Delirium tells the story of how a small group of reactionaries, who want to control sex, hijacked American politics. Author and historian Nancy L. Cohen traces our current political dysfunction to the machinations of a well-organized, religiously-based movement to reverse the sexual revolution and hold back the tide of women’s rights, gay rights, and the changing American family. Delirium charts the strange history of this bipartisan sexual counterrevolution and exposes how an extremist minority, out of step with mainstream America, has been able to commandeer national discourse.
Why is your book called Delirium?
Because you can’t title a book Crazy. The big question is, why is our political climate so insane?
In a word: sex. I don’t mean your usual run-of-the-mill sex scandal—though Gingrinch’s open-marriage scandal was fun as long as you didn’t try to visualize it.
But the Republican party has been hijacked by a small group of people, who believe that America’s problems all stem from sex, and they’ve commandeered our politics.
Now that sounds crazy.
Have you been following the birth control panic? Hey, don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger.
What do you think about that?
Are you asking if Republicans are coming for your birth control? The answer is yes. But it would take me too long to explain how, so read the book.
Anyway, the opening line of chapter one is “Perhaps if the Pill had never been invented, American politics would be very different today.” When I wrote that a couple years ago, it was a literary device to make some background on the sexual revolution go down easily. But now…I don’t know whether to brag, laugh, or cry.
You trace this delirium back to the sexual revolution.
Yes, that’s right. Consider what America was like fifty years ago. Birth control was illegal in some places. Gay sex was a criminal offense in every state. There was no such thing as no fault divorce or co-ed college dorms.
In the space of ten to fifteen years, everything changed. First there was the sexual revolution, then the feminist movement, then the gay rights movement—all of which built on each other.
Lots of Americans thought this new freedom was great. But others became unhinged by it.
Basically, religious zealots. Almost all the activists were Protestant fundamentalists, Mormons, or orthodox Catholics. Not people who usually get along, by the way—remember Rick Perry’s preacher friend calling Mormonism a cult? The Southern Baptists at Bob Jones University calling the Catholic Church “the whore of Babylon”?
They did, however, agree about three things: uncontrolled sex was destroying America, God made women to be submissive to their husbands, and being gay was evil.
I call them sexual fundamentalists. They campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, against federally funded childcare, and against anti-discrimination laws protecting gays. They won every one of these battles. And then they went on to methodically take over the Republican Party.
How do you think this is playing out in the 2012 presidential race?
There is a direct line between this 40-year-old shadow movement and today’s dysfunctional politics. Just run through the list of Republican frontrunners and you’ll see: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich. They were all homegrown products of this shadow movement.
The Republican delirium is not really about the economy, or the deficit, or that Obama is too smart or too black. It can be traced to the sexual fundamentalists’ demands for orthodoxy on gays, abortion, sex, and birth control from the candidates.
By the way, what happened to the Tea Party?
The sexual fundamentalists were in bed with Bush. Their brand sunk with him gone, and they needed a makeoever. The Tea Party was little more than a rebranding campaign. They’re the usual antigay, antiabortion, antisex suspects from the Christian Right.
By rebranding, they got one good year and control of the House out of it before the media and the Democrats wised up.
Now that you bring up the Democrats, your book shows that this isn’t just about the Republicans.
What’s wrong with the Democratic Party, in other words?
Democrats are paralyzed by their divisions—when they’re in power. And then when they’re booted out of power—usually for not getting enough done—they overreact.
This self-destructive stance lies in the party’s own sexual counterrevolution. The Democrats’ fallback since the 70’s has been to blame progressives for scaring away mainstream voters and losing winnable elections.
Here’s their logic: if the over-educated, cosmopolitan, gays and feminists would just be quiet while sensible men who understand the real America run just a wee bit to the Right, Democrats will sweep into power.
As I show, this is flat-out factually wrong. Progressive views about sex, family, and gender are no-brainers. They’re mainstream. It took a long time for Democratic party leaders to get it. The nation is still living with the consequences of the Democratic panic of the Bush era. They’re improving, but they’ve got a couple steps to go. That’s why they’re getting cold feet on this birth control issue.
I have to say, this is a disturbing story.
Yeah, but it makes for a good story, because it’s so unbelievable. If only it weren’t a true story.
Count me among those who are watching in disbelief: 13 million people are unemployed and all Republicans want to talk about is abortion and birth control?
It’s alarming, but not necessarily depressing. There’s a pretty simple fix.
What is it?
Read the book.