By Robert Reich
CEOs from America’s largest oil companies appeared this week before a House committee probing why they’re raising prices at the pump while raking in record profits and spending huge sums buying back their shares of stock. (Last year, Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Shell spent more than $44 billion on buybacks and dividends, and plan to spend $74 billion this year — money that should be used instead to lower prices at the pump.) It’s price-gouging and profiteering, and we’re all paying for it.
Republicans, meanwhile, are focusing on sex. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first consider the extent of the Republican sex obsession.
In her recent confirmation hearings, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was barraged with questions from Republican senators about her alleged lenient treatment of child pornographers. It was a baseless claim, but that didn’t matter to the Republicans who kept hammering her. In four days of hearings, the phrase ‘child porn’ (or ‘pornography’ or ‘pornographer’) was mentioned 165 times, along with 142 mentions of “sex” or related terms like “sexual abuse” or “sex crimes.”
On March 28, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning kindergarten through third-grade public school teachers from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity, calling it an “anti-grooming bill” and accusing opponents of wanting to groom young children for sexual exploitation. (When the Walt Disney Company, Florida’s largest employer, came out against the measure and promised the company would donate $5 million to LBGTQ organizations, DeSantis called Disney’s opposition “radical” and suggested that the Florida legislature cancel Disney’s special status in Florida that essentially makes it a local government.)
In late February, Texas’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott ordered state child welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations into reports of transgender kids receiving gender-affirming care. Last May he signed into law a ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and gives private citizens the right to sue anyone who helps someone obtain an abortion.
Oklahoma’s Republican House voted overwhelmingly to make performing an abortion a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The measure now heads to Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, who has signaled he’ll sign it into law.
The Republican Party, once a proud proponent of limited government, has turned itself into a font of sexual innuendo and legal intrusion into the most intimate aspects of personal life. Protecting children from predators is a worthy aim, to be sure, but the GOP is obsessing about all aspects of sex. Why?
First, it’s part of their culture war, and culture wars sell with voters (and the media) eager for conflict and titillation. A culture war over sex sells even better. It lets Republicans imply that Democrats are somehow on the side of sexual “deviants” who endanger the “natural order.”
Also, by focusing on sex, Republicans can court both the evangelical right and the rightwing extreme QAnon vote (with its the loony “Pizzagate” conspiracy claim that Hillary Clinton was a pedophile).
Most importantly, a culture war over sex allows Republicans to sound faux populist without having to talk about the real sources of populist anger — corporate-induced inflation at a time of record corporate profits, profiteering and price gouging, monopolization, stagnant wages, union busting, soaring CEO pay, billionaires who have amassed $1.7 trillion during the pandemic but who pay a lower tax rate than the working class, and the flow of big money into the political campaigns of lawmakers who oblige by lowering taxes on the wealthy and big corporations and doling out corporate welfare.
Oh, and by focusing on pedophilia, gender identity, gay people, and abortion, Republicans don’t have to talk about Trump and January 6.
Democratic politicians, wake up! You have a critical opportunity between now and the midterm elections to reframe the national conversation as it should be framed — around abuses of economic power by corporations and the super rich. Those abuses are worsening. They affect the everyday lives of all Americans.
If you fail to do this, Americans will continue to be inundated with Republican “culture war” messages intended to deflect the public’s attention from how badly big corporations and the super wealthy are shafting them. Americans won’t understand how these economic abuses all relate to record amounts of income and wealth at the top, and what must be done to reverse this imbalance (break up monopolies, enact a windfall profits tax, raise taxes on large corporations and the super wealthy, strengthen labor unions, reform campaign finance, stop corporate welfare, and so on). And some of you will lose your jobs in the midterm elections — allowing Republicans to take over the House and Senate.