Thursday, 4 September 2008

Sarah's Progress

Didn't she do well? Well, erm, that rather depends who you ask. Responses to Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican convention have ranged from the rapturous to the distinctly underwhelmed. In pure performance terms, I was quite impressed. She showed more of the spark that was so much in evidence when she was first unveiled last week, before the rumours and the revelations took off some of her early shine. She looked to me like a star in the making - not quite there yet, still a bit of an amateur (but wasn't that the point?) but entirely worthy of her place on the podium. This is politician as supermom.

Some of Sarah Palin's views unsettle me. Whether or not she is actually a Creationist, she is certainly at home among the kind of brutish stupidity that makes Creationism possible, and that is worrying in itself. On abortion, gay rights and other social issues, she seems determined to impose her personal morality on others. She would appear to have little understanding of civil liberties or the presumption of innocence: in one of the memorable lines from her oration, she complained about Obama that "Al Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and he's worried that someone won't read them their rights." Which went down predictably well in the hall, but seems to portend more Patriot Acts and more Guantanamos. She seems to think that victory in Eye-rack is "finally in sight". For her son's sake I hope so, but the place still looks pretty smashed up to me.

That's what she's there for, of course: to provide the no-nonsense red meat that the rednecks yearn for, but with a feminine twist that will bring in some of Hillary's army hoping for a woman president. But there's more to it than that. Sarah doesn't just tell the "core vote" what they want to hear: to a remarkable, almost unprecedented extent she actually is the core vote. It's noticeable that she brought up Barack Obama's off-the-record (but recorded) remarks about "bitter" blue-collar Americans and rural hicks who "cling to guns and religion". Few people cling more closely to either than Sarah Palin.

The contrast with Obama, here as elsewhere, is striking. Both are outsiders to the political establishment, as neither Joe Biden nor John McCain can claim to be (at the end of the day, they're both old white guys, after all). But they're very different sorts of outsiders. They represent very different versions of the American dream. To sum it up, where Obama is a meritocrat, Palin is a democrat.

Obama's background is humble, but far from ordinary and certainly not "middle American" (to the extent that the phrase has any meaning). Palin's is almost as humble but also very ordinary. Therein lies the distinction. To call Barack Obama an "elitist", as his opponents notoriously do, seems odd: as a poor, mixed race boy he has got where he is on merit, not relying on family connections like George Bush. But if not born to the elite, he is certainly elitist in outlook and by adoption. He is a scholarship boy who, being clever, charming and hard-working, found doors opened to him that would otherwise have been closed. Coming from nowhere, he ended up at Columbia University and then Harvard Law School, pretty much a guarantee of a comfortable, lucrative career had he not wanted to go into politics.

Palin's background is less exotic, and thus rather more limiting (but also more approachable), than Obama's: it was, as she proudly boasts, small town, blue-collar and fiercely patriotic. "I grew up with those people," she says. "They're the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, and run our factories, and fight our wars."

It's the sort of background that most young people with ambition are desperate to escape from, usually by moving to a big city. Palin never escaped, nor did she show much sign of wanting to: after a few years in college - and North Idaho College is hardly Ivy League - she went back home to Wassila and, until she found herself governor, stayed there. She stuck with her first boyfriend, raised a large family, volunteered, worked part-time, drove the kids to school, baked (I'm guessing) apple pie. She was everywoman.

From this...

The "hockey mom" line is a bit schmaltzy, but it's far from meaningless. She is distinctively a mom rather than a mummy or a mother, getting down and dirty, speaking her mind, voicing unremarkable opinions with ringing certainty but also a distinct lack of sentimentality. And this she has carried over, it would appear, unchanged into public life. As she put it herself:

So I signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education even better. And when I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and I knew their families, too.

As a route into politics, this isn't unprecedented, but it is something of a throwback. Modern politicians, after all, are supposed to move smoothly from student unions, via think tanks or a few years in management consultancy or the law, perhaps taking in a stint as a special adviser, and thence to selection short-list vetted by people like them. It's a ladder you normally have to join at the bottom, early. It's the route Barack Obama took; though he served his apprenticeship in the hard-edged politics of Chicago rather than Washington, he fought for people who were, truth be told, no longer really his.

