Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate aroused unprecedented rage and delight, especially among women - but why?
Since 1925, 30 women have served as state governors in the US. They have not represented any particular local or regional culture but have served in states from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from north to south. True, the earliest three of these governors took over their respective governorships as surrogates for their husbands, and a fourth served for only seven days after the death of the incumbent. But the rest have been elected in the ordinary way. Of the 30, 19 have been Democrats and the remainder Republicans.
Now unlike, say, members of Congress, the governors of states are people with a large amount of executive power. In their respective states, governors are responsible for overseeing taxation, public health, education, road conditions, the state of public utilities and so on. There was a time, not all that long ago, when governors’ offices were the primary proving grounds for presidential candidacies.
Thus one might have thought that in the year 2008 the selection of a woman, especially a woman who is a governor, to be a candidate for the vice-presidency would have rated barely more than a yawn – or at most a shrug – from the public. If you combine the ever more taken-for-granted accession of women to all kinds of positions of power in American society with the fact that this year’s contest to settle on the Democratic candidate for the presidency was so very narrowly lost – some of her loyalists would to this day say that it had not been lost at all – by Hillary Clinton, what followed when John McCain announced that his running mate was to be Sarah Palin might to an unengaged bystander seem quite bewildering. For the overwhelming majority of America’s liberals not only immediately went into heated opposition to Mrs Palin, a large and highly visible number of them went – no other term will do – positively barking mad at the very thought of her. True, militantly liberal women had only recently gone through a very trying time of their own: how did they ever get themselves and the Democratic Party into the position of having to choose for their presidential candidate between one or the other of two “firsts”, between a woman and a black man? Both of the two main Democratic candidates had their passionate loyalists, and while in some sense it was a more accurate representation of the history of America’s “liberations” for the black man to have been the first to win the nomination, the outcome of the contest left a possibly serious number of those supporting the woman feeling resentful and rebellious. There is speculation that a significant number of them aimed to teach their party a lesson by voting Republican in the upcoming election. (Whether this will come to pass remains to be seen, but as the campaign season goes on it seems ever more doubtful.)
What did not from the first moment remain to be seen, however, was the curious violence (at both extremes, that is, of either rage or joy) with which women have been responding to John McCain’s choice of running mate. Now, American election campaigns are not, and have never in the country’s history been, gentlemanly affairs: the stakes are high, and they are personal to an extent that cannot happen in any place where elections are determined by party. There is also good reason to suppose that the Republican choice of a woman in the face of Hillary Clinton’s failure to capture the Democratic nomination was intended precisely to serve as a provocation. Nevertheless, there has not in living memory – and perhaps never at all – been anything as laden with rage and malice as the campaign of personal insinuation against Mrs Palin instituted, as it seemed, within minutes of her first introduction to the public in the press, on the internet and in street-corner conversation.
Nothing about her, beginning with her years in high school, seemed to be off limits to people intent on finding her a positively scandalous choice. It was announced, for instance, that her Down’s Syndrome baby was not in fact hers but her unmarried daughter’s and that she had laid maternal claim to him to protect the family’s reputation; that as governor of Alaska Mrs Palin had engaged in various kinds of political hanky-panky: that she had exercised illegitimate gubernatorial power to such an extreme as to order the removal of a book named Heather Has Two Mommies (an introduction to homosexuality for young readers) from a school library; and even that she had been so sunk in corruption as to have accepted a free facial treatment from a local beauty salon.
That none of these alleged outrages turned out to have taken place was, of course, of no significance to those purveying them to the press. It is true that her teenaged daughter is pregnant, and is slated to marry the baby’s father very soon. But this circumstance only seems to have increased the fury in which her affairs are being discussed, for, it is said, any mother worth her salt would have considered her daughter’s future and seen to it that she had an abortion. If anything, even greater, albeit a tiny bit more muted, rage against her is expressed over the fact that her infant is a Down’s Syndrome baby: any woman even halfway worth her salt would certainly have dispatched that pregnancy as well.
The story of Sarah Palin and the machinations of the press is not a story about politics at all, though its political consequences might turn out to have been enormous. It is, rather, a story about the condition of American culture. One doubts whether John McCain and those managing his campaign understand this. They lately seem to have set about trying to fit her into some less assailable political mould than the one she actually fits – arranging for her to talk to a variety of world leaders, for example – when the whole point about her, the reason she has been made to suffer so much unconventional personal abuse at the hands of some while becoming for others no less than a kind of blessed icon, is precisely that she does not and cannot be made to fit such a mould.
