Asked for “one single word to describe your impression of the budget negotiations in Washington,” Americans volunteered “crazy,” “disgusting,” “stupid,” and “juvenile.” Two-thirds of the American public called it “ridiculous.” In the weeks after the debt ceiling crisis, polls registering record levels of dissatisfaction poured in from every major survey firm and every major news outlet. Obama’s approval rating fell to its lowest level yet, but Congress and the GOP fared even worse. Approval of Congress plunged to an all time low, while disapproval of the Republican Party rose to record highs.

The group that plummeted most in the public’s esteem was the Tea Party. The eminent political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam discovered that the Tea Party “ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like ‘atheists’ and ‘Muslims.’

“Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.” As Putnam and Campbell confirmed, there was little meaningful distinction between the Tea Party and the Christian Right. “The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”  That was, according to Campbell and Putnam, why 40 percent of Americans in their survey viewed the Tea Party unfavorably.

“It is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.”

To many people, these findings about the Tea Party seemed counterintuitive. Those political activists who most wanted to interfere in the most intimate areas of private life did not seem to be the sort who would become impassioned about the size of government, debt, deficits, and monetary policy. Those issues seemed the province of the corporate elite and the doctrinaire libertarians, in other words, of what the Tea Party was conventionally thought to be.

How was this mystery to be explained? By the longstanding alliance between the sexual counterrevolution and other factions of the Right.

Since the late seventies, rightwing market fundamentalists had sought to attract voters to their cause by linking their economic policy goals to the cultural concerns of the grassroots sexual fundamentalists. That project originated in political calculation and was funded by special interests, yet it had been eased by the philosophical affinity between the two groups. . . . As many a historian, sociologist, and economist have noted, capitalism and Protestantism are eminently compatible.

So when leaders of the New Right first approached middle-class, traditionalist, white Fundamentalists in the run up to Ronald Reagan’s election, they were more or less preaching to the choir. Over the years, however, the balance of power in the Republican Party had substantially shifted. Reagan, for example, enacted many of the Right’s economic wishes, but he essentially ignored the sexual fundamentalists’ cultural agenda, prompting them to grouse that the president had his priorities wrong. Reagan, of course, prevailed in that contest of wills.

The Republicans’ spectacular overreach throughout 2011 was proof that the establishment and conservative business interests had lost control to the sexual counterrevolutionaries. Neither Wall Street nor veteran Republican leaders desired a showdown over the debt ceiling.  Business might not favor Democrats, higher taxes, or financial regulation, but in times of recession, they were pragmatic Keynesians and eager recipients of bailouts. They knew slashing the federal budget when the housing market remained depressed and unemployment was high would only further depress demand and stall a recovery. They could do the math to understand that the longterm federal deficit could not be reduced without more revenue.

By the Age of Obama, all of this pragmatic thinking was irrelevant to the sexual fundamentalists. They favored low taxes and less government, not just because it accorded with their individualism, but also because shrinking the federal government would deprive Democrats of the political means to impose science, sex education, gay marriage, gay civil rights, family planning, women’s autonomy, and child care on the nation.

A few little noticed eruptions of rightwing outrage during 2011’s summer of delirium illustrate how the rhetoric of liberty, minimal government, and budget stringency served the sexual counterrevolutionaries’ campaign to drag an unwilling nation back to a time when sex outside of marriage was risky, shameful, and even illegal.

“History should be honest,” Governor Jerry Brown said as he signed a bill in mid-July requiring California public schools to teach about the accomplishments of gay people. A few weeks later, Phyllis Schlafly, who had spent the spring touring a new book deriding feminism, devoted her daily radio address to the new California law. Unsurprisingly, the veteran anti-gay agitator caricatured the bill, for example, by insinuating that its purpose was to convert first graders to a “gay lifestyle.” She cast anti-gay teachers as victims of censorship and claimed the law violated parents’ rights. She then sealed her case with exaggerated claims about excessive government spending, “the law will force taxpayers to replace textbooks and other school materials at a time when California is facing a massive fiscal crisis,” and closed with a warning. “Parents you had better check in to what your state legislators, school boards, and school curriculum committees are deciding what to teach your children.”

On August 1, the Obama administration issued regulations requiring private health insurers to cover the cost of contraceptives with no co-pay. (The power to issue this ruling derived from the health care reform law.) The administration was acting on the recommendation of medical experts that birth control qualified as preventive health care, and polls showed that 75 to 80 percent of Americans supported the policy. The lobbyists of the sexual counterrevolution quickly churned into action.  In a piece published by the Fox News Opinion blog, Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, not only condemned the birth control provision, but also another regulation issued that day that required health insurers to cover the price of breast pumps. “You and I will pay more in premiums,” she complained, while calling the measure “another very telling perk for working mothers.” She then demanded the money be spent on tax credits, a proposal that, unlike the regulation, would in fact cost taxpayers money. But mostly she relied on Tea Party-esque appeals to liberty and small government.  “Clearly, a government brazen enough to get involved in our most intimate mother-child relationship respects no boundaries in our lives. I’ll say it: ‘Uncle Sam, get out of our blouses and off our backs.’” CWA was still, of course, seeking to rewrite the U.S. Constitution to criminalize abortion and prohibit gay marriage. Notwithstanding their patently contradictory stance about government interference in private life and their strategic use of Tea Party rhetoric, the sexual counterrevolutionaries in fact did believe that reducing the size and scope of government would in a practical sense serve their cultural objectives.

Listening closely to them, however, reveals a different animating passion: hysteria about uncontrolled sex, women’s in particular. Why in the world would you encourage your daughters, and your granddaughters, and whoever else comes behind you to have unrestricted, unlimited sex anytime, anywhere, and that, somehow if you prevent pregnancy, that somehow you’ve helped them?” a spokeswoman for Family PAC said on Fox News. “I would submit to you that uncontrolled sexual behavior is what is harming our girls, not our lack of birth control.”  Such views were not confined to the movement, but were ably represented in the Republican party. The day Steve King voted against raising the debt ceiling, he asked to be recognized on the floor of the House to comment on the matter. King started by attacking big government and defending the little guy, “We have people that are single, we have people that are past reproductive age, we have priests that are celibate. All of them, paying insurance premiums that cover contraceptives so that somebody else doesn’t have to pay the full fare of that?” Never mind that this is the very essence of insurance,  and every insured person could say the same about thousands of medical treatments they didn’t need or use. But King was soon suggesting that recreational sex, even among married men and women, was destroying American civilization. “And they’ve called it preventative medicine. Preventative medicine. Well if you applied that preventative medicine universally what you end up with is you’ve prevented a generation. Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. That’s not— that’s not constructive to our culture and our civilization. If we let our birth rate get down below replacement rate we’re a dying civilization.”

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Excerpted from Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America,  © 2012 Nancy L. Cohen.  Published by Counterpoint Press, USA.

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NANCY L. COHEN is a historian, author, and contributor to The Huffington Post. She is the author of Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America and two other books, including The Reconstruction of American Liberalism. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two daughters, and four stepchildren.

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