One of the most surprising aspects of contemporary Republican politics has been their across-the-board attack on women’s health services and women’s rights. Rather than an isolated misogynistic program, these attacks should be viewed as one part of a conservative agenda to roll back gains made in the sixties.
Recently, MoveOn reported Top 10 Shocking Attacks from the GOP’s War on Women ranging from changing the definition of rape to denying abortions in all circumstances to limiting access to contraception to defunding preschool programs and family planning agencies. It’s not only the women’s movement that’s being attacked, but also the civil-rights movement, the consumer movement, the environmental movement, and the gay-rights movement. All the accomplishments of the sixties are under attack by Republicans. They’ve returned to the conservative ideological framework that worked for them up until the McCain-Palin campaign,
Beginning in the Reagan Administration, Republicans attacked a so-called “liberal culture of permissiveness” they claimed had been unleashed by the social events of the sixties. They accused Democrats of espousing “sixties values”: “if it feels good, do it.” Republicans declared that a mythical liberal attack on traditional values produced many of America’s problems such as poverty, promiscuity, and drug use. In 1993, conservative scholar Myron Magnet produced the seminal expression of this philosophy, ”The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass”. Magnet argued that liberal ideology promoted a “culture of victimization” that held "the poor back from advancement by robbing them of responsibility for their fate and thus further squelching their initiative and energy." “The Dream and the Nightmare” influenced George W. Bush , “who told the Wall Street Journal that it was the most important book he’d ever read, after the Bible.”
The Republican belief that liberalism fostered a culture of victimization strongly influenced the Bush Administration’s domestic and foreign policy. Combined with faith that the free market would inevitably solve most social problems, Bush’s conservatism produced a potpourri of aberrant social policies: Don’t give poor children free lunches or special tutoring because that will enhance their sense of being victims. Don’t provide women with birth control because that will cause them to become promiscuous. Don’t provide clean needles for drug users because that will legitimize their behavior. And so forth.
In response to every American social problem, the Bush Administration relied upon a simple conservative maxim: individual behavior equates to individual responsibility. They argued that Government programs are unnecessary because behavior change requires only willpower; all an individual needs to do is to ”just say no” and pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They believed the free market provided unlimited opportunity for those who choose to take advantage of it.
Since the Reagan era, Republicans have been adept at mobilizing resentment based upon the notion of the “culture of victimization.” In campaign after campaign Republicans have fueled the anger of lower and middle-class whites and redirected it to imaginary groups: liberal elites who promote “sixties values,” black welfare “queens,” promiscuous women who want abortion on demand, aggressive homosexuals who seek to convert others to their “lifestyle,” and most recently illegal aliens who steal American jobs and benefits. Tom Frank described this process in What’s the Matter with Kansas: within the Republican Party, economic conservatives distract social conservatives with inflammatory social issues in order to get their votes and keep them from noticing the life-threatening problems caused by conservative economic policies.
What we’re seeing from the 2012 Republican Party is more than a strategy. It cannot be explained as a shared belief the liberalism has fostered a culture of victimization. As University of California Professor George Lakoff explains: there is now an overriding “conservative moral logic.” This is inherently patriarchal: “The idealized conservative family is structured around a strict father.” Family values are the values established by the strict father. By extension, they are set by a Republican candidate such as Romney or Santorum.
Lakoff observes that conservatives project the “strict father” model onto all societal institutions. A proper church is governed by a strict father God, the Christian Old Testament God. The marketplace is controlled by a mythical strict father, whose invisible hand ensures that business transactions ultimately benefit society. The military is run by a strict father without interference from civilians. And so forth.
To incite their conservative base, the Romney and Santorum campaigns have turned away from the economy to family values. And they have focused on women’s rights and health services. From their perspective men – the strict fathers – control reproduction. From the Republican point-of-view, unmarried women who have sex are immoral, and providing them with birth control supports immoral behavior.
Republicans have a consistent conservative philosophy that they dogmatically promulgate. Their objective is not merely to elect a true believer such as Santorum or (perhaps) Romney. The GOP objective is reverse the gains made in the sixties – gains they link to “sixties values.” Republicans plan to destroy the civil-rights movement, the consumer movement, the environmental movement, the gay-rights movement, and the women’s movement.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org