At the Republican National Convention, the familiar conservative politics of spite were on full display. However, there was also the Messiah imagery used to tell John McCain's POW story, and constant camera time for baby Trig Palin. It may not have approached Madonna-with-child territory, but the RNC was hitting Mom-The Flag-and
Richard Nixon always pulled out stories of cute children and animals at crucial moments. Trig, passed from hand to hand between Palins and McCains with the rhythmic regularity of a Bob Fosse routine, is Sarah Palin's Checkers: attack me, and you're really attacking him.
There was also a persistent theme of deferring to authority, specifically male authority. Authoritarian themes from movement conservatives are hardly shocking. But the pick of Sarah Palin as VP made gender play a more prominent role.
This is a hindsight observation, but it's not surprising that the Republican Party went with a female vice presidential candidate before ever offering a serious female presidential candidate – albeit 24 years after the Democrats ran with Geraldine Ferraro (at the same rate, the first female GOP presidential candidate will run for 2032). Palin presents herself as feisty, colorful, folksy and an eager attack dog, willing to brazenly lie, repeatedly, in public. Still, the male authority angle really hit me on Thursday. I thought Judith Warner articulated the dynamic well in her piece "The Mirrored Ceiling":
Because the Republicans, very clearly, believe that real people are idiots. This disdain for their smarts shows up in the whole way they’ve cast this race now, turning a contest over economic and foreign policy into a culture war of the Real vs. the Elites. It’s a smoke and mirrors game aimed at diverting attention from the fact that the party’s tax policies have helped create an elite that’s more distant from “the people” than ever before. And from the fact that the party’s dogged allegiance to up-by-your-bootstraps individualism — an individualism exemplified by Palin, the frontierswoman who somehow has managed to “balance” five children and her political career with no need for support — is leading to a culture-wide crack-up.
Real people, the kind of people who will like and identify with Palin, they clearly believe, are smart, but not too smart, and don’t talk too well, dropping their “g”s, for example, and putting tough concepts like “vice president” in quotation marks.
“As for that ‘V.P.’ talk all the time … I tell ya, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me, What is it exactly that the ‘VP’ does every day?” Palin asked host Lawrence Kudlow on CNBC sometime before her nomination. “I’m used to bein’ very productive and workin’ real hard in an administration and we want to make sure that that ‘V.P.’ slot would be a fruitful type of position.”
And, I think, they find her acceptably “real,” because Palin’s not intimidating, and makes it clear that she’s subordinate to a great man.
That’s the worst thing a woman can be in this world, isn’t it? Intimidating, which appears to be synonymous with competent. It’s the kiss of death, personally and politically.
If you watch the Sarah Palin biography video (apparently bumped from Wednesday to Thursday because Giuliani blathered on too long), it does show Palin with her mom and sisters, but also makes a point of mentioning her going on "pre-dawn moose hunts" with her father. This may be more to emphasize her NRA, reg'lar folks credentials. The video also casts her as apprentice to John McCain, which given her stunning lack of qualifications to be VP isn't that surprising (if unconvincing) a pitch. There's a bit of a deference to male authority thing going on, but "moose" gets at least three mentions. At least in the video, they're selling her folksy side and her fake reformer image more than anything else. (Like virtually all the RNC videos, it also features a gratuitous key change or two in the cheesy synth score.)
However, take a closer look at the bio video for Cindy McCain (narrated by Gary Sinise!):
The first two minutes are almost completely focused on Cindy McCain's father, whose story is presented in a way that mirrors John McCain's, from his decorated military service, to being shot down, to meeting his wife, to being a super-patriot. Cindy's presented as Daddy's Little Girl. (The synth score is especially cheesy in this piece, with an angelic chorus to start.) Her first meeting with John of "love at first sight" of course omits that he was dating her while still married to his first wife. Cindy's humanitarian aid, even if overblown here, does speak well of her. Still, I was really struck by how strongly her relationship with her father was emphasized. I think part of this, like the humanitarian footage, is an attempt to deflate the critique that the McCains are obscenely wealthy and out of touch, 'cause Cindy's dad was a reg'lar guy who made good. But there's also a very, very strong theme of reverence and deferral to male authority. There's little mention of her mother or her daughters. She does all her work to "honor her father," "her father was the inspiration," and "not a day goes by since she lost both her parents that Cindy doesn't think of her father's simple, Western words..." I thought the creepiest passage was "John McCain encouraged her to go far beyond what she thought she could do – helped her find a path to serve a cause greater than herself..." Even though the film does give her several rah-rahs to herself, and the John McCain-showing-her-the-true-path bit emphasizes the same war hero-leader story they're trying to sell with Saint Johnnie, overall the Cindy narrative is one of honoring her father, and being lost and then guided by her husband. It's a story of trusting authority, but specifically of deferring to male authority. I think it ties in well with the Messiah theme subtly woven into the McCain narrative, but even more strongly into conservative notions of the proper social order.
One of the great myths social conservatives truly believe is that if everyone just minded their place – that place to be determined by social conservatives, of course – everything would be just fine. It feeds naturally into the "elect someone like me, competence be damned" approach that Palin satisfies, just as George W. did before her (although Bush was pushed even harder by the media than Pailn has been to date as "authentic," and in Bush's case, a superior choice to that more competent, damned snob, Al Gore). I tend to think of the insistence on deference to male authority, the Daddy's Little Girl dynamic and young women wanting to please their fathers as very Southern, just because I'm most familiar with seeing it there, but of course it's all over the United States and in many other countries. In small doses it's not so bad, I suppose, just an expression of typical parental affection and anxiety, but in extremity it can become toxic, domineering and repressive. I don't think all the cultural tropes of the RNC can necessarily be fought by Democrats, either, at least not openly and directly. But I do think it's useful to realize what the pitch is, and what makes the authoritarian conservatives of the Republican base tick. Among the diehards, those who still claim they approve of Bush, some may even realize they're getting screwed economically by the elites within their own party, but simply hold social issues more important than economic ones. A restored social order – perhaps restored to a mythical perfect past that never really existed – is not only a key goal, it's the clear and obvious solution to all our problems. The right sort of people will do right by them and the country. Plus, even if Bush has been doing a lousy job, those goddam liberals would do even worse, and can’t be trusted, any more than anyone else who's Not Us. The Democrats talked about foreign policy and terrorism during their convention, of course, but they didn't use the jingoistic, xenophobic, Manichean language favored by competing scumbags Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, nor the McCarthyist rhetoric of the mendacious Lindsey Graham. Never underestimate the politics of fear, spite, simple solutions and comforting nostalgia.
For more on Palin and gender issues, there's Dahlia Lithwick on the Ann Coulter connection and how Biden should debate Palin, there's Digby, Katha Pollitt, Gloria Steinem, Maha, Melissa McEwan and many more. Finally, while The Daily Show's done several great pieces on Sarah Palin, let's end with this segment featuring Samantha Bee:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|John McCain Chooses a Running Mate|
Update: Minor edits for typos and clarity, plus Daily Show video code updated.
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)