In the last month or so I’ve become intrigued by the spectacle of the Republican ‘pick’ of Sarah Palin for the vice presidential candidate. I say spectacle because Palin is everywhere in US news bulletins and in the ‘blogosphere’, alternately spoofed, lampooned and applauded as ‘everymom’, and even turned into an action doll range wearing a school girl uniform with a red bra and a gun holster.
Once upon a time, two white male candidates would have been apparently able, quite unproblematically, to ‘represent’ all Americans including women and non-whites. I’m not saying that the absence up to now of non-white and non-male candidates for high political office was a ‘good thing’. I’m saying that the campaigns for non-white and non-male candidates in these US election campaigns have strongly veered towards a position where the capacity of candidates to represent something beyond their own interests or personal identity is now radically in doubt.
If you think back to Margaret Thatcher, there was little sense in which anyone expected her to ‘represent feminism’, just because she was female, and rightly so in fact, although it was a bitter pill for many to swallow. She was first of all a Conservative. She was also tellingly represented as a female masquerading as a male, but that kind of sexism notwithstanding, one lesson many (including feminists) learned from the Thatcher episode was that anatomy is not destiny. Thatcher showed many woment that you cannot assume that one’s best interests are represented by someone ‘like you’.
Thatcher showed you cannot assume that one’s best interests are represented by someone ‘like you’.
So, to return to the US elections: one black candidate (Obama) and one female candidate (Clinton), followed by one female VP nomination on the Republican side, has blown the universalism of the old days out of the water. Obama’s burden of representation is: can he, as an educated black man, represent all peoples, not just non-whites, not just the middle classes? Clinton’s was: could she overcome the difficulty powerful women have in the public domain, of being likeable as well as being authoritative? Could she attract more than just the feminist vote?
In the midst of these struggles over the Democratic nomination, a textbook semiotic situation , John McCain was looking old, white and male, just because there were these other candidates who could be contrasted to him. McCain invoked himself as ‘the American president Americans have been waiting for’ (as opposed to Obama, he meant, whose Americanness was implicitly in question). But his problem as Republicans perceived it, was that against Obama and Clinton he appeared to be more like Bush, whereas he needed to put clear water between his own brand of Republican politics and the track record of the Bush administration.
Once Obama failed to choose Hillary Clinton as his running mate, the door was open to McCain to look like the progressive and agent of change by choosing a woman. So then the Republican party, picks Sarah Palin, a politically inexperienced self-styled ‘hockey mum’ from small town Alaska. She is often thus described, but this description is not my sexist inflection, it is exactly how she represents herself, and it is why the Republicans selected her. Palin was selected entirely for her gender and her entire pitch has been about folksy political illiteracy. Had she been a man, she would not have been picked for VP.
As I’ve pointed out, this American election is to a very great extent fought on the turf of identity politics, brought about by a mostly ‘happy’ collusion between political parties who seek to use identity politics and media institutions that for the most part are bent on the personalisation of politics.
Identity-exploiting candidates such as Palin use whatever connection to a community they have to appeal to voters' sense of cultural familiarity, which serves to obscure the candidates' competence or fitness for office.
Republican political machinery have been active in pushing Palin’s identity profile, with conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham enthusing that ‘A lot of women are calling in excited…The women of America will see that she might be the first woman vice president.’ Palin’s identity-based advantages go beyond gender, in Ingraham’s view: ‘Palin has an Eskimo husband, a Down’s Syndrome son, an Iraq-bound son.’ Of course she has traditional Republican political strengths: anti-abortion, anti-gun control, creationism, pro-oil drilling in Alaska, aggressive foreign policy inclinations and so on. But these are the default positions of many a Republican candidate. But, only a woman could have been billed a ‘gun-toting, moose-hunting mother of five’ and have used a campaign image showing her sitting in the bloodstained snow, gun in hand, alongside the carcass of a large animal killed by her own fair hand. A mix of femininity and killer aggressiveness – an image of political woman based on the compromises necessary for women in Republican politics, combining a frontierswoman self-reliance with the sexual allure of a beauty contest winner.
Republican strategists...hope that Palin will attract disaffected Hillary Clinton voters
Republican strategists have been open in the hope that Palin will attract disaffected Hillary Clinton voters, who believe that they had a right to a woman in the White House. It’s an extraordinary thought, that Palin was picked because it was considered that her anatomy could buy her Clinton’s votes, despite the fact she wears Republican clothes. Shades of the Thatcher experience then, to any deluded voters thinking that she is a feminist ticket.
Indeed, feminist overtures and apple pie ‘mom’ was the balancing trick that Palin offered in her first rally in Ohio as VP nominee. She began by drawing on a hackneyed feminist metaphor, and directly echoing a speech of Clinton’s: ‘It turns out that the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.’ In fashioning Palin’s affirmative action candidacy, the McCain campaign has gleefully adopted liberal feminist tactics and grievances that conservative Republicans have so long derided. No matter that Palin chastised Clinton for whining when she complained of sexism during the primary, or that McCain laughed approvingly when one of his supporters called Clinton a ‘bitch’.
However, lest she came over as an aggressive feminist (and given that conservatives traditionally scoff at the idea that American society systematically blocks women from advancement), the main theme of her speeches have been her own personal story, spliced with sentimental guff such as ‘Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys…I’m just one of many mums who will say an extra prayer each night for our sons and daughters going into harm’s way’.
Palin’s popularity reflects, in great part, a cultural mistrust of expertise and intellectual rigour. Her inexperience as a former mayor of a tiny town and governor of a small, idiosyncratic state for less than two years, her confident ignorance about the economy and international relations, her ditzy delivery and religious zeal, all add up to the sense of a special kind of feminine ignorance catapulted onto the world stage.
At the televised debate last week between the VPs, Palin played all flickering eyelashes and flirty folksiness, at one point actually winking at the camera. As one typical political commentator said, ‘She lit up the screen at times with her smile and occasional winks’. In recent days, though, we have had less ‘lipstick’ and more ‘pitbull’, as an increasingly desperate McCain-Palin ticket exploits the anger of Republican extremists about Obama, stirring up mob-like behaviour in the ranks. As the Republicans move into the territory of assassinating Obama on racial grounds (Palin said he is someone ‘who doesn't see America as we do’), they move further into frivolity. Ignorance doesn’t have to be a woman, and ignorance may not secure votes in the long run, but only a woman could build her political credibility on the appeal of ignorance.