I have occasionally pondered what it is about Sarah Palin that provokes an almost universal gag reflex among progressives (and more than a few conservatives). For myself, it’s the fact that she panders to the worst side of conservatism, and pretends (probably) to be a lot stupider than she really is (hopefully) in order to do so.
The whole “ignorance as a virtue” thing turns me off. By playing it up, Palin’s connected with resentful, low-information types who are pissed off that their team is no longer in charge, terrified by the changing world around them, and loathe to be dragged, kicking and screaming or otherwise, into it. Palin reassures them that it’s okay, even “patriotic”, to resist progress, which is characterized in all kinds of bizarre ways: socialism, fascism, kill-granny-ism, etc. That’s what does it for me: that she plays on the worst fears of conservatives and whips them into the brainless paranoid hysteria evident at teabagger rallies.
About the teabaggers: in spite of all the outrage and comedy gold that’s mined from their more extreme element, I suspect that not all of them are spittle-flecked racist cretins. Some of them are your next door neighbour, the cashier at your local Safeway, the guy who tunes up your Volvo, the accountant who does your taxes. Nice, normal, fairly apolitical working-class people who just happen to lean conservative, and they’re worried about what they’ve been told is going on around them. Significantly, Palin connects with them, too.
In Saturday’s NatPo, Rex Murphy deconstructs “the Palin effect”, and Palin’s detractors — yes yes, he’s a bit of a wingnut, but that doesn’t render him incapable of touching on a couple of interesting points:
She, by rights, should be queen of the feminists. All that self-reliance, her takeover of Alaska politics, the rocket ride to a Vice-Presidential ticket, a public career she blends with her family life– these seem gold-standard credentials for a real feminist. But official feminism derides herewith an unspeakable intensity. Her early critics were not beyond the inane claim that she was somehow not really a woman.
I side with those who venture that the nerves Palin hits have more to do with class — where she’s from, how she speaks, where she was educated, what she likes (the moose-hunting), than her politics or her gender. She’s rural, she came into national politics from (ugh) Alaska. She and her husband have the unerasable stigmata of the modern working class. She would not be embarrassed to be seen walking into Wal-Mart.
If Palin was pro-choice, her feminist cred would be almost immaculate. Feminism has grown from its socialist roots — there are libertarian feminists, so why not fiscally conservative feminists? (If indeed Palin really is a fiscal conservative, which is arguable.) But reproductive rights are a major feminist issue, and being an anti-choice feminist is like being a meat-eating vegetarian. Also, by pandering to the side of conservatism that is conventionally anti-feminist, some feel that Palin has set women in politics back. I used to feel that way myself, but I’m not so sure anymore: not long ago, even the thought of the GOP running a woman at the top of a presidential ticket was inconceivable. Talk about your 18 million cracks. (Or maybe in this case, 18 million crackpots.)
But more troubling is Murphy’s second point. It’s true that Palin’s routine seems to have connected with working class conservatives in a way that more cerebral progressivism hasn’t, but if this trend continues it could be a real problem for progressives. Granted, most of the people who flock to the “tea parties”, and Palin’s fans, are at least right-leaning, but it’s still a worrying political progression. Traditionally, the left has been solidly on the side of the working class, but that perception seems to be changing.