Last fall, before he became a front-runner in the Republican presidential race, Rick Santorum told a conservative Christian blogger in Iowa that he would use the White House bully pulpit to promote his concerns about something most people considered settled: birth control.
“One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about is, I think, the dangers of contraceptives in this country,” the former senator from Pennsylvania told Shane Vander Hart of the blog Caffeinated Thoughts. “The whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Contraception’s OK.’ It is not OK. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
The comments struck some as anachronistic. After all, it has been 50 years since the pill came to market, unleashing the sexual revolution and modern American feminism.
But a few months after Santorum’s remarks, thanks to a provision of President Obama’s healthcare law, the country was in an uproar about contraception. The president has insisted that most employers offer health insurance that covers it at no cost. Religious groups have vociferously resisted the mandate as an intrusion on religious freedom. Democrats say there’s a “war on women.” Republicans say there’s a “war on conscience.” When a law student told Congress she believed her Jesuit university should provide contraceptive coverage, Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.”
So what is this, your father’s presidential campaign?
Sort of. This isn’t just a battle over contraception and sexual mores. Every four years, it seems, presidential contests turn up the heat on long-simmering tensions that have their origins in the last century’s social and political upheavals.
Every four years, it seems, the country is fated to litigate anew “the ‘60s” — an era that historians generally agree extended beyond the decade’s literal 10-year window by a few years on both sides.
In 2008, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin painted Barack Obama, who was 13 when the Vietnam War ended, as a comrade in arms of William Ayers, a domestic antiwar militant who later became a pillar of Chicago’s education community.
Four years before that, presidential nominee John F. Kerry announced at the Democratic convention that he was “reporting for duty,” to draw a contrast between his Vietnam combat experience and President George W. Bush’s lack of same. Republicans organized Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to undermine Kerry, who had become an antiwar leader when he returned from Vietnam.
Democrats regularly invoke a return to the horror of “back-alley abortions” if a conservative majority of Supreme Court justices were to overturn the court’s 1973 landmark abortion rights ruling, Roe vs. Wade.
In this campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich resurrected a name that barely resonates with 21st century audiences. He calls Obama a “Saul Alinksy radical,” invoking the man who pioneered community organizing in the 1940s and inspired a generation of student activists in the 1960s and ‘70s. Alinsky’s theatrical tactics have also been adopted by conservative activists such as James O’Keefe and the late Andrew Breitbart.
“Every time I assume that it’s all over, it’s back,” said sociologist Todd Gitlin, who has written extensively about the 1960s. “Just by dint of age, you think no one will ever run for president now who’s served in the Vietnam War, and then lo and behold, it turns out that contraception is in play.”
Here, said Gitlin, is why: “The tectonic plates that broke loose in the ‘60s were extremely deep and were holding a lot of social and cultural tension that had been locked in place. And once those plates started moving, they remade the landscape. But the tensions are still in play.”
Nancy L. Cohen, a liberal historian, says recurring battles over issues like contraception and abortion are the “understandable and logical result” of what she sees “as a 40-year-old sexual counterrevolution.”
In her new book, “Delirium,” Cohen asserts that five decades of battles over social issues — often led by deeply religious conservative women — have pushed the GOP ever rightward “with the goal of turning back to an idealized traditional family.” That ideal, she said, is exemplified by the families of top GOP contenders Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with their stay-at-home wives and large broods.
Many conservatives, Cohen said, would like nothing more than to “turn back the clock.”
“Yeah, absolutely, I would,” said conservative author and talk-show host Dennis Prager. The legacy of multiculturalism, secularization and the push for material equality in the ‘60s undid the promise of what he has dubbed “the American trinity” — three values expressed as slogans on our coins: “e pluribus unum,” “in God we trust” and “liberty.”
“Many things have been lost,” Prager said. “Barack Obama said he would transform America. I don’t want it transformed. I want it improved.”
While the presidential race heats up, claims that “wars” are being waged against women and conscience are the kind of overheated rhetoric that voters can expect from both sides, which are always on the hunt for hot-button issues to loosen the purse strings of donors and motivate voters in November.
Republican attempts to frame the contraception fight as a battle over religious liberty, Gitlin said, are the latest iteration of a decades-old pattern.
“These issues keep coming up for the right because they recognize, in their heart of hearts, they lost,” Gitlin said. “They lost on women’s rights, they lost on gay rights, they lost for the most part on abortion rights … they lost on the general profanity of the culture. And having lost so much, they’re in a panic.”
Right now, thanks to an accretion of recent events — Limbaugh calling a woman a “slut,” a controversial proposal in Virginia requiring vaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, Santorum’s comments about contraception — many Republicans are on the defensive and none too happy about it.
“We are watching the manufacturing in the most cynical way of a cultural narrative that the people who are propagating it do not believe,” said Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage. Recently, Gallagher created a new organization, its name proof that the tensions unleashed by the upheavals of the ‘60s live on: the Culture War Victory Fund.
“Democrats are brilliant at politics, and Republicans are truly stupid,” said David Horowitz, who made a well-chronicled transformation from “Marxist radical” to conservative activist. Horowitz is the founder of Freedom Center, dedicated to ending “political indoctrination” on American college campuses.
The current flap over contraception, said Horowitz, is part of a much larger battle front for many conservatives.
“A lot of the social issues are about what happens to kids,” he said. “You have to raise kids, and they feel there is just a general assault on families. They’re mailing contraceptives to kids in high school! The parents just feel like they are losing control.”
Sounds like the ‘60s all over again.