In the Arena

Why Akin Matters

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Jeff Roberson / AP

U.S. Representative Todd Akin (R., Mo.) announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate on May 17, 2011, in Creve Coeur, Mo. Akin, who has said he opposes all abortions, said in the interview if a woman is raped, her body "has ways to shut that whole thing down."

We now have Representative Steve King (R., Ostrich) saying that he never heard of a girl getting pregnant because of statutory rape or incest. He thus joins Rep. Todd Akin (R., Clueless) among the ranks of blithering idiots saying incredibly uninformed and disgraceful things about the crime of rape. It might be argued that these are isolated cases of stupidity. That might even be sort of true. The leaders of the Republican Party have jumped with alacrity to defenestrate Akin. But I believe the Akin-King statements and, indeed, the Akin abortion amendment that Paul Ryan supported (and which made a distinction between “forcible” and other sorts of rape) point to a larger Republican problem: it has become a party that, at the grass roots, celebrates ignorance.

(MORE: Todd Akin Fallout: Rape, Abortion and the Dark History of Qualifying Violence Against Women)

I mean, how did Todd Akin get nominated for the Senate in the first place? How did Christine O’Donnell in Delaware? How did Donald Trump surge to the top of the early presidential polls after his birther blather became public? Why do so many Republicans have so much trouble with evolution? Climate change? The non-difference between forcible and statutory rape?

This is not to say that Republicans are, by natural bent, stupid. Indeed, many of the smartest, most erudite, most creative policy thinkers I’ve encountered over the past 40 years are Republicans or conservatives. They’ve been the source of some of the best policy proposals I’ve seen–including the individual mandate for health care, cap and trade (to limit sodium sulfur-dioxide), school choice, work requirements for welfare recipients. In foreign policy, they’ve been well-represented by realists like Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Bob Zoellick and their boss, George H.W. Bush.

(MORE: Best Tweets About Todd Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment)

But the Republican Party that produced such thinkers is, as we all know, gone now. And what we have is a party that too often acquiesces–with rolled eyes and grimaces, to be sure–in the know-nothing idiocy of a plurality of its base. There was a period when the Democrats suffered from a similar malady–the days of racial quotas, overweening sociological tolerance of criminality and the belief that the U.S. is almost always wrong when it uses force overseas. The Democrats still have some outliers who believe such things. But Bill Clinton showed that Democrats could reform themselves; Barack Obama’s reliance on ideas that were originally Republican or bipartisan in much of his domestic agenda is a reflection of the permanence of that change.

The Republicans, by contrast, seem in the midst of falling through a spider hole, away from facts and reality, into a past where “reality” was determined by faith and fear, before the scientific method was invented. There are some honest voices–like Jon Huntsman who, in the primaries, defended evolution and acknowledged climate change (Mitt Romney also said he believed evolution was God’s plan; I agree with that). But you saw how well Huntsman did in the primaries–and you’ve seen how far Romney has had to tack toward silliness to win the nomination.

In the end, Todd Akin is not an outlier. He is a symptom of the disease. It will be interesting to see, if he stays in the race, whether the good people of Missouri decide he should be a United States Senator.

MORE: Todd Akin Resists Calls to Withdraw from Missouri Senate Race After Rape Comments