On the one side, conservative women, particularly those of the church-going variety, now sing hymns to her nomination. And why not? She is young, handsome, clever, firmly married, a mother, a serious Christian, a right-to-lifer, who has been successful at virtually everything (including a beauty pageant) to which she has turned a hand or mind or body. At a recent meeting of conservative activists attended by this writer the very mention of her name set the whole room cheering and the women present all but dancing on the tables. I do not happen to know the statistics of how many such women there are in the United States or how much electoral power they actually wield: their very existence, after all, continues to this day to be scanted by the press. There is also much reason to doubt that the Republican Party without Sarah Palin would have found the necessary degree of enthusiasm within their community. True, they have lost out, probably permanently, on what is for many, many of them the primary issue of their public life, namely, the legalisation of abortion (where liberal successes have been so great that lawmakers are now being required to consider the issue of whether or not to keep alive a baby that somehow happens to survive an abortion), and the country’s schools seem to be ever-increasingly less reverent toward the works and ways – and even the name – of the One they believe to be their Redeemer. On the other hand, as the liberals have now and then had reason to fear, they are far from powerless. Both the legalisation of abortion and the banning of all forms of religious piety from public schools, after all, are measures whose legitimacy has been determined by the courts rather than the ballot. In the case of the one measure near and dear to the hearts of the feminist political activists that was required to undergo the full constitutional panoply of the American political process, namely the Equal Rights Amendment, it was the kind of women – even some of them the very same women – now dancing in the aisles for Sarah Palin who successfully engineered its defeat.
Still, it is those who for 40 years now have in one way or another staked their claim to be the defenders of women’s power by dwelling noisily in every available public medium on women’s collective victimhood and the special treatment needed to overcome it – ie, the feminists – whose violent response to Mrs Palin might seem to require some explanation. True, many, perhaps the majority, of them had only recently witnessed the inability of their own female candidate to capture the Democratic presidential nomination that must in their eyes have seemed surely and rightfully hers. Moreover, that it should have been the enemy Republicans who were now fulfilling at least some formal part of their ambition (“dishing the Whigs,” American style) would no doubt have seemed to them the unkindest cut of all. Still, the very nearly uncontrolled violence of the response to Sarah Palin, including on the part of many, many liberal women who are neither feminist activists nor even necessarily reliable participants in Democratic campaigns, would seem to require some further understanding. Having run into me on a street-corner the other day, a dear old friend with whom probably no friend has in 20 years passed a single unpleasant moment greeted me by throwing wide her arms and declaring, “I HATE Sarah Palin! I HATE her!”
No doubt Governor Palin’s being a right-to-lifer has something to do with such a response: abortion has come to be so taken for granted among “enlightened” Americans that they can now virtually live for years without needing to converse with anyone opposed to it. And that Sarah Palin should have imposed her opposition to abortion on her pregnant teenage daughter only made the outrage seem all the greater. Possibly worst of all was her having agreed to carry and give birth to a Down’s Syndrome baby, a possibility which touches a sensitive nerve that many people, especially women, would prefer not to know they have and that has perhaps been covered up by means of a correspondingly stern disapproval.
Then there is the question of Alaska – a place visited by denizens of the lower 49 states mainly on cruise ships in spring and summer, and in the winter, or so it often seems, only by documentary-film makers and/or students of polar-bear behaviour. In short, it is a very large space with a very small and in some places pretty isolated population, not necessarily a place in which you would imagine someone finding a candidate to appeal to all the people. So, when John McCain first introduced his running mate, some part of the audience must have been intrigued, and some others made uncomfortable, by the seeming oddity of her family’s life in that so largely unfamiliar place: where people like the candidate’s part-Inuit husband vie with one another in highly competitive races on snowmobiles; where people, including even the state’s governor, like to hunt and dress and cook and eat moose; where a young woman elected mayor of a small town in 1996 can by 2006 be elected governor; and where people – in this case the Palins – without appearing to make any point of it or serving any ideology or “lifestyle” by it, give their children such names as Willow, Trig and Track. During the Great Depression, Washington tried to encourage destitute farm families to move to Alaska, in those years still not a state, but only a territory, of the United States. For a while their fellow Americans were shown newsreels of newly-settled Alaskan families proudly holding up the gigantic melons and potatoes and cabbages and pumpkins that were their ostensible reward for leaving their homes in the American dust-bowl and resettling in the north. (Whether the government’s campaign had any success beyond those newsreels we never learned, but it did leave many people with a lifelong sense that Alaska is a very, very far-off land – a sense, it will perhaps be considered unpleasant to point out at this moment, that may have played both a good and a bad role in the reception of Sarah Palin’s candidacy.)
