Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) asks on Twitter:
Why oh why is our country in the grips of a sex panic? I just don’t get it.
My response was:
Obama backlash was greenlight for all wingnuts; every hate/fear is now OK, unhidden, synergistic.
I’d like to de-Twitterize and unpack that a bit.
The Tidal Wave
The savagery of the current GOP sex-panic is numbing. Literally hundreds of anti-choice bills have been introduced in Congress and the state legislatures since the 2010 election, and their extremism exceeds previous bounds almost day by day. There are not just the usual things like bogus restrictions on healthcare clinics, intrusive requirements for unnecessary ultrasounds and false “counseling” (in some states, through mandatory visits to religious-right “crisis pregnancy centers”), waiting periods and other barriers; in several states there have been bills banning abortion in every case, including when the patient is actually dying, and bills authorizing religious-nut providers to literally let their patients die by withholding services and refusing to transfer them to a real caregiver. This, of course, on top of the raving, libelous assault on Planned Parenthood as a proxy for Title X services across the board, the shamelessly mendacious and sensationalized fictions of Breitbart and his media minions, and the really nasty crap about black women committing racial genocide by having abortions, or how forced childbirth is a feminist cause because fetuses are (seriously) “little, tiny women”.
The viciousness of it is just sickening, but not surprising. The utterly murderous hostility to women that drives the anti-choice/anti-contraception/anti-sex education/anti-sex crowd has never been difficult to see. The bald lies and persistent distortions that make up anti-choice rhetoric are a chronic illness of the right wing. Nothing that is coming out in these recent bills, or the rest of the hucksterizing and demonizing that has welled up into greater media prominence in recent months, is in any way new. What is new is that the insanity has been openly endorsed and propagated through legislation by the relatively mainstream elements of the GOP political class. Used to be you had to troll the real backwaters of the Southern state legislatures to find people as crazy as the ones who are now driving the Republican party. But now the most extreme – even, literally, fatal – excesses of misogyny have become mainstream legislative agendas at the highest levels of the GOP.
The question, then, is not why there is a sex panic on the right wing, but why it has now become operationalized as a legislative agenda that the GOP leadership is willing to put front and center – even to bet its electability on. (The last time they threatened to shut down the government it ruined them for the next election cycle, but it was at least a consequence of the policies they had committed themselves to in the previous election cycle. This time it was over a berserker plan from their own margins to defund gynecological care by way of attacking Planned Parenthood. The GOP is just as fond of over-reaching as before, but the substance has gotten weirder.) What makes the backlash such a compelling tactic right now, when it has – as a die-hard legislative agenda – been largely back-burner for most of a generation?
The answer, I think, is that the sex panic and war on women have not suddenly grown in salience all by themselves. Instead, the political conditions have shifted such that the anti-woman wing, though no larger, now has a power and prominence it hadn’t had before. There are several contributing factors.
Contributing Factors and Dynamics
The most significant is the absolutely crazed reaction on the right to the election of Barack Obama. “Reenfranchising little tiny women fetuses” is hardly the only nonsense coming out of the right: birtherism and its many paranoid variants, the dark mutterings about madrassas and Kenya and “Hussein”, the re-emergence of red-baiting and absurd charges of communism and Nazism (often simultaneously), and many of the familiar lunacies of ’50s-era reactionism have all been created or in many cases simply dusted off in response to the claims of a confident, unapologetically (semi-)progressive black man to political legitimacy and the power of the Presidency. The effect has been to embolden many of the more-distant arms of the right wing, whom the “respectable” Republicans had been pandering to but not inviting into the halls of power. Obama’s election prompted waves of rumors about “gun-grabbing” and sudden shortages of ammunition as the result of gun nuts stockpiling in anticipation of their cold-dead-hands fantasy scenarios finally coming to life; militias and survivalists then became more welcome in mainstream right-wing circles as the less-extreme gun enthusiasts suddenly found themselves sharing the same apocalyptic delusions. The anti-Muslim bigots of course had a field day with the election of a non-white President with a Muslim middle name, son of a Muslim, who had attended Muslim schools in a Muslim country and was all like Muslimy and stuff (and right in the middle of our War on Muslim Terror!); open religious bigotry thus became not merely respectable but actual policy, and the religious extremists who fought their imaginary battles against “sharia law” brought their other religious obsessions with them into the GOP mainstream. In addition, the tone of the Obama-vs.-the-Heartland election also created its own forms of backlash: the rejection of Sarah Palin became, oddly, a kind of civil rights issue for stupid people, such that actually expecting someone to know something about their own supposed field of expertise, and to speak the truth about it, was pegged as discrimination on the part of “elitists” gripped by an evil obsession with knowledge, competence, and honesty. Thus, the election of Obama brought the marginals, the back-woodsers, and the drunk uncles of the GOP back into the Big Tent, dragging their issues, obsessions, and hostilities with them, and making the general climate on the right, and within the GOP, more hospitable to factions that had been an embarrassment just recently.
