The Wrong War

Palin’s cultural politics distract from the real issues

A little less than two weeks ago, Republican presidential nominee John McCain shocked the nation by naming Sarah Palin his choice for vice president.

Since her selection, the Alaskan governor has dominated news cycles, conversations, and internet searches—Google Trends reveals that “Sarah Palin” has become a far more popular search term than “Barack Obama,” “John McCain,” “Joe Biden,” or even that true American hero, “Michael Phelps.”

Sarah Palin, and her hard line conservative stances on everything from energy policy (she one-ups the man above her on the ticket, calling not only for offshore drilling but also new exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) to creationism (she’s a believer), has made traditional conservative constituencies rejoice while Democrats froth at the mouth. Focus on the Family leader James C. Dobson applauded the choice as “outstanding,” while Palin’s fiery speech at the convention prompted a rash of donations to the Obama campaign that totaled close to $10 million in the 24 hours that followed.

The political advisability of McCain’s controversial choice will be revealed in the months to come.We have some concerns about what the selection of Palin means for the character of this election.

For close to a decade, the Republican Party has gotten considerable mileage out of a narrative of cultural conflict that pits a snobbish, educated, costal elite against the hard-working, god-fearing denizens of the country’s heartland. As Thomas Frank describes in his book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, this narrative has become so powerful that it has come to trump nearly all policy considerations: Voters who might be expected to support the policies of the Democratic Party are driven into the Republican camp in a bizarre attempt to stick it to the “elite.” This is the brand of politics that seemed to convince so many that John Kerry’s policy proposals were far less important than the fact that he spoke French, preferred Swiss to Cheez Whiz on his sandwiches, and liked to windsurf.

And this is the brand of politics to which Sarah Palin adheres. She is a cultural warrior of the first rank. In her convention speech, Palin pulled no punches in her offensive, painting an almost mythical portrait of small-town America where the people “love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America,” which she contrasted with the “Washington elite” that had disapproved of her selection. The speech made it very clear which cultural category contained Barack Obama, who Palin described as a condescending elitist who “lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.” These sentiments were the theme of the evening at the Republican Convention, as Palin’s predecessor on the lectern, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, claimed that Obama didn’t consider Sarah Palin’s experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (population less than 6,000 during Palin’s tenure) “flashy” or “cosmopolitan” enough.

There is no doubt that there are significant cultural differences among Americans today. Whether one grows up in Wasilla or New York certainly influences one’s worldview in meaningful ways. But when such concerns come to supercede all others—when a culture war trumps the Iraq war and Barack Obama’s preference for arugula becomes more important than his tax policy—then American politics sink to a level that makes waging real debates over the direction of this country impossible. As a case in point, witness the transformation of the Republican Party, which, after spending months characterizing Barack Obama as “not ready to lead,” quickly embraced the even more inexperienced Sarah Palin as a result of cultural affinity. The merits of experience, like the merits of policy proposals, have taken a back seat to things far less consequential.

John McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis recently said that, “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” This cynical approach, which has dominated American politics for too long, only confirms that John McCain is no maverick, but instead is willing to embrace the same false narrative that has distracted our country for years from the real and pressing challenges that face it.