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Op-Ed

Blame it on the pill

The sexual revolution sparked a counterrevolution that contorts American politics, and confounds the majority, to this day.

March 04, 2012|By Nancy L. Cohen
  • Op-Ed illustration
Op-Ed illustration (Susan Tibbles / For The Times )

If the pill had never been invented, perhaps American politics would be very different today.

Sex has consumed the political debate in recent weeks. To many it has been a surprising turn of events, given the near-universal prediction that this year's election would be all about the economy. If the history of the bipartisan sexual counterrevolution were better known, no one would be surprised.

Conflicts over gay marriage, transvaginal ultrasounds, Planned Parenthood funding and insurance coverage for birth control are not isolated events. Rather, they are the latest expression of a 40-year-old shadow movement that has played an important role in fueling America's political dysfunction.

Consider what America was like just 50 years ago. Americans could be arrested, fined and sentenced to prison for distributing birth control. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex was illegal in every state. Employment discrimination against women was pervasive and perfectly legal.

Everything changed in the space of roughly 15 years. The pill went on the market in 1960. Then the sexual revolution, feminism and gay liberation, in turn, revolutionized the family, the workplace and popular culture. By the end of the 1970s, Congress had outlawed gender discrimination in most areas of American life. Half of the states had repealed their laws against sodomy. The Supreme Court had ruled that statutes outlawing birth control and abortion were violations of constitutionally protected rights.

Today, most Americans take sexual freedom and gender equality for granted. But these were epochal changes. Given that government had long been in the business of legislating sexual morality and underwriting rigid gender roles, it is understandable that those who opposed these cultural transformations took their battle to the political arena.

The sexual counterrevolution was born in 1972, with a tiny group of women: far-right Republicans and Protestant fundamentalists who had never been particularly politically active before. Ironically, they were aided and abetted by their opposites: powerful liberal men, movers and shakers in the Democratic Party.

For the women, the rallying cause was defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. They viewed the ERA as undermining women's God-given traditional role and, with it, an idealized nuclear family. These grass-roots activists lobbied successfully to block ERA ratification in just 15 states, sending the nationally popular amendment down to defeat. They then moved on to battle sex education in public schools, federally funded child care and gay civil rights. (Abortion, importantly, was not an early concern. Evangelical Protestants, for example, because of their strong support for separation of church and state, were largely pro-choice through most of the 1970s.)

These women, not the more famous Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, were the ones who galvanized evangelical voters to create the powerful Christian right and, out of that crucible, the GOP as we know it today.

Since 1994, extremely conservative religious voters have constituted the largest and most powerful bloc within the Republican Party. They made up more than 40% of those who voted for George W. Bushand John McCain. Rick Santorum's rise in the polls on pronouncements like birth control is "not OK," Mitt Romney's flip-flops to the right on abortion and gay marriage, and moderate RepublicanSen. Olympia Snowe's retirement are all testaments to the continuing influence of the sexual counterrevolutionaries within the Republican Party.

But the sexual counterrevolution isn't confined to the GOP; it has been a bipartisan affair.

The Democratic Party experienced its own backlash against the cultural revolution in the 1970s. After George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential election, party leaders and pundits blamed activists outside of the old party structure for the landslide defeat. "The American people made an association between McGovern and gay lib, and welfare rights, and pot smoking and black militants and women's lib ... and everything else that they saw as threatening," the Democrats' convention parliamentarian later concluded. In fact, however, polling shortly before the election showed that it was less voters' perception of McGovern as a cultural radical and more their view of him as weak and indecisive that cost him the election. The flight of the white South to Richard Nixon over racial issues didn't help.

But the old guard had a different view. "Unless we become acceptable to Middle America, we've had it," Hubert Humphrey, who had lost to McGovern and his supporters, told Time. To this day, influential Democrats return to the theory that cultural progressivism explains every defeat. In the 1980s, "Middle America" was the Reagan Democrat; in the '90s, Ross Perot's angry white men; in the George W. Bush years, the Kansan who voted his values against his material interests.

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