By Mandy Van Deven | 25 September 2012
During the 2008 presidential election, historian and political commentator Nancy L. Cohen became interested in how sex has changed American politics. She was so intrigued by the gender issues that surfaced around Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin that she began working on what would become Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America. The book is a meticulously researched political history of the Democratic self-destruction and Republican stealth that has allowed many of the gains of the sexual revolution to be lost.
In a political climate where women have to debate scientific inaccuracies stated by Republican politicians about “legitimate rape,” where women who use birth control are maligned as “sluts,” and where all-male congressional hearings are held to determine women’s right to control their own bodies, Delirium is a welcome font of clarity. Although Cohen couldn’t have anticipated the degree to which sexual rights would be the focus of the 2012 election, her book provides germane guidance for progressive activists who wish to secure four more years of a Democratic presidency.
Mandy Van Deven: Why are we still talking about the legitimacy of birth control in America?
Nancy Cohen: This is precisely the question we should all be asking ourselves right now. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the vagina, stupid. This is not just temporary insanity triggered by the fear of a black president. It’s not a populist backlash. We are having debates about the legitimacy of birth control in 2012 as a result of a multi-decade-long right-wing movement to take back the rights that women won during and after the sexual revolution in the 1960s. The long-term roots of this movement and what it means for the future is the story we need to focus on today.
MVD: In the book, you describe sexual fundamentalists as a small portion of the US population that wields enormous political power. How did this group come to have so much influence?
NC: The sexual fundamentalists began as a grassroots movement on issues like blocking the Equal Rights Amendment. They have been savvy political organizers for a long time and always identified electoral politics as a key battleground. Starting in the 1970s, they basically infiltrated the GOP at the local precinct and school board levels. Gradually, they built their power to the point where they controlled many state Republican parties, and we saw the culmination of their takeover of the GOP in the 2010 elections. The Tea Party was largely a rebranding of the discredited Christian Right; it wasn’t what it portrayed itself to be, and the media cooperated in this inaccurate portrayal.
MVD: How embedded is this group within the Republican Party today?
NC: The Republican Party has been hijacked by anti-women and anti-gay extremists—that is clear. No Republican leader can get past the starting gate without appeasing the sexual fundamentalists. The people whose mission it is to roll back women’s rights and gay rights make up close to half of the Republican Party nationally, and in many red states, these extremists make up closer to 60 or 70 percent of the party members.
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