The danger of laughing at Todd Akin

Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., talks with reporters while attending the Governor's Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo., Aug. 16, 2012.
AP Photo

(The Nation) The Twittersphere went nuts yesterday after a video was posted of Missouri senate candidate, Todd Akin, expressing some jaw-dropping views on rape and abortion in an interview with local news:

"First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare," Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview Sunday. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

The short-term consequences of such an incendiary remark are predictable: Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill will trumpet the remark to her own political advantage, donations will spike to her campaign and the party committees will offer the remark as one more proof point of the GOP's war on women. But the impact of Akin's effort to redefine the terms of this debate reaches beyond this one race. In the multidimensional chess that shapes public opinion, the game is less about individual elections and more about a sustained effort to mainstream radical ideas. In the case of denying women control over their lives, there's evidence that the bad guys may be winning the long-game.

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Akin was Paul Ryan's co-sponsor on a House bill just last year banning the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of "forcible rape." This term seemed laughably redundant since all rape, by definition, is forced. But this redefinition of rape was deceptively sinister. Statutory rapists often use coercion but not physical force. If the measure had passed, a 13-year-old emotionally manipulated into having sex with an older friend or relative would no longer be able to use Medicaid to terminate a resulting pregnancy. Nor would her parents be able to use their tax-exempt health savings fund.

While the measure was defeated, conversation around it introduced skepticism about whether all rape is created equal and what distinctions should be recognized by law. Instead of making him politically toxic, Ryan's support of the pioneering forcible rape measure likely made him a more attractive vice presidential candidate to a Romney campaign needing to energize the right-wing base.

And whether or not Akin loses this cycle, his comments have already escalated the stakes. In his world view, the rape victim's body will be the ultimate judge of whether a crime has taken place. If she gets pregnant, by Akin's standard, her reproductive organs consented to the pregnancy, so she must have consented to the sex. This bizarre standard of innocence is reminiscent of medieval Europe, where the men in authority held the similarly scientific view that women guilty of witchcraft floated in water while innocent women would drown. Being cleared of witchcraft was of course not much consolation to the drowned women, though they at least got to skip being burned at the stake.

Akin's comments appear an awful lot like step one in the GOP's favorite two-step tactic to redefine the world around us: first, more extreme figures voice opinions that would never fly from more politically palatable ones. The right-wing echo chamber picks up those opinions in the guise of news coverage. Then, the more politically acceptable candidates shift their rhetoric to acknowledge the newly accepted opinion as reality.

Consider our seemingly uncontrollable slide towards climate catastrophe: in 2006 and 2007, the link between human activity and climate change was almost incontestable. Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" was a breakout hit; and the former VP was rewarded for his leadership on the global issue with a Nobel Prize in 2007. In 2008, both McCain and Obama openly acknowledged the existence of the threat and the need for action. Scientists breathed a collective sigh of relief that the US might finally exert some leadership on this existential issue.

But when the Obama victory made the idea of a clean-energy economy a potential reality, the climate deniers kicked into high gear. Cash from the Koch brothers poured into bogus organizations to promote climate skepticism and cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Senator Inhofe called climate change "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." A 2009 Chamber of Commerce ad buy brutalized House Democrats who voted for the climate legislation. In the lead up to the climate summit of 2009, someone even hacked into a University server and published highly edited e-mails from climate scientists to make them appear to be fabricating their results. While the scientists were exonerated, the damage was done.

The resulting shift in public opinion was almost immediate. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Americans who believed media accounts of climate change were exaggerated jumped from 35 percent to 48 percent. Among self-identified Republicans, it went to 66 percent. By last year's Republican presidential primary, right-wing contenders made seemingly inane statements that flew in the face of scientific consensus, and even the ones like Romney who had previously acknowledged the threat were forced to recant to maintain their viability.

Ilyse Hogue is a social change practitioner, media consumer and analyst, and on-line engagement expert. She's worked for and with a multitude of progressive organizations, and currently serves as Co-Director of Friends of Democracy, a 2012 initiative to build political power around the issue of money in politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.