Sarah Palin and the rise of tribal politics

In their reaction to Palin, Republicans and Democrats seemed to be worlds apart - and that’s because they are.

Helen Searls

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The reaction to Sarah Palin’s speedy rise provides a striking snapshot of a new kind of divide in America today. From the moment that John McCain, Republican presidential candidate, announced Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, passions have been ignited in both the Republican and Democrat camps.

Palin stirs up genuine excitement and enthusiasm amongst many conservatives. The Republican National Convention was transformed by her selection. Suddenly, a convention that had promised to be dreary and routine – and totally overshadowed by the weather on the Gulf coast – became a rousing political gathering. Delegates greeted Palin’s speech with zeal. Many conservatives across the US instantly saw Palin as dynamic, energising and inspiring; with Palin on the ticket, some Republicans now feel they have a match for Obama’s charisma.

The reaction to Palin from liberals and Democrats was completely different. While officials in the Obama campaign have been fairly measured in their public pronouncements on Palin, many of their supporters have felt less constrained. Initially, many grassroots Democrats were simply bemused by Palin’s selection: how could such an inexperienced woman be taken seriously as a VP candidate? Disbelief soon gave way to something like revulsion. While conservative America talked Palin up as a reincarnation of their favourite president – Ronald Reagan – liberal bloggers, late-night talk show hosts and ‘urban mom’ online discussion boards described her as hardcore, fanatical, mean-spirited, offensive and scary.

There may not seem to be anything new in political supporters of opposing parties having such differing views. But the differences in opinion that Palin has generated are not the ‘same old political divisions’. The selection of Senator Joe Biden as the Democrat’s VP candidate evoked neither revulsion nor passion, from either side. Senator Biden is of the old school. Certainly most Republicans dislike his policies, but both Republicans and Democrats agree broadly that he has a certain standing as a politician.

Palin, however, is assessed in wildly different terms. While the popular liberal website The Daily Kos debates the relevance and authenticity of Palin’s meagre PTA experience, the conservative Washington Times notes that: ‘In just over a week, Mrs Palin has eclipsed Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.’ The Washington Times even raised the possibility that she might be a serious contender for president in 2012 (1).

Watching the Republican convention from the heart of liberal Washington, it was hard to believe that Republican delegates could be so excited and enthused by someone who, here in Democrat-dominated DC, was looked upon as ‘so inappropriate’ and even ‘creepy’. The two reactions to Palin seemed worlds apart – and in many ways, that is exactly what they are.

Democrats and Republicans find it increasingly difficult to make sense of one another’s worlds, because they seem to have less and less in common with each other. In the past, when elections were focused on the big political issues of the day, it was possible for political parties to put forward distinct policies for tackling people’s shared concerns and problems. Even as recently as 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected president, it was possible to sum up the major issue of the day as: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’

Today, by contrast, there is no clear sense of what the 2008 election is all about, beyond the vague notion of ‘change’ put forward by both the Obama and McCain camps. There is no one compelling political story that shapes political debate. Political issues still arise fairly randomly, but rarely do the parties agree on what is important. So, for example, Republicans become animated by immigration policies, while the Democrats debate healthcare. With no overarching political narrative in American electoral politics right now, the old-style clashes and divisions between the two parties on political matters have been replaced by something new.

Increasingly, Democrats and Republicans are divided by their life experience and values rather than by political differences. More and more, Democrats and Republicans seem to be different people with different values and lifestyles. This phenomenon is well observed by journalist Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort:

‘Democrats want to live by their own rules. They hang out with friends at parks or other public places. They think religion and politics shouldn’t mix. Democrats watch Sunday morning news shows and late-night television. They listen to morning radio, read weekly news magazines, watch network television, read music and lifestyle publications, and are inclined to belong to a DVD rental service. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to own cats… Republicans go to church. They spend more time with family, get their news from Fox News or the radio, and own guns. Republicans read sports and home magazines, attend Bible study, frequently visit relatives, and talk about politics with people at church. They believe that people should take more responsibility for their lives, and they think that overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorists. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to own dogs.’ (2)

Cats and dogs aside, the kind of divergence noted by Bishop is making the Republican and Democratic parties very different political competitors. With little of political substance to discuss and argue over, the Republican/Democrat divide has become more tribal than political. Republicans accuse Democrats of being elitist and ungodly, while Democrats accuse Republicans of being rednecks and stupid. And in true tribe-like fashion, both parties have become increasingly guilty of living up to such caricatures and revealing a little bit of their designated identities. The choice of Palin seems to have been motivated by a search for someone who ticks all the boxes of the archetypal Republican candidate: non-DC based, anti-abortion, pro-gun, a hunter, a mom.

This is not to say that the Republicans really are a party of rednecks, any more than all Democrats are faithless snobs. But lifestyle politics are now shaping the self-images of the party faithful themselves. At the Republican convention, for example, it seemed almost as if the Republicans had really become the party of smalltown America. Delegates seemed to embrace their image as a party of the ‘fly over’ states, representing those parts of the US that are ignored by the chattering classes, the intelligentsia and the media.

As a result, it was the old Republicans – such as ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – who looked awkward and out of place at the convention. Sarah Palin, by contrast, fitted right in. For today’s Republican Party, Palin is a good VP pick. She fits the bill not because of any august political resumé or fantastic political acumen, but because she is seen by Republicans as utterly one of their own. She is seen as authentic. In a party that now plays up its smalltown roots, its family and faith-based values, Palin has the capacity to appeal in a way that John McCain never will. She is ‘the real thing’, at least in our era of ersatz, personality-based politics: a hockey mom who shares not only Republican supporters’ values, but also their lives and aspirations.

In a world where politics with a capital P is receding into the background and lifestyle identity is in the ascendancy, all politicians who ride on their own lifestyles will tend to evoke contrasting gut reactions. Republicans are genuinely enthused by Palin; it is not an act. As John McCain himself says, Palin ‘gets it’. Her supporters see her as qualified to lead them, not because of what she has done or believes in political terms, but because she is ‘one of them’ and someone they ‘get’, too. Democrats, on the other hand, will never ‘get’ Sarah Palin. Their tribes are too far apart.

Helen Searls is a writer based in Washington.

(1) Palin re-energises moribund GOP, Washington Times, 8 September 2008

(2) See Ideological inbreeding, by Sean Collins

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