Is There Anything That Won’t End Up Being Politicized?

This week we learned that even breast cancer can become politicized. Is there anything that can't at this point?

In today’s New York Times, Gail Collins opens a column about the Susan G. Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood controversy that arose this week by observing the extent to which nearly everything in our society ends up becoming politicized:

This week we had a huge political fight about breast cancer. Clearly, we have now hit the point where there’s nothing that can’t be divided into red-state-blue-state.

Nothing. The other day I saw a blog called “I Dig My Garden” that had a forum on whether Republicans could truly love gardening. And there was a little dust-up in Albany over politicization of a local pet blog, which had featured a discussion on Mitt Romney’s driving to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car.

But breast cancer would seem like the last thing to go. Everybody hates cancer and everybody likes breasts — infants, adults, women, men. Really, it’s America’s most popular body part.

Indeed, part of the reason for the overwhelming success that the Komen Foundation has had over the years is the extent to which it has been able extend its pink ribbon campaign into so many different parts of our culture. You see pink-adorned packages in grocery stores, for example, and both the NFL and Major League Baseball have taken up the cause at various points during their respective seasons. Some on the outside have criticized Komen in this regard because of its aggressiveness in defending its trademarks, not to mention the fact that it often seems that “Breast Cancer Awareness” crowds out attention that should also be paid to other diseases, some of which are even deadlier. Nonetheless, up until this week, it was hard to think of anything more non-political than being against breast cancer and in favor of the most well-known foundation dedicated to fighting it.

That’s all over now, of course. I don’t know how long Komen has been giving grant money for early breast cancer screenings to Planned Parenthood, but I can honestly say that until this week I neither had any idea that they were doing it, nor would I have particularly cared had I found out about it. For reasons that are worthy of a post all its own, though, Planned Parenthood has become a political lightning rod in recent years thanks largely to the fact that a relatively small portion of what it does, by most reasonable estimates no more than 10% per year, includes abortion services (not the 90% that Jon Kyl once claimed and then deleted from the Senate record after his staff emphasized that what he said was “not intended to be a factual statement.”) Its understandable why people who feel strongly about that issue would have strong opinions about Planned Parenthood, but when one takes into account the fact that the organization also provides services to poor women, including providing contraceptives and screenings for breast and cervical cancer, the notion that the entire organization and anyone who donates to it must be condemned strikes me as completely nonsensical. (Note that I am not addressing here the issues surrounding Federal funding of Planned Parenthood, which is an entirely separate issue in my mind, although it is worth noting that polling indicates that the public opposes the Republican position on that issue).

In a rational world, it strikes me that one should be able to make a distinction between those aspects of an organizations practices one approves, and those one does not. In Komen’s case, they had obviously made the determination that helping to fund Planned Parenthood’s early breast cancer screenings was compatible with the mission of the Foundation which they have described in the past as including both funding research to find a cure for breast cancer and increasing the survival rate for those diagnosed through better early detection methods. As with any form of cancer, the early breast cancer is detected, the more likely it is that someone will survive. Viewed from that perspective alone, the decision to provide grants to organizations like Planned Parenthood makes perfect sense.

Of course, once an issue that people feel strongly about gets involved, the possibility for rational discussion goes out the window. When Komen decided to cut off the grant to Planned Parenthood, pro-choice groups reacted negatively and rallied around Planned Parenthood. Now that they’ve changed their mind, it appears that pro-life groups are reacting the same way. For the most part, this is because it appeared from the beginning that Komen’s decision was based in politics, not in any objective evaluation of whether or not the grant was in the Foundations interest. So, whether it intended to or not, the Komen Foundation has now become known as an organization that took sides in the culture war, then switched sides, under circumstances that look perfectly amateurish from a Public Relations point of view.

Why these seemingly simple health issues should become so politicized is the question Collins asks.

But of course, it’s not just health issues that seem to have become politicized. Just this past fall, while he was leading the Denver Broncos to a series of seemingly improbable come from behind victories, a young Quarterback named Tim Tebow found himself the latest battleground in the culture wars. Tebow’s successes were touted by many Christians as proof of the power of his faith, and his losses were often cheered by obnoxious atheists like Bill Maher.  Tebow was even being courted by Republican candidates for President for an endorsement. To his credit, Tebow didn’t encourage any of this nonsense and remained far more sanguine about his success than the people who had latched on to him. Nonetheless, just like women’s health for a time something as seemingly non-political as professional football quite literally became a football itself in the culture wars.

