Posted on September 15, 2008 in Washington Watch
As much as the Obama phenomenon exposed a fault line in the American body politic, with Obama struggling to heal this divide, its opposite, the Palin phenomenon, confounded these efforts, working instead to deepen the rift. These days, the gap is wide, with the two sides looking across the chasm incredulously, appearing, at times, to speak different languages.
This election could have been different – but a change in McCain’s strategic approach to the campaign, and the addition of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the ticket, has altered the dynamic of the contest. In the week that followed the Republican convention, many sat in awe as swelling crowds screamed in delight as Palin, the self-proclaimed hockey-mom, repeated her well-rehearsed and tele-prompted lines.
Republicans once worried about the ability of their standard bearer, a maverick and aged war hero, to galvanize the party’s base and expand its appeal into the broader white working class. McCain had appeal, to be sure, but generated no excitement. Now, with Palin at his side, the anemic Republican campaign seems revitalized. But why?
Only paid party operatives were bold enough to look straight-faced into TV cameras and, in an effort to explain Palin, mouth talking points like: “she is experienced as an executive” (boasting of her two years as mayor of a town of 7,000 and less than 20 months as Governor of one of the U.S.’s least populous states); “she is a proven reformer” (in the face of growing evidence of earmark abuse, petty corruption and a bit of nepotism to boot); “she has foreign policy experience” (noting that Alaska sits across the Bering Straits from the most desolate parts of Russia); or, finally, “she is a proponent of family values.”
One can argue all of these matters, but none is sufficient. The explanation behind the emotional outpouring generated by Palin lies elsewhere. In part, like its mirror image in the Obama phenomenon, it is evidence of the profound alienation that has gripped the electorate, but with a difference.
Americans, today, feel adrift in a world seemingly out of control. Cultural, social and economic transformations are exacting a weighty toll. Obama understood the resultant angst, and inspired hope. He created silence in his crowds, urging them to think and act, and to empower themselves to become the agents of change. Confronting the same angst, McCain and Palin affirm the rightness of what people already believe and dismiss those who question these beliefs as “out of touch.”
Obama challenges America to ask questions and assume personal responsibility. Palin, much like McCain, preaches certainty. And while Obama speaks to “the angels of our better selves,” Palin uses sarcasm and anger at “them” – the “elites” and others who have abandoned “us” and threatened “our” way of life.
In this regard, Palin adds emphasis and punctuation to the approach already taken by her standard bearer, John McCain. For weeks now, I have been brooding over the message McCain projects in an effort to understand the subtext of his appeal. I listened carefully to both McCain and Obama in the interviews they gave at Saddleback Church, and was struck by their extraordinarily divergent approaches. Because it was a church and the focus was on faith in action, commentators examined “the religious dimension” of the discourse. One instant analysis presented the number of times each used the word God (Obama 5, McCain 1), but this missed the point.
But something else occurred to me, and so, doing my own word count, here’s what I found: Obama, I discovered, used the expression “I think” 60 times in his responses, while McCain used that same expression only 8 times. McCain, on the other hand, used the phrase “my friends” – which he often employs before uttering what, to him, is self-evident truth – 14 times. On more than a dozen occasions McCain used another rhetorical device, i.e., repeating a punch line for emphasis, as in “my friends, that is the truth, the truth.” There, in a nutshell, was the difference: a reflective intellect asking challenging questions versus glib and condescending certainty.
It is this same desire for affirmation that the sarcastic self-confidence of Sarah Palin satisfies. She may not know much, but she knows enough; and what she knows, she knows with certainty. After her appearance at a rally in Virginia, one Palin devotee declared, “She justifies what we do every day.” Said another, “She’s a courageous woman, and what she doesn’t know she can learn quickly. Let’s face it, no president knows all the issues.” A third noted, “I know people who have experience who are totally incompetent.”
Add to this the “commonness” of Sarah Palin, and her appeal becomes even clearer. At the same Virginia rally, a woman noted, “She’s just as flawed as we are, and let me tell you, there are more American parents with unwed pregnant teenaged children than there are American parents with Harvard grads. Added another, “She’s more like us than Obama.” These are the angry white voters to whom Hillary Clinton appealed, with pointed references to Obama as an “elitist” and “different” – and this is the same appeal that Palin now exploits.
This is not new, of course. It was Richard Nixon and his feisty Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who expanded the Republican base by striking out at elites and directing anger at “them.” And it was George W. Bush who, on both maternal and paternal sides was the grandson of patrician wealth, broadened that base once again by posing as the common man, complete with an affected drawl. With Palin, both themes come together, the anger and the elevation of the common. And for Republicans, these are necessary ingredients for victory. In the face of widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican president and his handling of the economy, foreign affairs and more, the GOP would have difficulty winning their case on the merits. To get working class voters to vote against their interests, they needed, as they have in the past, to change the debate. This is what Palin has helped them to do.
What has emerged out of all of this are two distinct groups, seeing different things, speaking different languages, and because they are roughly equal in size this election will remain close. We are a deeply fractured nation, and this election, which one hoped would help to heal the divide, may in the end, only deepen it.
Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.
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