Be all that as it may, the Left’s campaign to smear Sarah Palin was to begin with not without considerable advantage to her and her now-passionate supporters – and thus, of course, to John McCain’s candidacy. For one thing, it cleared the air of any pretence, so beloved of the old-time non-ideological politicians, that this campaign was going to be conducted with any genuine concern for (small d) democratic comity. Barack Obama and John McCain could both insist all they liked about what kinds of attacks on their opponents were not to be allowed; what happened to Sarah Palin made it clear that this election was plainly and simply to be a contest of Left against Right. Though his campaign tightrope-walking may have obscured the fact, no candidate for President has been more of a product of, as well as a present-day creature of, the Left than Barack Obama. And while John McCain cannot really be characterised in quite the same way as a wholly-owned creature of the Right, on what are known as “the social issues”, particularly abortion, he certainly is. In any case, that is the role Sarah Palin has clearly been given to play. Thanks to the combination of her own political strengths, the unprecedentedly nasty press devoted to her, and the still largely undefined anger of all those angry, angry feminists, Sarah Palin has beyond doubt been chosen to serve as the candidate of the Right.
The McCain campaign’s “experts” – the people whose profession is to advise politicians how to run for office effectively and who almost always advise them to temper their opinions so as not to offend anyone – did seem at one point to have got hold of her: in the course of a widely broadcast and rebroadcast interview, she repeatedly stumbled over questions whose answers had clearly been supplied her in training sessions intended to give her a full supply of unearned and undigestible expertise. In the wake of this failure, her supporters grew mightily anxious, while the Democrats and their faithful acolytes in the media could hardly suppress their delight: it was now evident for all to see that she was simply unqualified to be, as they say, only one heartbeat away from becoming President.
On the night of 2 October she was scheduled to debate her Democratic rival, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. This was to be their only debate, and as the day arrived, Republican anxiety about her performance was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Now, as it happens, Senator Biden, who has been around for a long time and is something of a power in the Senate, is generally known for two things: that he is a nice man, and that he is an almost compulsive talker who tends to wander in speech and sometimes grows rather careless about the truth of what he allows himself to wander into.
At the close of the debate, Sarah Palin was very widely regarded as having redeemed her candidacy in one fell swoop. It was said that the Senator bested her “on substance” (though so much of what he said happened not to be the case that it is hard to know to what the term “substance” might have been meant to refer), but she was nevertheless the victor that night because she was bright-eyed, cheerful, pleasant, unswayable, unflappable and full of passion. Nor did it hurt that she looked particularly serene and pretty. Her opponents were reduced to praising the Senator for the weightiness of his opinions.
That general question aside, what is impossible to judge at this point is the effect of the Wall Street crisis on the election. No one really knows whom or what to blame, or indeed – though emergency legislation has now been passed both by the Senate and the House of Representatives and signed into law – how long it will endure, who have been its real perpetrators, and who will be its true victims. Even some of the wisest and/or cleverest of one’s acquaintances are finding it difficult to offer or to accept explanations, let alone determine how the public in general should respond.
One thing is clear and was made all the clearer by the vice-presidential debate, and that is that this crisis will do much to obscure the true ideological contest that lies behind the 2008 election. Even Sarah Palin, darling of the Right, spoke in a tone of populist hostility stronger than that of her Democratic opponent about something she referred to as “the men of Wall Street”.
American elections tend in general to avoid coming clean about the meaning of any Left-Right ideological divide that may lie behind them. In any case, such a divide has, with only a couple of exceptions, not been serious enough to mention, let alone debate about. This election has certainly been different. John McCain is hardly a conservative’s conservative – in fact, if not for Sarah Palin, many, many conservatives would have been content to sit idly by as he was defeated. But Barack Obama is as dedicated a leftist as has ever made his way to Washington. Because he means to win, he moderates his campaign speeches, but beneath their generalities, for those with ears old enough and practiced enough to hear, are the same old prescriptions and cadences of the 1960s radical Left. Should he win the election, conservative true believers will once again make their move to take over the Republican Party and make it ideologically pure – and rightly or wrongly, Sarah Palin will be guaranteed a larger political future than is on offer in Alaska. Should the McCain-Palin ticket win there is no telling what might become of her in the next 10 to 20 years.