When ordinary voters tell pollsters that they have lost faith in politics, they mean that they're sick of politicians. That's because the language of representative democracy of necessity involves a deception, or at the least a sleight of language. "Democracy" ought to mean rule by the people; but of course it actually means no such thing. Modern Western democracy is in fact a mixed system, in which power is spread among various professional groups of bureaucrats, lawyers and elected party nominees. Only people who are part of that system exercise power; and the system is structured in such a way that the leaders experience the reality of most people's lives only indirectly. Hence much of the public discontent.

But that isn't Sarah Palin's story. Her appeal is precisely that she embodies a certain fantasy of democracy that millions of people would like to be true, and that the conventional rhetoric pretends is true. She did really go from serving up half-time snacks at the school hockey game to, perhaps, the White House. There is something of the fairy-tale or feel-good movie about Sarah's progress. It would make a watchable family drama; something perhaps lost on the political afficionados who paid rather too much attention to West Wing. this?

A number of circumstances conspired to make Sarah Palin possible. First of all, Alaska is very small, and its constituent communities proportionately so. The majority of Palin's political experience was undertaken as mayor of a small town in which literally everyone knew her personally. Her political apprenticeship, then, was spent not in a political machine but in a situation of actual democratic accountability, of a type Pericles or Cleon would have recognised. She hasn't been governor of Alaska long enough to lose touch; and the state though territorially vast is also intimate. Questions have emerged - troopergate, bridgegate, Toddgate, Buchanangate (Homer's hundred-gated Thebes had nothing on the Palin candidacy) - but they should be balanced against Palin's genuine record of taking on vested interests and cleaning up some of the worst of the corruption and cronyism that is the nature of small-town politics. So when she says "I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this great country," she can sound as though she really means it.

Her sex comes into it here, too. The most effective female politicians have often appealed to small-town domestic virtues. Margaret Thatcher left Grantham behind when she went to Oxford; yet psychologically part of her always stayed there, and it was the part of her political make-up that she was most anxious to stress (at least in the early years, before she went all Gloriana and lost the plot). She was the housewife who knew about looking after the budget, she was the small-town patriot who went off to Brussels and demanded (and got) "our money back". Contrast that with the dismal "Blair babes" (Blairite certainly, but rarely babes) thrown up by the New Labour machine, the likes of Harriet Harman and Jacqui Smith, who manage to turn off men and women in droves.

Palin's down-to-earth approach that will appeal to many middle-American women who liked the idea of President Hillary, I suspect. These women are not feminists in a doctrinaire sense - socially, many of their attitudes on such matters as abortion are opposed to what feminists imagine is what women ought to think or want. But they are feminists in a broader sense, in that they believe strongly in women as women, and are cheered to think of a woman getting to the top. Hillary Clinton picked up quite a few socially conservative women, despite her feminist credentials, because she was feisty and a champion of her sex (though remarkably tolerant of her husband's manifold adulteries). And - just as importantly - men seem to like her too.

She doesn't represent all the many different America's, of course. She has little to say to poor urban voters, or to ethnic minorities, or to the coastal intelligentsia. Her limitations, both in policy terms and in personal outlook, are all too obvious; her horizons look depressingly narrow, many of her views unsophisticated. But that's her USP. She is of the people in a way that few modern politicians are or can be. It remains to be seen whether or not that is a good thing.

(Image of Wasilla courtesy of


Chris said...

>To call Barack Obama an "elitist", as his opponents notoriously do, seems odd: as a poor, mixed race boy he has got where he is on merit, not relying on family connections like George Bush.

Yes indeedy, and there is no such thing as affirmative action; it's just a myth peddled by creationists.

valdemar said...

We'll see how she does when she doesn't simply have to deliver a pre-written speech that (as I understand - perhaps wrongly) was 'feminised' for her. You didn't mention her voice - how many people outside the US could stand to hear her for more than 10 seconds?

Silly and sentimental as I am, I find myself loathing this woman because I don't want the world to be blown up. Someone who genuinely accepts creationism, rather than using it as a pandering chip with ignorant voters as most US politicians seem to, is a menace because they are too thick and/or bigoted to assess real world issues. A heartbeat away? Too close by far.