I posted this a few days after Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency. I’m chilled to think I may have been right.
For conservatives and Republican partisans, John McCain was a sinner—imperfect. But Sarah Palin was pure as driven snow; yet since her selection, she has been subjected to an eight week Passion play, to end in crucifixion by an unelected aristocracy (e.g., “the media”). The right’s instinctive outrage will know no earthly bounds once the skies clear. Speculation on Sarah Palin’s future role in right wing politics abound as soon as people started to notice “tension” between Palin and that McCain guy; John Dickerson wondered if Palin has “gone rogue” in an effort to salvage her future.
Now that McCain-Palin have failed, will Palin wither away into a Trivial Pursuit answer (Which Alaska pol spent $150,000 on clothes while appealing to “hockey moms”?) alongside Admiral Stockdale or Charles McNary? Or will the fact of her crucifixion, coupled by the ever-sharpening identity politics of the right-wing transform the Republican Party into something sinister? If the GOP’s recent history of constant outrage is any guide, Palin is on her way to becoming a semi-spiritual figure of immense symbolic importance, to a large, vocal right-wing base.
In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Robert Draper basically confirmed what everyone had suspected: that the choice of Palin as running mate was essentially a publicity stunt and sop to the base meant to stiffen an increasingly flaccid campaign. For most conservatives and partisans Palin was a generally unknown quantity, yet within forty-eight hours were absolutely in love. Faster, in fact, than any acquaintance with her record or political history could be made. There is no doubt that her instant appeal was due wholly to the news cycle narrative the GOP operators spun and the media repeated. Stories are quick, but facts are slow. Before the facts could come out, people fell in love with a two-dimensional character, and love is a much harder to bond to break than respect. So as the facts began to arrive, they appeared to be “designed” to harm the integrity of the beguiling, tough-talkin’, moose-huntin’ mom of five who also, by the way, runs a state!
Her somewhat affected dropped g’s, winking, and corny shout-outs indicate that she is aware of her power as a symbol, rather than an engine for a political philosophy. She is pure, distilled identity; and like purely distilled corn, that is right on the edge of being poison.
The left can’t match identity politics with the right. Since Nixon’s trailblazing days mapping the Nixonland of Rick Perlstein’s monstrously researched book Nixonland, identity politics has been the right’s preferred and perfected legerdemain, and the left can only awkward punch back, forever harping about “issues” and running from the dreaded “class warfare” epithets. Republicans can and do win on issues—particularly locally—but the national party, particularly in the Nixon and Bush regimes, has run on cultural identity issues and little else.
If this campaign has shown anything, it is that the GOP is not afraid to encourage the lesser of people’s natures—questioning their fellow citizens’ loyalty and motives, emphasizing differences rather than similarities, and generally appealing to vague xenophobia. That they honestly appear to consider these tactics legitimate—although certainly they’d use different words to describe their tactics in the last few weeks of the campaign—is more worrisome. We shouldn’t question their motives, and just judge their actions: and drawing attention to the Bill Ayers issue, as though they think Senator Obama is actually a radical terrorist, and by resurrecting the word “welfare” after a twelve year hiatus (when it was ended as we know it) can be objectively judged as purposefully divisive.
This nastiness can be attributed directly to the identity politics and cultural relativism that came to maturity in the 1970s and were appropriated so handily for the creation of Nixonland, where right wing identity politics filled the vacuum left by class consciousness.
After thirty years of red-hounding, the economic left wing was simply unable to disguise their class-conscious politics any longer. Abandonment of class ideology disoriented them and the ensuing disarray led to the birth of an identity-focused party “left wing” party.
Without a class appeal, the left just cannot hang. In Nixonland, anybody who disagrees with you is really just violating your own personal “truth”.
