Perry Is Not An Idiot, He Just Doesn’t Give a Damn

Earlier today, someone in my Twitter timeline tweeted, “I still don’t understand why conservatives support cervical cancer.” I tweeted back, “It’s not that they support cervical cancer. It’s that they hate the idea of their daughters having sex more than they hate the idea of their daughters dying.”

As it turns out, I came across another example of that mindset in Paul Waldman’s article about Rick Perry’s incoherent answer to a local television interviewer’s question about abstinence education. The interviewer asked Perry why Texas continued to rely on abstinence education to prevent teen pregnancy instead of sex education when abstinence education does not do a good job at preventing or reducing teen pregnancies — as demonstrated by the fact that Texas ranks third in the nation for number of teen pregnancies. Perry literally could not answer the question.

Waldman refers to a piece by Jonathan Chait in which Chait writes:

Liberals frequently believe that Republican leaders — George W. Bush, Sarah Palin — lack analytical intelligence. Conservatives reply that this is merely liberal snobbery against plain-spoken folks from the heartland. I’d reply that conservatives seem to gravitate toward anti-intellectual figures.

To which Waldman offers this interesting reply:

That’s true, but there’s something else going on here that is particularly vivid when it comes to sex education, but applies to many other policy realms as well. When liberals and conservatives argue about the issue, they’re giving very different weight to moral and practical considerations.

Liberals may think that conservatives support abstinence education because they believe it will reduce teen pregnancy, when the truth is that stopping teen pregnancy is at best a minor consideration for conservatives. If there’s going to be any discussion of sex in school at all, they believe it ought to express the categorical moral position that sex is vile and dirty and sinful, until you do it with your spouse, at which point it becomes beautiful and godly (you’ll forgive a bit of caricature). The fact that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex-ed isn’t something they’re pleased about, but it doesn’t change their conviction about the moral value that ought to be expressed.

Liberals, on the other hand, think sex education ought to have as its primary goal reducing teen pregnancy and keeping kids safe from STDs. And yes, they also believe that it ought to encourage a perspective on sex that leads to a healthy, well-adjusted sex life that isn’t built on 17th century puritanical notions of shame and fear. But they weigh the practical considerations more heavily than the moral considerations.

So while it’s true that Rick Perry is not a particularly smart guy, the difficulty he has here comes from the fact that his stance on sex education is about 95 percent moral and 5 percent practical. He gets forced to confront the practical question, and he does so in such a bumbling way because he keeps trying to turn the practical question into a moral one. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned” doesn’t constitute evidence in support of a practical claim; he knows it, which is why he struggles so hard to answer. He doesn’t have a practical argument because he’s probably never thought about it in those terms, and doesn’t much care.

Which is pretty darn amazing, when you remember that it’s conservative Republicans who are always claiming to be the cold, clear-eyed realists who see the world as it is, not how they wish it was in their rose-colored dreams. That’s always been a crock, and this incident with Perry is just the latest proof of that.

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