Many of today's conservatives take a page from Ronald Reagan and unfairly malign funding for various research. (AP Photo/Jim Cole.)

Conservatives manufacture outrage; such is their (anti)civic function. A favorite tactic from time immemorial has been to find "outrageous" federal outlays get and present them as stand-ins for the supposed recklessness of government spending altogether. One of Ronald Reagan's mentors was a pioneer. H.R. "Charlie" Gross had been news director of WHO in Des Moines in the 1930s when Reagan worked there as a sportscaster, back when Reagan was a New Dealer. Gross, though, was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, and the two would get into knock-down-drag-out debates over lunch. ("Somewhere around the last months of Dutch's employment at WHO," one of their colleagues remembered, "I recall thinking that maybe Gross was winning him over.") Beginning in 1949, Gross moved on from his career as an early Rush Limbaugh to a seat in Congress, where he specialized in the aforementioned activity; in 1953, for example, he went after the Navy for supposedly requiring a board of three commissioned officers to investigate whenever a pet died aboard a navy vessel. Did the Navy pay “as much attention to the death of children?” a Republican colleague chuckled appreciatively. “I doubt it,” Gross replied.

When it came Reagan's time to address the nation himself as a syndicated radio commentator in 1975, he showed how well he had learned Gross's hustle. "If you're not familiar with the term 'boondoggle,' consider the fact that our federal government recently underwrote the cost of a study dealing with Polish bisexual frogs," he intoned on one broadcast. How absurd to waste $6,000 of hard-earned taxpayer money for that! No matter that, over a year earlier, after an Idaho congressman had introduced the "scandal," newspaperman in lowly Boca Raton, Florida investigated the claim and found it a thoroughgoing cock-up: first, the money hadn't come from taxpayers but from Polish money owed the US in a balance of payments deal; second, the researcher was a pioneer in research on the genetics of plant hybrids (a rather lucrative business, should you, like Ronald Reagan, happen to like capitalism), for which these asexually reproducing amphibians, it turned out, were crucially helping in the understanding.

The point being, Ronald Reagan was not a scientist. How would he know whether supposedly ridiculous-sounding basic science research was useless? A point, in fact, which brings us right up to today, and the latest such supposed outrage being trumpeted by Republicans. There's nothing new under the wingnut sun. As Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo points out, "conservative trolling of…publicly funded scientific research is at a historic high." For instance, research on the subject of duck genitals. Listen to the Club for Growth's Steven Moore excoriate that here: Genitals!! Get it? Sex!! Sex is silly!!! (He said 'genitals'! Heh heh heh!) Never mind that the research that received the $400,000 grant, as Michael Tomasky wrote, "is rather fascinating and just self-evidently deserving of human study." So, Beutler points out, is the "study of bear DNA that John McCain mocked as [either] 'a paternity issue or criminal,' but a waste of money' either way," but which "yielded information that turned out to be valuable to the people of Montana who live and work among grizzlies"; or Eric Cantor's oh-so-clever intervention "that 'President Obama wants to raise your taxes so he can pay people $1.2 million to play World of Warcraft"—a study, in point of fact, of "how audio-visual stimulus of that kind might slow the cognitive effects of aging,” which may prove to be useful if you are, you know, aging.

Now, I wish I could pigeonhole this dubious rhetorical tradition as an exclusively right-wing sin. Unfortunately, one of its most distinguished architects was a Democrat, often one considered a liberal one. I wrote about him at length in 2009: William Proxmire, "who left public service in 1989 and died in 2005, may be best remembered—it's what I remember—for a monthly publicity stunt called the Golden Fleece Award,' bestowed upon what he would claim was the month's most wasteful and ridiculous pockets of government spending. The pundits fell in love with the notion's good-government pretensions, and for all I know the stunt did the nation some good paring the federal budget of waste, fraud, and abuse. I suspect, though, the exercise was largely a silly waste of time. One of my professors in graduate school won a Golden Fleece award. Senator Proxmire awarded it for a supposed grant to fund her "mountain climbing hobby." Actually, she's one of the nation's most distinguished anthropologists. She has never climbed a mountain in her life, but used her field work among Sherpas of Nepal to arrive at some of the most incisive theorizing extant on how societies work. Second-guessing the peer-review process of National Science Foundation grants made for nifty headlines. But it was also numbingly reactionary. According to the Wikipedia entry on Proxmire, the prizes sometimes "went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs."

I hope Democrats won't take the bait on this latest round of knuckleheaded anti-science demagoguery. I fear, though, in our austerity-besotted age when Obama's budget plan cuts more out of Social Security and Medicare in the next ten years than the Republicans', well, they just might.

Those who have really sinned understand best how lead the crusade against immorality. Or at least that's the argument that can get hedonistic Christian conservatives re-elected, Rick Perlstein writes.