Rural identity politics
I have a phone call into my mother, aka The Swing Voter*, but I'm willing to bet that she loved the speech. Will Wilkinson, who comes from the same background: rural, Midwestern, now a city dweller, liked her:
Palin exudes sexual confidence and maternal authority, which in a relatively conservative culture like ours is the most recognizable and viscerally comprehensible form of female power. It makes a lot of men uncomfortable, but that's because it's the kind of female power they are most often subject to, and most often fail to successfully resist. I spent much of my life taking orders from women a lot like Sarah Palin -- women like my mother and my Iowa public school teachers. Indeed, it makes a lot more emotional sense for me to feel led by by a woman like that than by some hotshot Air Force pilot. When a guy with a buzzcut says "jump," I say "screw you." When a woman like Sarah Palin says "jump," I am inclined to deferentially inquire into the requirements of this jump.
Palin's speech, I think, set in stark relief what Hillary was/is lacking. Again, I think O'Rourke gets it right when she says,
Ironically, [Palin] may have an easier time bringing what CNN called "toughness and femininity" together precisely because she never assumed at the outset of her adult life that she'd end up in a role like this.
I have very mixed feelings about this. I do not think politics is noble, and I deplore career politicians like Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, and, yes, Hillary Clinton. I would in fact rather be ruled by competent small-town mayors than accomplished professional rent-seekers. (Palin, being very smart, made great strides in this regard during her short time as Governor, because opportunistic predation is what politics is.) But I feel that Hillary's struggle to connect as a strong leadership-worthy woman was part of an attempt to forge a sense of feminine authority not founded an maternality and female sexual power. That she almost succeeded in this is astounding, and I think hugely to her credit.
But we all know that politics is a primate sport. We're used to marveling over the fact that the taller man usually wins, that a commanding, alpha-male jock toughness is de rigeur for successful presidential candidates. Palin's gut appeal drives home the perhaps inevitable but nevertheless regrettable fact that female political success is at some level going to be grounded in primate appeal, too. And, as a female primate, Palin is evidently "a force to be reckoned with" -- as the pundits kept saying.
But I don't want to push too hard on the biopsychology of this. Biology is heavily strained through through the filter of contingent culture and identity. That Palin reminded my of my school teachers is a matter of her acquired manner and the assumptions beneath them, a matter of her Upper-Midwest-sounding accent. I'm from a small town. She's from a small town! And damn straight: people who study at the University of Idaho (which is, in fact, where my sister is currently studying law) are every bit as smart as all you snide elitist Ivy League cosmoplitans!
The overwhelmed Republican delegates interviewed after the speech were at a total loss when asked to pin down specifically what they had liked about Palin's address. What they liked is that they saw a feminine yet powerful conservative Christian mother -- someone they understand, someone they would like to have as a friend, someone they are or would like to be. What they liked was the thrill of such direct cultural identification, of being on that stage and commanding attention and respect. I do not doubt that conservative Christian moms all over the country were brought to tears by the power of this. There are a lot of conservative Christian moms.Palin made my gut want John McCain to win and then suffer a fatal heart attack. But I am a studied skeptic of my gut, and no wordly force could deliver my vote to him.
Another libertarian friend, an atheist who grew up in rural Wisconsin, voices similar sentiments:
My favorite line: "Contra my Democratic friends, I'm not sure that voters will see "But McCain really might die in office!" as a bug, rather than a feature."
In terms of political psychology, I loved the bait of Palin comparing herself to Obama. If people get itching for a Palin-Obama debate, Obama is in trouble. You're right to say that the Democrats should ignore her. The problem is, if she continues to be successful, rural America will flock to her anyways. I'm not a huge fan of McCain's nor of Palin's reported social conservativism, but my rural symptathies involutarily switched on during her speech and I couldn't help but root for her. You can love and live the life of the elite, and I'm certainly living it, and still appreciate the cultural world that people build for themselves when they can't afford Whole Foods, and moreover wouldn't shop there even if they could. I'm not sure the Democrats are there yet (geez, I'm still channeling my roots this morning).
Yes, the culture war is in full swing. It's an evolutionarily deep tendency that kicks when people are given either-or choices. I'm afraid reason doesn't and won't ever trump that as long as we're human.
I heard basically the same thing last night from a friend who grew up in the small-town south. They're all libertarian. They're all male. They all liked her. She speaks to the sense of people who didn't go to Ivy League schools that Harvard grads think they're not quite bright, and definitely not competent to run their own lives without a Yale man supervising things. And they're entirely right that a lot of Ivy League grads do think this way, consciously or unconsciously.
Sarah Palin just delivered that vote, in Wisconsin and Iowa and Ohio and Western New York. She just reinvigorated the base, and yes, in this election turnout will matter. She did a really good job. I may not like what she stands for, but I have to acknowledge its power--and yes, that frequently, the coastal elites earn the revulsion of Middle America. They don't, to coin a phrase, hate us for our freedoms--our homosexual coddling, abortion loving ways. They hate us because we act like we think we deserve to rule them.
* Mom's vote has correctly predicted the outcome of every presidential election since Nixon.