Immediately thereafter, the fears of the Obama-haters were ratified by the passage of the Affordable Care Act. No matter how weakened and compromised, the coming of communistic, anti-business, godless liberal socialized subsidies for private-market health insurance was both a death-blow to America as we know it and proof positive of everything that had ever been said about Obama. It was also a galvanizing event for virtually every strain of conservative, and a coordinating issue for the entire conservative bloc in Congress, as well as many activist groups among the general public. The immediate determination to cripple or repeal Obamacare was a practical issue every conservative could get behind, and generated a focus of legislative effort aimed at healthcare issues that every conservative in office (at both federal and state levels) could contribute to.
A similarly welcoming air emerged within the Tea Party. With its badly-veiled racism and populist resentment of the “elites”, it created an environment in which extremist positions were no longer seen as a liability. By stoking disaffection pure and simple, teabaggers were able to swell their ranks with angry rightists from across the spectrum: gun-toters waving AR-15s at Obama to prove their point about responsible self-defense; teat-suckers from the oil, corn, and beef industries ranting about socialism; religious segregationists raving about the worldwide Muslim conspiracy; economic doomsdayers raving about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy; racial segregationists pining for their own Berlin wall in Arizona; goldbuggers, Galt Gulchers, godbags and every other thing. Keeping that coalition together, and at maximum size, meant not imposing any membership test. Since anything goes, everything went. Careful non-questioning of the ideological underpinnings of the movement, or any of the many fears and fantasies its members indulged in, allowed mainstream politicians to actively cultivate support from teabaggers who might at best have been thrown some rhetorical raw meat in previous years, but never indulged with a risky photo-op featuring visibly crazy right-wing counterculturists. This week’s Republican Presidential campaign debate was officially sponsored by – I shit you not – the John Birch Society, an organization that once set a record of sorts by having been declared too crazy for mainstream conservatism by no less than William F. Buckley, now not only on the bandwagon but helping to drive.
The teabag tidal wave was especially significant given the success of their declared adherents in the election of 2010. Not all teabag candidates won, but a surprising number did, and others polled far higher than the fast-dying “rational actor” school of political analysis would have suggested. Most importantly, several candidates spurned by the mainstream ran as independents, and some actually won. This prompted a recalibration of the right-wing Pandermeter: the lunatic fringe could no longer be counted on to vote Republican on autopilot – they were organized (loosely) now and could command serious tribute both at the polls and by way of their affiliated elective legislative bloc. Though not all the Congressional GOP first-termers of 2010 were explicitly teabaggers, many were far-gone ideological conservatives with little taste for compromise or the procedural niceties observed by more experienced legislators.
The Gathering of the Wingnuts
Thus, the right wing as a whole was both energized and consolidated by the election of Obama and the political events – legislative and electoral – that flowed from it. After the right-wing wagons had been circled, the traditional distinction between “fiscal conservatives” and “social conservatives” seemed to be moot. (Despite some confusion over where the “small government” teabaggers and libertarians stood, it became obvious that the conservatives howling about the federal deficit were (a) ignorant of economics, and especially of the contribution the Affordable Care Act would make to actually reducing healthcare expenditures, and (b) as devoted to social reactionism as any old-line conservative, and often more so. Hardline libertarians Ron and Rand Paul, supposedly devotees of personal freedom and self-determination, were among the most rabid sex-panickers in Congress, sponsoring, among many other things, bills for zygote personhood, absolute prohibitions on abortion in all cases, and to strip the Supreme Court of authority even to review the constitutionality of laws regarding personhood, abortion, or gay marriage.)
