The Waxing and Waning GOP Crusade Against Pornography

The Republican Party platform didn't mention the issue for more than 100 years. But anti-porn fervor peaked in 1992 -- and it won't last much longer.


Prior to the GOP primaries, few imagined that pornography would emerge as a minor issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, but Rick Santorum, the socially conservative candidate and surprise runner-up, has helped make it so. The proximate cause of controversy is a statement on his campaign Web site stating that "America is suffering a pandemic of harm from pornography," and pledging that if elected president he would vigorously enforce obscenity laws. It's a fight that few in his party are eager to pick, and the former Pennsylvania senator was widely portrayed as being out of the mainstream on the issue as soon as his position was reported in the news media.

That portrayal is probably accurate. Even so, the guff he's taken is noteworthy, because until very recently the Republican Party establishment conspicuously embraced the position that he has taken. It's all in the platforms that they adopt every four years -- and the history is fascinating.

For more than a century after the Republican Party published its first platform in 1856, neither obscenity nor pornography were mentioned, but in 1964, as Barry Goldwater sought the presidency, the GOP made the minor pledge to enact legislation "despite Democratic opposition, to curb the flow through the mails of obscene materials which has flourished into a multimillion dollar obscenity racket." In 1968 and 1972, the issue went unmentioned, and when it next came up in 1976 the position hadn't changed: "The work presently being done to tighten the anti-obscenity provisions of the criminal code has our full support. Since the jurisdiction of the federal government in this field is limited to interstate commerce and the mails, we urge state and local governments to assume a major role in limiting the distribution and availability of obscene materials."

Of course, obscenity law and controversies related to it were frequent in the decades between the 1850s and the 1970s, especially within states and localities, but our concern here is the Republican Party and its national platform, for focusing there tells us something about how our politics has evolved. The word pornography made its first ever appearance in the 1984 platform, as Ronald Reagan sought re-election in a race he'd win in a landslide. Note the change in emphasis from earlier times when the GOP pledged merely to keep obscenity out of the mail:  

We and the vast majority of Americans are repulsed by pornography. We will vigorously enforce constitutional laws to control obscene materials which degrade everyone, particularly women, and depict the exploitation of children. We commend the Reagan Administration for creating a commission on pornography and the President for signing the new law to eliminate child pornography. We stand with our President in his determination to solve the problem. We call upon the Federal Communications Commission, and all other federal, State, and local agencies with proper authority, to strictly enforce the law regarding cable pornography and to implement rules and regulations to clean up cable pornography and the abuse of telephone service for obscene purposes.

As Americans would later discover through the Internet and the preferences it revealed, the vast majority of the population isn't in fact repulsed by pornography. But at the time that wasn't a controversial plank for the GOP. In fact, by 1988 they were bragging about their anti-porn successes:

America's children deserve to be free from pornography. We applaud Republicans in the 100th Congress who took the lead to ban interstate dial-a-porn. We endorse legislative and regulatory efforts to anchor more securely a standard of decency in telecommunications and to prohibit the sale of sexually explicit materials in outlets operated on federal property. We commend those who refuse to sell pornographic material. We support the rigorous enforcement of "community standards" against pornography.

As it turned out, ending the scourge of "dial-a-porn" wasn't enough for social conservatives. Their fervor increased by 1992, when Pat Buchanan was challenging George H.W. Bush from the right. The platform Republican delegates adopted that year is the high-water mark of anti-porn fervor:

The time has come for a national crusade against pornography. Some would have us believe that obscenity and pornography have no social impact. But if hard-core pornography does not cheapen the human spirit, then neither does Shakespeare elevate it. We call on federal agencies to halt the sale, under government auspices, of pornographic materials.

We endorse Republican legislation, the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, allowing victims of pornography to seek damages from those who make or sell it, especially since the Commission on Pornography, in 1986, found a direct link between pornography and violent crimes committed against women and children. Further, we propose a computerized federal registry to track persons convicted of molesting children. We also believe... State legislatures should create a civil cause of action against makers and distributors of pornography when their material incites a violent crime.

Four years of living under Bill Clinton drove a lot of conservatives to near hysteria, but it apparently mellowed them out on pornography. In 1996 the GOP adopted a position on the issue that bordered on uncontroversial. "To promote the dignity of all members of the Armed Forces and their families, we endorse the efforts of congressional Republicans to halt the sale, in military facilities, of pornographic materials," it stated. "We endorse Bob Dole's call to bring federal penalties for child pornography in line with far tougher State penalties: ten years for a first offense."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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