A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy. A major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Republicans deny evolution.
Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute -- both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields -- and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.
But opposition to climate change is something new in the Republican platform. As recently as a few years ago, both Mitt Romney and John McCain supported cap-and-trade laws, and Newt Gingrich appeared in pro-environment ads with Nancy Pelosi. The party's rejection of climate science is fairly new, and probably comes from its increasing dependence on campaign cash from dirty-energy barons like the Koch brothers.
By contrast, the Republican party's denial of evolution is much older and more grassroots in nature, dating at least to when the national parties traded places during the civil-rights era. The conservative South, in addition to its other charming qualities, has a long history of passing laws hostile to science, from Tennessee's Butler Act, the 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial, to Louisiana's 1981 Balanced Treatment Act, which decreed that "creation science" had to be given an equal share of classroom time.