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America's Sexual Obsession - And How It Trumps Policy

Our country has an unhealthy obsession with sex. Aren’t you excited to keep on reading now?

Actually, it’s not quite what you think. But read on; there is a point that needs to be made.

When I was in law school, I was part of a program called Policy Studies. Professors from different ends of the political spectrum explored strategies by which policies get enacted. It was over three decades ago, but as best as I can remember, the curriculum assumed that people were rational actors and that techniques can be deployed to improve our system overall.

As has become evident through recent political events, however, the system is not rational. In our current environment, a familiar refrain is--Why do people seem to vote against their interest? Access to health care, a fair tax structure, development of our infrastructure, and environmental regulation are just a few examples of policies that most people outside the 1% should be aiming for. Furthermore, as Frank Bruni points out in his latest column in The New York Times, there is clear evidence to show that Democratic Party is more fiscally responsible, supportive of families, decent, modest, and traditional than the Republicans. Yet why have people supported a president and Congress that clearly is on the opposite side of their interests?

In previous posts, I have identified five areas that can benefit from sound policy making: (1) education, (2) civil rights, (3) voting rights, (4) economic and infrastructure development, and (5) balanced protective regulation. Effective policies can benefit people who live in both “red” and “blue” regions, and indeed both Republicans and Democrats can come up with reasonable strategies to address these issues. This would happen in a rational structure.

The wrench in this system is that people are choosing culture over policy. As I outlined in my last post, the Republican Party gained strength through several strategies over the last few decades—racially charged campaigning, big money support, and the evangelical movement. I argue that the latter—the rise of the religious right—has emerged as perhaps the most powerful and divisive force in our current political scene.

Most evangelical Christians did not seem to identify with one party or another. Indeed, our most religious president over the last century was a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. But ironically, his successor—the man who soundly defeated him—established a stronger connection with the evangelical movement. Ronald Reagan and conservative religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, and Pat Robertson formed a mutually supportive relationship, in which all parties gained power and influence. Long after these individuals departed from the scene, the symbiotic relationship between the political conservatives and evangelical groups has continued to this day. But this didn’t have to be so; religious devotion and morality is not an inherently Republican value, as proven by Carter on one side and philanderers like Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump on the other. Indeed, I think the last few months have clearly shown that obnoxious and immoral behavior follows no party boundaries.

What bound the evangelicals and conservatives together as such a potent political force? The answer is simple—sex. This too is not inevitable. Sex and procreation have their place in the Bible, but these are not the only themes. In fact, sex was certainly not Jesus’ obsession; he was more concerned with humility, service, concern for the poor, and renunciation of material wealth. But evangelical and political leaders were able to recognize people’s fears and make sexual concerns prominent as a core issue.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a world that was changing on multiple fronts. Liberalizing social mores and technological developments inspired many wives and mothers, who were no longer content to stay in the home. This posed both an opportunity and a threat, and eventually a backlash. One result was increasing efforts to control women’s bodies. If women could not have access to a full range of birth control options, then perhaps they would return to their previous domestic responsibilities. At the same time, gay men and women became more visible in the world and in popular culture. I can’t put my finger on why this was such a concern for the religious right, other than to suspect that people were afraid of their own deep secrets and/or worried about the prospects of their own bloodlines. I’m open to other suggestions.

Since that time, and continuing today, the religious and cultural right has privileged two issues above all else—abortion and homosexuality. These are the fault lines upon which today’s politics rests. In large swaths of our country (more rural than urban, more southern than northern), these issues trump all others. Add to this the almost religious (maybe even fetishized?) devotion people have for gun ownership.

All of this is not rational from a scientific, policy-oriented perspective. Why should you care about the private lives of people you don’t know? If they love someone of the same sex or want to control their reproductive lives, why is that your concern? And if it is someone you know who wants to be with someone of the same gender or wants to have an abortion, shouldn’t your love and care for that person overcome all?

The answers to these questions, so self-evident to those of us on one side of the political divide, are equally obvious to those on the other. Decades of advocacy, preaching, and familial reinforcement of values (backed by moneyed interests who are glad to have people focus on cultural issues rather than economics policy) have led to a cultural framework that makes complete sense to the voters who hold these values.

This provides some explanation as to why large numbers of people supported an unprepared, narcissistic sexual abuser as president, as long as he promised to take their side on the cultural issues—and nominate judges who would do so. Or why nearly 50% of Alabama voters (including a majority of white voters and 63% of white women) recently voted for an unqualified, divisive sexual predator (leave it to me to find bad news in a good news story).

Where do we go from here? Democrats believe, with some reason, that the 2018 midterm elections provide an opportunity to take back both houses of Congress. The malevolence of the president and the recent thievery of Congress give them some cause for optimism. However, the prominence of cultural issues in large parts of the country still makes this an uphill climb.

My advice to Democrats is to nationalize the Doug Jones playbook. Remember that, even though we may diverge culturally, the economic interests of most middle and lower-class voters are largely the same. Focus on the message—the economy, jobs, local concerns. Don’t dwell on the cultural issues. Make it forward-thinking. Target blocs of voters. Get the vote out. And remember that African American voters are still Democrats’ best friends.

And when conservative candidates try to force the debate back to culture—abortion, homosexuality, and the like—turn back to them and ask, “Why the heck are you folks so obsessed about sex?”

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