NEW YORK -- During a foreign policy think tank discussion in London on Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely presidential candidate for 2016, was asked whether he believed in evolution.
To a British audience, it might seem an odd question to pose to a sitting governor of a US state - akin to asking whether the Earth was round, or if he believed apples fall to the ground because of gravity.
Yet the Republican demurred, unable to answer - much to the delight of the journalists in the room, who not only had a story but one that could be duly soaked in a dye of cultural snobbery.
In his defence, it was not that the governor didn’t have the correct answer. Like everyone in the room, he knew full well that evolution is a watertight scientific theory. However, it is precisely because Walker has presidential ambitions that he found himself unwilling to answer, forced to look preposterous in front of the mocking crowd.
But what witchcraft is at work that requires a man bent on becoming leader of one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world to deny a theory so universally accepted?
Put simply, politics.
A Pew poll in 2009 found a majority (54%) of Republican voters believed in evolution. Similar polling in 2013 found far fewer Republicans (43%) believed in evolution. In just four years, disbelieving Republican voters had switched from a minority to a majority.
Walker was forced to sully himself in front of an international crowd
That’s not to say more Americans had come to question evolution. The overall percentage of disbelievers remained that same - a still staggering 40%. It was that more people that reject evolution had come to identify with the Republican brand.
But why? Pew found that older Americans are far more likely to reject Darwin’s teachings, as are white evangelicals. In recent years the Republican Party has increasingly come to rely on these twin demographics – older voters and evangelical Christians.
Most Americans still believe in evolution. It's likely most Republican politicians believe in evolution, albeit quietly. But increasingly the party’s base, those that turn out to vote in presidential and midterm elections, do not. To remain in power, some politicians must pander to this base, regardless of how discordant it makes them look to the rest of America or indeed the Western world.
The increasing polarisation of American politics is also at play. A general mistrust of science has come to represent the default position of many Republican voters, hence similar obfuscation on matters of climate change. The longer this persists, the more entrenched these views become.
Which leads us back to Walker, forced to sit on a London stage and embarrassingly “punt” on a question, knowing that delivering an honest answer would alienate him with the very supporters he needs to corral for a White House bid.
Walker's party has compromised on truth to retain power. It won’t last; relying on an ageing vote is unsustainable. Yet until the party itself evolves, Republican politicians will continue to be laughed at around the world.