In politics, we sometimes—OK, almost always—make too much of the "gaffe," the statement a candidate makes that is immediately taken out of context by his or her opponent and is said to reveal the sinister heart that lies beneath a fog of smiles and reassuring words. But every once in a while we get a gaffe that actually does tell us something important, beyond "this guy is a jerk."
And so it is with Rep. Todd Akin, who until this weekend looked likely to become the next U.S. senator from Missouri. For those of you living under a rock, Akin was asked in a television interview about his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest. In response, he said that a woman becoming pregnant after being raped "is really rare," because "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Does this statement reveal that Todd Akin is a knuckle-dragging, misogynistic nincompoop? Of course. But it also provides a vivid reminder of something else.
There are crazy, stupid Democrats, and crazy, stupid Republicans. Heck, you probably know some of them, like that weird uncle of yours who lectures everyone at Thanksgiving about international conspiracies to control our minds through water fluoridation and says bigoted things that make everyone cringe. But among the many profound differences between today's Republican and Democratic parties is this: Only one party takes your embarrassing nut-ball of an uncle and says, "This man should be making our laws."
The "legitimate rape" statement was nothing particularly surprising coming from Akin, who is an extremist on a whole range of issues. But in his party, he's far from alone. The fact is that today's GOP is positively brimming over with cranks and fools, more so now than ever before. While the party has been moving steadily to the right ever since the 1960s, that movement accelerated once President Obama took office. The typical Republican primary these days is a contest to see who is the most extreme conservative, and the one who wins that debate is often not just an ideologue but a know-nothing to boot. These candidates rise up through their state parties, which are likewise dominated by people who are proud of their ignorance. For example:
•The Texas Republican party recently made news when it came out in opposition to teaching children "critical thinking skills" because such education could "have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority;"
•Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas thinks al Qaeda is sending "terror babies" across the Mexican border;
•Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia warned that President Obama was creating a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship;
•Rep. Steve King of Iowa pines for the days when only property owners could vote;
•Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado recently said: "I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don't know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American";
•Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia introduced a bill to display the Ten Commandments in Congress, but when asked was only able to name three of them.
•And of course Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who at one point was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, and thinks "The Lion King" is gay propaganda and the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the State Department.
That's just scratching the surface. Don't get me started on the right's popular radio hosts or a certain reality-television star from Wasilla. Is it any wonder that this party is full of people who think evolution is a myth, the United Nations is coming for your guns, and there's a worldwide conspiracy of scientists to create the "hoax" of global warming?
Don't get me wrong – there are still plenty of smart, well-educated Republicans around. But the GOP not just tolerates but elevates people like Todd Akin, ignorant troglodytes who find that their party has carefully tilled the electoral soil to make sure their retrograde views will bear fruit at the polls.
Before conservatives say, "What about Bill Maher,?!?" we can acknowledge that there are indeed prominent liberals who say mean things about Republicans. But if you want to find Democrats with views as insane and outright idiotic as Akin's, you'd have to go deep into the comments on a liberal blog to locate some anonymous nobodies.
Where you won't find them is in Congress, shaping the laws that affect the lives of every American.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.