income or better off people. So what you have in a lot of these elections, like 2010 and the Scott Brown election, is you have very low turnout from poor Democratic groups. Young people. Single women. Low income people. And so when the exit polls do show a surge of white men, they often don’t figure out, well, where are these men economically? And I do agree that the smugness of the Democratic candidate in that election.
Correspondent: Who we don’t want to name. (laughs) And you didn’t name in the book and I won’t name on this show.
Cohen: I think she’s probably reformed. So I do think that was a case of a sense of the Democrats being entitled to a seat and didn’t really see this both right-wing and corporate money coming into that election that year.
Correspondent: If Tom Frank is so wrong with his evidence, then why is that book constantly cited? Why over many decades does the idea of the McGovernik still hold within the Democrats? I think that’s the thing I really don’t get. If all of the scientific evidence says otherwise, then why are serious Democratic leaders going by this?
Cohen: Well, actually, serious Democratic leaders aren’t going by it anymore.
Correspondent: It only took them several decades. (laughs)
Cohen: Yes, well, they read the polls and they read exit polls and they do their own political polling. They don’t necessarily read the academic literature. But the key person who articulated this idea of the McGovernik, about the Reagan Democrat: Stanley Greenberg, who I hear is a wonderful man and has done a lot of good work for progressive causes, was one of the people who kept this idea alive. And he runs a polling company. And he uses his own polls. So just after, since 2008, he’s basically said, “You know what? The Reagan Democrats aren’t the key voting bloc anymore. Democrats need to go for this multiethnic, cosmopolitan, progressive base and they’ll pick up enough of these white working-class men to win elections. So it is Tom Frank — and I haven’t read his new book, so I don’t know how he’s amended his thesis. But there has been a shift among the leadership of the Democratic Party. And I think you see with Obama not defending DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], right? Saying, “I think it’s unconstitutional.” This is a sign that they’re starting to see that good principles are good politics.