The Conservative War on ‘The Conservative War on Science’

Evolution, vaccines, and a fed-up conservative media.

on November 29, 2011 in London, England.

Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The best way of understanding what happened to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker this week is remembering what happened to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean eleven and a half years ago. In June 2003, as Dean's anti-Iraq War campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination surged, he ran right into the buzzsaw of Tim Russert's Meet the Press. The host tripped up Dean with a series of questions about the exact number of American troops in Iraq and around the world.

"How many men and women do we now have on active duty?" asked Russert.

"I can't tell you the answer to that," said Dean.

"But as commander in chief, you should know that," said Russert.

The media reaction was pitiless. "Dr. Dean, a Democrat who prides himself on his straightforwardness, equivocated on several issues," wrote New York Times reporter Katherine Q. Seelye. "On the subject of national security," grumbled Ze'ev Chafets in the New York Daily News. "Dean admitted he knows just about nothing." In his memoir, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Dean's campaign manager remembered thinking that the campaign had badly been wounded by a "gotcha" interview.

And then he went online.

"Dean blogs all over the country were humming with even more support for the governor, praising him for 'slamming Russert as being inside the Beltway' and criticizing Russert for being an attack dog," Trippi wrote. "Even among those Dean supporters who acknowledged that the governor had looked bad, they said it wasn't a big deal. People could see through Russert's questions." On Sundays, the campaign had been used to raising $3,000 in online donations. On that Sunday, it raised $90,000. 

Scott Walker has no campaign button for people to click—not yet—but he could have raised a lot of money this week. In conservative media, Walker's interview at London's Chatham House and his non-answer about whether he "believed in evolution" became Exhibit A of the mainstream press's bad habits. My colleague Arit John has reported on the conservative backlash, and the comparisons between the Walker answer and Barack Obama's insistence that a question about when life begins was "above my pay grade." Conservatives have also been pivoting from the Walker answer to a mass brainstorm of ways to challenge the media's idea of what a "science" question is. 

In The Federalist, David Harsanyi aggregated some of the best ideas. His colleague Sean Davis had already a simple evolution follow-up, asking whether the reporter meant to ask about "punctuated equilibrium or phyletic gradualism." (Those terms should be familiar to anyone who's read Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene.) Among other Harsanyi stumpers:

Do your chromosomes have anything to do with determining sex?

Do you believe GMOs are safe?

What was the average surface temperature of the earth last year?

Is a 20-week-old unborn child a human being?

That last question is already being asked in politics, and after some effort. One reason anti-abortion groups have pushed for bans after 20 weeks of pregnancy is to befuddle soft supporters of abortion rights. Like "partial-birth abortion," banned the year that Dean made his lucky gaffe, it's a framing of an issue that, executed properly, makes Democrats look callous. (Executed poorly, it winds up embarrassing the whole GOP conference, as happened in January.)

Conservatives want to change what questions are acceptable and natural for reporters to ask; they feel that the last week's revealed a deep bias. Walker's evolution question came only a week after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was asked several questions about vaccination. The conclusion of vaccines-gate was actually every leading Republican affirming that parents needed to vaccinate their kids; on the right, the week has been remembered as liberals inventing a false narrative about "anti-vaxxers." Even the New York Times, which had been printing comprehensive reports on the "anti-vax" panic in liberal enclaves, asked whether vaccines would create a tangle for conservatives, comparable to "the dance Republican candidates often do when they hedge their answers about whether evolution should be taught in schools."

Walker, who does not have a college degree, is a perfect avatar for the conservative backlash. If some future Democratic candidate gets asked when life begins, or whether gender is determined by chromosomes, or whether GMOs* are safe, it can be traced back to the week conservatives got fed up with "science gotchas"—just as liberals once got fed up with gotchas about Iraq, and voted with their checkbooks.

*When I covered a "Draft Elizabeth Warren" launch party in Washington, one would-be organizer kept trying to bring the conversation back to the threat of GMOs and Hillary Clinton's paid speech for Monsanto. A MoveOn petition demanding that Clinton reject Monsanto and support "regenerative, organic agriculture" has more than 100,000 signatures. 

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