When the GOP gained a majority in the House of Representatives, their odd partnership of old-liners, teabaggers, libertarians, religious wingnuts, and others realized they could dominate the chamber, but only if they all worked together. And they did. The flood of radical, and often simply crazy, bills that emerged – anti-choice, anti-union, pro-gold-standard, anti-sharia, etc., etc. – was the result of an orgy of back-scratching, in which GOP Congressmembers all dutifully voted for each other’s bills regardless of substance or sanity. Something similar happened at the state level, where GOP governors appeared to be in a contest to solidify their credentials for reelection or a later Presidential race by introducing the most radical bills they could conjure up, on the most galvanizing issues they could identify.
One final factor, I think, is the general increase in partisanship that has been growing since at least the Clinton years, and to a considerable extent the Nixon years. The GOP in particular is incensed at the very existence of any Democratic President, and determined to de-legitimize both the Democrats and even the political process itself. Both parties have become more hostile to the other as well, and since the election of Obama the GOP seems to have made the determination that it simply will not do anything whatsoever with the Democrats, no matter how destructive the consequences. (The Democrats, of course, continue to surrender at every opportunity – making the destruction of Democratic policies the only truly bipartisan effort in Washington.) This has the effect of pushing GOP legislative efforts further to the right, almost without limitation. Since they’ve given up on working with the Democrats at all, there is no reason for them to move at all centerward, and every reason to move toward the far right where their center of mass is increasingly drifting.
The True Believer: The Nature of Mass Movements
Given all these factors and dynamic pressures, the otherwise unbelievable storm of misogyny and hostility to ordinary healthcare that has erupted in the last few years, and especially since the last election, seems almost inevitable. It is important to recognize that, as bad as it is, this reactionary legislative blitzkrieg is not focused solely on women; the GOP is equal-opportunity crazy, and is moving backwards across the board: protection for BP after the oil spill; protection for banks who’ve committed mortgage fraud; continued subsidies for oil, coal, and agribusiness; global-warming denialism; the gold standard; opposition to unemployment benefits and economic stimulus; the war on union labor; the war on teachers and public education; the war on immigrants . . . . They hate women – viciously, and fearfully – and they hate sex and they hate sexual freedom. But they hate unions, workers, Hispanics, and just about everybody else who’s not one of them, also. And those hatreds are not new.
What has happened is that the most-rabid hate faction has grown somewhat, and it has been bolstered by a cooperative alliance with other radical factions on the right. The “Rockefeller Republican” is essentially dead, and the GOP has tied itself to a passle of far-right activist groups that acknowledge no limits on how far they should go. Given the general outpouring of right-wing fanatacism that began with the Clinton election, was inflamed by Bush and 9/11, and reached the fever stage with Obama, there is no brake – practical, electoral, or moral – that what passes for a reasonable Republican can apply anymore. The GOP deliberately stoked fanaticism and hatred by making gay marriage an electoral issue in 2000 and 2004, putting the religious-right’s pet issues at the forefront as they never had been before; the intense fight over stem cell research under Bush had the same effect. But now, with the rise of the teabaggers and Obamaphobia rampant, the GOP is having trouble riding its own tiger. The wingers have control now, and, with no limiting factor in place, they’re letting it all hang out.
So what we’re seeing on the women’s-issues front, just as with what we see on the labor, employment, education, race, and environmental fronts, is what happens when the radical fringes coalesce and feel their combined strength. None of what they are doing is new; what is new is that they can now get it past the sanity-check previously imposed by older hands with more political experience. This is the face of conservatism that conservatism previously kept hidden. It’s always been there. Now they’ve merely discarded the mask of normalcy.
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