Nixon’s wing of the Evil Genius Hall of Fame would be safe enough with that achievement, but he stepped his game up with his deft weaponizing of self-pitying outrage. He generally kept it private, but outrage at his own treatment was a steady beat throughout Nixon’s cacophonous career. LBJ, too, but Nixon turned it into politics. On October 9th, Pat Buchanan, erupting with indignation tipped their hand. As Chris Matthews drew a line through the history of culturally divisive Presidential smears—Dukakis and the flag, Clinton going to Russia, John Kerry was a traitor, also French, Barack Hussein Obama—Buchanan loses it:
BUCHANAN: Let me tell you, I came into politics with Barry Goldwater, 1,200 psychiatrists signed a full-page ad…
BUCHANAN: … saying he was…
MATTHEWS: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
BUCHANAN: … he was nuts! You guys started it with the daisy ad, and you’re getting it back in spades…
The outrage over Barry Goldwater’s treatment at the hands of the Eastern intellectuals (then much more so than now code for something else) dovetailed with the agony of the “stolen election” of 1960, which robbed Richard Nixon and, much more painfully, created a Democratic icon that would last for generations. Then in the 1970s, it was outrage over the mythological spit-upon vet. The idealized soldier—Lt. William Calley, convicted of murder in the My Lai massacre—was metaphorically spit-upon, and that led to further outrage. In the 1980s, the hearings on Supreme Court Justice nominee Robert Bork gave rise to an outrage shorthand—getting “Borked” meaning subjected to cruel ideological and personal dissection. And then they gave that shorthand a good workout during the also outrageous Borking of Clarence Thomas. That’s a pretty seamless continuum of outrage.
And now the mother of them all: Sarah Palin.
Do not assume that popular rejection of Palin will push her out of national politics. Nor will the heightened right wing identity politics just disappear—just as the scream didn’t vanquish the Deaniacs. The fact that her destruction came at the hands of the fourth estate makes Palin perfectly positioned to run a criticism-proof campaign in the future, or if not Palin herself some Palin-supported stand-in. Patrick Ruffini of TheNextRight.com, arguably the most thoughtful movement right blogs, recently called Palin “the Right’s Howard Dean”:
How was [Dean’s] comeback even possible? Whatever Dean’s faults, there was a sense that the party elite had bankrupted itself by running a series of poll-tested me-too triangulators. Dean’s easy victory at the DNC was the precursor of the grassroots’ long-term victory over the elite, culminating in the evisceration of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Does any of this sound familiar?
And who seems to be the flashpoint in this elite-grassroots war currently raging in the GOP? Like Dean, it’s Sarah Palin.
Andrew Sullivan disagrees, which may prove Ruffini’s point. John Henke, another contributor at The Next Right, questions whether Palin has a sophisticated enough political philosophy, and the answer of course is no: she has a cultural philosophy. She governs a state that has socialized its largest resource, and like a colony receives an enormous amount of aid from the federal government per capita. What political philosophy relevant to the nation as a whole could she really be familiar with? Yet another MSNBC conservative, Joe Scarborough, on an October 2nd edition of Hardball, cast similar doubts:
You sit there and say, okay, she is saying she is a conservative, but is there that ideological grounding? What would you (sic) say if you asked her about Milton Friedman? What would she say if you asked about Hayek? What would she say if you asked her about what Ronald Reagan’s overriding message was in 1976 and 1980? I don’t think she would have the answers.
Democratic partisans used Howard Dean to reorganize around a loose collection of vague principles. A right wing reorganized around Sarah Palin would reorganize around a particular cultural identity—a loose collection of issue positions and cultural symbols. You can’t build a party around being a maverick. Minus the maverick, Sarah Palin is pure identity politics, powerful because of what she represents—how people identify with her—rather than her ideology, or philosophy.
The moderate right has been steadily declining for a generation, but just since the 106th Congress, the Republicans have lost twenty six Congressional seats—in both houses—in the Northeast and California alone, not to mention Rust Belt and upper Midwestern suburbs, where Republicans have been steadily picked off the last three cycles. The disastrous Bush administrations, in other words, have whittled the Republican coalition to its most indivisible base—its lowest common denominator. This doesn’t mean that all the moderates are gone—only that their political relevance has considerably diminished. Why would a grassroots Republican movement born again by the Good News of the woman from Wasilla look to David Brooks or Peggy Noonan or David Frum (the “establishment”) for political guidance? More likely they will look to the identity incarnate, who died in their image.
Gentle Sarah, meek and mild.