The Diffusion of Stupid and Offensive Ideas

by Erik Voeten on August 30, 2012 · 10 comments

in Comparative Politics

A Dutch parliamentarian, Kees van der Staaij, thought it was a good idea to echo Todd Akin and pronounce on Dutch television that it is a “fact” that women almost never become pregnant after rape. He went as far as to put a specific number on it: 0.5% (The Dutch newspaper NRC went through the trouble of looking at  studies on which this number could have possibly been based and found, naturally, that it was hogwash).

So why would a politician say sh*t like this? He clearly was aware of Akin’s remarks and the responses to it, although he now purports to have been completely blindsided (in Dutch) by the outrage his comments have generated. The answer is pretty straightforward: there are situations where this type of negative attention may help a fringe party such as Van der Staaij’s SGP.

The SGP is one of the most reactionary parties in Europe. It is a Christian Conservative party that was finally forced in 2006 to allow women to become members. It still prohibits women from standing for elected office (although the Dutch Highest Court has ruled that something needs to be done about that). It would hardly seem necessary for a party like this to advertise its beliefs that women shouldn’t be allowed to choose much of anything. Yet, the party is routinely ignored by the media unless its spokespeople say something offensive about gays or women. However, even that is difficult. The party has long held that abortion should not be allowed even after rape. This viewpoint no longer gets the media juices flowing. Yet  the Akin theory that the female body has magical properties that shut down its reproductive channels in cases of rape seemed to do just that in the U.S. A nice opportunity to draw some attention a few weeks before an election.

For most politicians in most electoral settings mimicking Akin would be a bad idea. But the SGP has two seats in a proportional representation system. It would like to have three seats, as it did in the past. It is not going to attract mainstream voters so it has to draw the attention of voters with fringe ideologies. Geert Wilders has long been a master at this: looking at the US public space as a laboratory to figure out what types of opinions create maximally divisive responses; and thus attention. European political parties have long mimicked the campaign strategies of their American counterparts but now at least some of them also seem to be mimicking their campaign gaffes (although Van der Staaij was smart enough not to talk about “legitimate rape”). If you can think of any more examples from this phenomenon from other countries, I’d look forward to reading them.

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