The Body Politic
Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America
(Counterpoint Press, 2012)
Nancy Cohen’s book Delirium is a carefully researched and rigorously argued account of the role of sex-related issues in shaping modern American politics. Unlike the many recent works focusing on the role of the economy in restructuring contemporary U.S. society, Cohen focuses on the culture wars and how, over the last four decades, sex and gender, and especially concerns involving female sexuality, have remained defining political battlegrounds.
Cohen’s study focuses on a detailed analysis of how two major social issues, abortion and gay civil rights, have served as a rallying cry for the Christian right. She argues that as those she calls “sexual counterrevolutionaries”—including Phyllis Schlafly, Lottie Beth Hobbs, and Anita Bryant—gained influence in the Republican Party, they increasingly used their platform to police personal and social life. But Cohen is equally critical of Democrats, insisting that both conservative Democrats and many within the party’s more centrist leadership long failed to defend women’s and gay rights. As a result, Cohen contends, they have suffered at the polls for their lack of political nerve.
Her saga begins, where else, in the 1960s. The era witnessed the wide-scale adoption of the birth control pill, the peak of the civil rights movement, and mass anti-Vietnam War mobilizations that culminated in the Chicago police riots at the 1968 Democratic convention. For many Christian traditionalists, the sky was truly falling. Their alarm was most acutely expressed as concern about widespread sexual promiscuity, fed in no small part by the Supreme Court’s monumental Roe v. Wade decision.
As Cohen shows, no one better epitomized this social panic than the right-wing warhorse, Schlafly. She took up the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment and, joining forces with other Christian evangelical women across the country, waged a successful campaign to kill the proposed legislation. Borrowing the tools of the civil rights movement, antifeminist women drew upon an extensive network of local churches to build a powerful grassroots movement that would become the backbone of the Christian right’s culture wars and, eventually, the Tea Party movement.
The destabilizing events of the ’60s also set the stage for the implementation of Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan’s racist “Southern strategy,” which led old-line whites to flee the Democratic Party for the Republican Party, wholly recasting national politics in the 1972 presidential election. Not long after, the nation witnessed the emergence of “Reagan Democrats”—white men, often with blue-collar jobs and trade union membership, many of the Catholic faith and beneficiaries of FDR-inspired programs—who also fled the party.
Although this was a great loss for the party, Cohen argues that the Democrats’ true failing came in trying to win them back. She repeatedly shows how the centrist Democratic establishment sought to bring these men back into the fold at the expense of a more loyal constituency of African-Americans, feminists, gays, environmentalists, and college students. As the party sought to appease the Christian right, the defeats piled up: Jimmy Carter’s failed 1980 reelection campaign, and unsuccessful presidential runs by Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004.
It was only when Dems abandoned this strategy, as Bill Clinton did in ’92 and Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, that the party was able to reclaim its base and achieve victory. Given these triumphs, and the fact that many (if not most) Americans support the Roedecision and, increasingly, gay rights, Cohen argues that Democrats have reached a turning point. Writing before the 2012 election, she suggested that another term for Obama would “emphatically close the book on the Democratic Party’s 40-year-old sexual counterrevolution.”
“Delirium” is a provocative title for this book. Yet one of the weaknesses of this otherwise important study is that while Cohen repeatedly invokes the title, she never defines it. Medically, the term signifies a state of mental confusion, often the result of fever or intoxication. Popularly, it suggests wild excitement. But the word also has religious connotations.
The First Great Awakening in the mid- 18th century infused traditional Protestantism with a new spirit of revival and a belief in the supernatural, transforming the nation’s religious ethos. The Second Great Awakening, beginning in the late- 18th and culminating in the early- 19th century, fueled a new spirit of revival that spread from New York across much of rural America. A spirit of religious “delirium” marked these movements, and this fevered revivalism also helped spawn some of today’s charismatic Christian devotees, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who generally opt out of politics, and Pentecostals, who tend to lean right. Failure to make these connections is a lost opportunity to place the Christian right in a larger context, one that continues to cast a shadow over American life.
In light of Obama’s reelection, Delirium can best be read as an obituary for both Nixon and Buchanan’s Southern strategy and the Democratic Party’s lukewarm approach to sexual rights. The same coalition that brought Obama victory in 2008, most notably feminists, gay rights advocates, multiculturalists, and young voters, helped him keep his job. Perhaps the fear about the ’ 60s is finally coming to an end.