Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rightist Populism: Hard Right, Culture, Real War

Photo: Palin in Kuwait

Palin's Tactics:
Cultural Symbols

Vs. Actual Policies

By Robert Kuttner

Sept. 4, 2008 - So now we understand what John McCain's handlers were up to: Intensify the culture wars, and once again use cultural symbols as substitutes for policies. In particular, use Hockey Mom Sarah Palin to change the subject from why regular Americans are hurting in the pocketbook to why Palin is a more regular American than Barack Obama. Will the Democrats change it back? Whether they do will decide the election.

Last night, we learned once again how Republicans keep managing to turn seemingly weak candidates and weaker economic circumstances into instruments of political victory: They are superb at creating master narratives that make Democrats, liberals, and "the media" into the cultural enemies of ordinary people.

Those who view this as an overly narrow and outmoded Rovian tactic of throwing raw (moose) meat at the conservative base miss the point. The strategy of energizing the base is leveraged into using cultural symbols to reach out to everyone else who is frustrated with how little they get back from the economy and the government--not just hard core right-to-life women in Missouri and Oklahoma, but downwardly mobile white men in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In this strategy, every little Democratic misstep is inflated into a cultural parable, while gaping holes in the Republican story are neatly sidestepped. The master narrative of Obama as an unqualified elitist will be reinforced again and again this fall, as it was last night with Palin lines like these: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities." "I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate 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. We prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco." (If you think that Palin came up with these zingers herself, I have a bridge-to-nowhere to sell you.)

Republicans consistently play this kind of hardball. And, as effective as the Democratic convention was, it did not quite have as consistent a master narrative. Only at peak moments did the Democrats rise the necessary shaming of McCain, as in John Kerry's superbly indignant speech, Biden's talk of the kitchen-table frustrations of regular Americans, and a few of Obama's better lines.

If the Republican master strategists can use Sarah Palin as Everywoman, just as they successfully used George W. Bush as the aw-shucks champion of regular people, they could turn the trick with a trained monkey.

Will they succeed yet again? That depends on two factors.

One is whether Sarah Palin's faux-feminist machismo, Alaska style, is just a little too weird for the lower-48. Can she and her handlers succeed in using purely symbolic appeals to camouflage her actual record and the plain contradictions in her story? Only time will tell. As Tim Egan, who has covered Alaska for the Times, has observed, she may be the only vice presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt who "knows how to field dress a moose," in Fred Thompson's memorable words (note to SNL, how about a moose in a party dress), but how many other Americans have actually dressed a moose-or care?

In defending Palin, Republican spokesmen (emphasis on men) charmingly discovered a new word-"sexist." Rightwingers who have long urged a traditional division of labor in the family found it sexist that some bloggers and talking heads were wondering why a "traditional values" mother of a newborn special needs baby and a pregnant 17-year old would abruptly jump into national politics. One Republican mouthpiece indignantly asked an NPR interviewer why she wasn't criticizing Barack Obama for leaving his daughters at home. Rudy Giuliani, of all people, asked: "How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be vice president. How dare they do that? When do they ever ask a man that question?"

But isn't the family-values story that moms are supposed to stay home (and that high school girls are supposed to be abstinent?) They question is whether the broad, non-base public notices the plain hypocrisy. Somehow, it's hard to imagine Hillary voters being impressed.

The more important factor, of course, is economic. For nearly a week, the Palin drama has diverted attention from the real issue in the campaign-the weak economy and its effect on regular Americans. This was the Republican gamble. McCain's handlers were willing to take the messy Palin details in exchange for the distraction. Indeed, the rich details served to amplify the distraction.

It's understandable that McCain and Palin want to change the subject, for they have so little to offer voters. Bloggers and talking heads have taken the bait. And it's legitimate that they should expose the holes in Palin's story. But the responsibility for changing the subject back to pocketbook issues belongs to the Democrats.

This morning in my emailbox, was a point by point rebuttal of Palin's speech, sent by Obama economic spokesman Jason Furman, in mind-numbing detail. (Palin as mayor increased the Wasilla sales tax from 2.0 to 2.5 percent, etc., etc.)

This will endear the Obama campaign to liberal policy wonks everywhere, but it is no substitute for a master narrative. Unless Obama and Biden use every opportunity to hammer home how the right has played working Americans for suckers, culture will trump economics yet again.

[Robert Kuttner is the author of Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, just released by Chelsea Green. He is the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos.]

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