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Lincoln, Darwin and the Know-Nothing Republicans

February 9, 2009

What do Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have in common? As it turns out, two centuries after their shared February 12th birthdays and on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's theory, today's Republican Party largely rejects the achievements of each. Of course, from basic science and global warming to economics 101, the GOP's know-nothingism hardly stops with Lincoln and Darwin.
Abraham Lincoln may have been of and by the Republican Party, but today it's hard to imagine he would be for it. After two consecutive drubbings at the ballot box, the GOP has been reduced to its southern rump. Now an endangered species in New England and in retreat in the West, Republicans generally find safe haven only in the states of the old Confederacy (and in the cases of Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, not even there.) As an eye-popping New York Times map revealed, in 2008 Republican support for its presidential candidate John McCain increased over George W. Bush primarily in counties in those states where the good times there are not forgotten.
And to be sure, there is no love lost for the 16th president in those quarters. Republican nostalgia for the ante bellum South produces the quadrennial paeans to the Confederate flag in South Carolina and elsewhere. Before former Virginia Senator George Allen gained "Macaca" fame, he displayed the Stars and Bars and a noose at his home. Influential Mississippi Republicans Trent Lott and Haley Barbour each appeared at events of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, the none-too-thinly veiled successor to the White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days:

Lott was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor to the White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression."

While many of the leading lights of the GOP at times seem unable to hold back that rebel yell, the political machinery of the Republican Party remains adept at playing the race card. In 2004 and 2006, the GOP's strategy of divide, suppress and conquer baited the party's conservative base while driving down the turnout of Democratic leaning minority voters through unprecedented redistricting, draconian registration laws, bogus voter fraud charges and election day fraud. The Bush U.S. attorneys scandal was just one element of that assault. And to be sure, the challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act now before the U.S. Supreme Court is another.
Meanwhile, another product of February 12, 1809 - Charles Darwin - is even less welcome in the GOP ranks than its first president. As we approach his 200th birthday on Thursday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species, Darwin is more bogeyman than ever for many of the Republican faithful.
That was abundantly clear during the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. While polls shockingly reveal that as few as 35% of Americans subscribe to Darwin's theory, campaign '08 showed many evolution deniers among the ranks of the GOP presidential hopefuls. During a debate in May 2007, three of the 10 White House wannabes raised their hands when asked if they did not believe in evolution. And while George W. Bush and John McCain played dumb on the question of teaching public school children so-called intelligent design, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee actively tried to undermine evolution instruction in his state.
Despite the long-standing scientific consensus in support of Darwin's theory, the campaign against it continues undiminished by Republican leaders, creationist front groups and GOP rank-and-file alike. Even after their devastating defeat in the Kitzmiller v. Dover ended the teaching of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district, Darwin's foes create new fronts in their war on the theory of evolution. Just three weeks ago, the seven creationist members of the Texas school board won a partial victory even as they replaced the state's 20 year old requirement to teach students the "strengths and weaknesses" of all theories. In typical fashion, Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican, presented teaching students ignorance of basic science as a victory for free speech:

"This is a battle of academic freedom. This is a battle over freedom of speech."

For decades, Republicans have deployed the same rhetorical weapons of "uncertainty" and "strengths and weaknesses" first used against Darwin to wage battles across the gamut of public policy. From global warming denial and bogus links between abortion and cancer to faith-based obstructionism of emergency contraception, the infamous 2002 Klamath Basin salmon kill and so much more, conservatives manufactured the appearance of uncertainty to halt government action. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe's famous 2003 charge that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" could be applied to any almost public health or environmental policy opposed by the Republican Party. (For an excellent analysis of the strategies and tactics of GOP denialism, see Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science.)
And now, as the United States teeters on the brink of financial catastrophe. Republican know-nothingism has been extended to Economics 101. As I noted yesterday, the crusade against President Obama's economic stimulus bill by the new Hoovers of the Republican Party is almost wholly dependent on willfully ignoring history, economics and just plain common sense.
On Thursday, millions of Americans and people around the world will commemorate the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, men who helped free mankind from the bondage of slavery and ignorance. Sadly, they appear to be losing the battle for hearts and minds in today's Republican Party. Even as the nation's first African-American President-elect Barack Obama lauded the Republican Abraham Lincoln in his election night victory speech, the GOP continued its evolution into a party of angry white southerners. And that, it would appear, is the only evolution today's Republican Party believes in.
UPDATE: Almost on cue, Missouri Republican Representative Bryan Stevenson compared President Obama's support for the Freedom of Chocie Act and other pro-choice policies to the Civil War. Referring to the first African-American President's policies and just two days before Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, Stevenson dropped jaws in the House chamber by proclaiming, "What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression."

2 comments on “Lincoln, Darwin and the Know-Nothing Republicans”

  1. Ignorance is a wonderful tool in the hands of mass manipulators. It chips away at, and hampers, informed decisions and actions. An inability to think matters out rationally and logically fades in the darkness of blanket ignorance. This only leaves base behaviors upon which to act. This encourages banal group-think. Though the GOP is deeply out of favor, it is a patient group ready to prepare an electorate most vulnerable to ignorance sound-bites, fear, and hatred. This has been exhibited in three decades of preparation that culminated in the Bush administration. People have their darker side, but a progressive civilization seeks to tear open this side to the light and encourage informed growth. However, this cannot be passively achieved nor can it be sudden.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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