Those are just two examples of how seemingly innocent subject have become politicized for no rational reason. Some of it, no doubt, is based on cultural differences between different parts of the country, but that alone doesn’t explain it all.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of how polarizing the Red State/Blue State divide has become in recent years that even the things that should unite us end up dividing us. Perhaps it’s the pervasiveness of the cable news/talk radio culture.  Whatever the cause, it doesn’t strike me as very healthy that we have, as Collins notes, reached a point where quite literally anything can become a battleground between Team Blue State and Team Red State.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Well who made it like this like this Doug? Who created the never ending campaign season? It was principally a combination of Republican operatives, right wing political entertainers on the radio, and a cable tv station aimed specifically at the conservative demographic. And then following the iron law of emulation the Democrats responded in kind (and usually not as effectively). This particular incident as is well documented was a case of Komen politicising their relationship with another charity in the women’s healthcare business because of pro life pressure and some personnel changes. This was part of a wider political attack on PP by conservatives and Republicans that has been going on for years. Personally I think the politics of these attacks on PP from the GOP’s point of view are insane but it’s an article of faith on the right as a cursory surf of rightwing blog comment over the past couple of days clearly demonstrates. The level of anger and hate being directed against PP is beyond belief. One can bemoan the existence of typhoid all day but the real problem is the tainted water that carries it.

  2. Tillman says:

    I find it difficult to believe they would ever politicize curling, but I suppose if someone starts taking a knee to pray after a successful…err, round? Is that it? to pray after a successful round, someone will make a fuss.

    To be frank, I’m enjoying the growing politicization(?) of the culture. It means more people are getting involved. To say this dilutes or removes the civility that used to be there is absurd, since one can always be civil in ignorance.

    And I figure it’ll be like a market bubble and burst at some point, probably around when everyone’s calling everyone else a Nazi.

  3. WR says:

    A few years back, my mother considered joining Curves. She did a little research and learned their owner was a big rightwinger — and more important to her, a big donor to right wing causes. So she was seriously disinclined to join, even though the location, classes and schedule were right for her. Then, after a couple of days, she decided that she didn’t want to live in a way that everything became a political decision. She’d apply her political judgment to political issues, but wouldn’t make every product or service she bought or used subject to the litmus test.

    I’ve tried to follow her wise lead ever since…

  4. David M says:

    There really was no reason for Komen to pick this fight, as I don’t think Komen’s politics was a concern to many beyond a sliver of the far right. Why they chose to listen to them and start this debacle I can’t say, unless they care more about defunding Planned Parenthood than curing breast cancer. Of course I would have called that theory absolute nonsense before this week…

  5. but when one takes into account the fact that the organization also provides services to poor women, including providing contraceptives and screenings for breast and cervical cancer

    You forget that a lot of the GOP base is against contraceptives (c.f. Rick Santorum) and cervical cancer prevention (c.f. Michele Bachmann) too.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Indeed they are, as they are against other areas of medical practice and research (eg. stem cells). The politics of it are crazy for the GOP but this was one of the unintended consequences of making cultural issues a device for gathering political support. Now they are stuck with it. I’m sure the sophisticated leadership elite of the party don’t in the main give a rat’s rectum about the issue but now they are prisoners of it.

  7. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    It is one of the banal curiosities of provincial politics in this province that the Tories consistently seem to have the best curlers.

    I haven’t laughed that hard in a while.

  8. walt moffett says:

    Whenever these “Can’t we all just get along” things come up, the water hole scene in 2001 and monolith scene in History of the World part 1 start playing.

  9. I agree with others that “there goes the crazy party” is not the same as “everybody” or “everything.”

    Where the left has agitated it has been for consumption issues, dolphins in tuna, GMOs in food. Quite different, and more defensible rationally.

  10. MM says:

    This ties into the post about the Tea party and their fear of agenda 21 as well. Everything HAS always been politicized by some segment of society. You can find all kinds of MASSIVE boycott lists on places like RadFem blogs or Free Republic where some company is evil due typically to so me minor slight. For the most part, these just aren’t large movements and It’s been easy to ignore these groups.

    Thanks to the rise of the Tea Party and the endless drumbeat that the media needs to be “objective”, crazier and crazier ideas are able to be put out in public uncritically, which gives them credibility.

  11. merl says:

    I was surprised as hell to find out that cigarettes which extinguish themselves are some sort of liberal plot. Silly me, I thought it was to prevent fires caused by lit cigarettes.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:


    Thanks to the rise of the Tea Party and the endless drumbeat that the media needs to be “objective”, crazier and crazier ideas are able to be put out in public uncritically, which gives them credibility.

    That’s one way of looking at it. The other is that the visibility given to these fruitcakes and their increasing dominance in the GOP is ultimately deeply harmful to the Republican party brand.

  13. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Well, given that the various wingnut groups have managed to politicize condoms, school lunches, heavy metal records, family law cases, national holidays, the pledge of allegiance, Christmas trees, cartoons, Sesame Street, TV shows, big box retail stores, places of birth and charitable giving, among others, I think it’s a safe bet to say that no, there’s nothing under the sun that won’t be politicized.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    Of course there is nothing that won’t end up being politicized…however, there is an effective way to deal with such nonsense…