A couple of things are striking about the Sarah Palin controversy. One is that it shows how much our politics have come to be dominated by a kind of narcissism. Politicians have big egos — that's nothing new. But the Palin flap shows how much We The People yearn to see ourselves in the candidates. Bill Clinton scored points in the 1990s by "feeling our pain," and George W. Bush seemed like a better beer buddy than stiff Al Gore. Now we're only excited if candidates embody our self-image. Empathy is out; projecting ourselves fully into candidates is in.
John McCain sees Palin as his "soul mate." She seems less of a political partner than a bride. A male/female match, especially one of political convenience, immediately conjures up archetypal images of royal weddings. Rush Limbaugh enthused, like a lecherous best man, that "we've got the babe on our ticket," and the fact is that GOP base enthusiasm for Palin is not exactly rational since people who never heard of her were cheering wildly only seconds after McCain's VP pick was unveiled. But the powerful symbolism of the pairing invites us all to project madly, and the most compelling thing excited conservatives see is, as Crosscut's own Scott St. Clair wrote, "she's one of us."
The fact is, politics, like TV anchor positions, rarely produces winners that people like us, real people, can connect with. They're too perfect, or too imperfect, too fabricated, too elite, too out of touch, too blow-dried and coifed, with $400 haircuts. They're former war heros, Harvard grads, Skull and Bones members, multi-millionaires, tycoons or, yes, TV anchors and beauty queens. They're packaged, faked, and glazed with too many shiny, protective coatings. Eventually, many of them are corrupted, too. But the fact is, Republican or Democrat, they often seem like aliens. Only the third-party candidates are like people you might actually know, even if it is the funny uncle in the attic.
Part of the appeal of Barack Obama is in this same irrationality: He elicits in some of us a sense of hope, and we feel stirred deeply by the crowds and soaring rhetoric. But much of his magic is just that: a charisma that touches some of us personally and awakens a part of the self long-dormant. Obama appeals to the self-sacrificing "ask-not" selfless self we would be if we weren't too busy with our Blackberries to be good citizens.
He's channeling Kennedy and King, but his power, too, is that he represents people — African Americans, minorities, and yes, community organizers — who have never been able to see themselves in a presidential candidate. So, too, was there magic for Hillary Clinton's supporters, many of whom felt so personally wounded by her defeat because, as I was told by numerous of her older female backers, they will now never get to see a woman (like them) in the White House. Unless, perhaps, that woman is Palin. Somehow, I doubt that will satisfy even the most devoted Hillarian, but it might help put an end to identity politics if people are reminded that focusing on race, gender, and class will produce unintended consequences. You wanted a woman in the White House? Well here she is: a right-wing pit bull in lipstick.
I, too, yearn to see myself in a presidential candidate. I don't want to be one — the vetting of Mossback would make the scouring of Palin seem like a teddy bear's picnic. Yet unlike so many who take the plunge into politics, I know I am unworthy. Nevertheless, if John McCain had instead selected a bearded Western pagan who had attended Evergreen and wrote cranky columns for a living, I would be hard-pressed not to want to support that ticket. It's natural. It's tribal. But realizing there is no likelihood of any such candidate getting the nomination outside of maybe the Alaska Independence Party, I am forced to look for other qualities in candidates.
But imagine if you are lucky enough to see "yourself" on the platform. You have a candidate that mirrors you, a marginalized voter who so rarely gets a chance to go to the prom. That's what Palin's advocates are experiencing. She seems to be a real person, a self-made Christian woman who is doing it all: running a state, raising a family, and soon, if the election turns out right, presiding over the U.S. Senate and manning a bunker in case her angry boss wakes at 3 a.m. and hits the wrong red button.
Palin represents a kind of working-person conservative, a new cloth-coat (or down parka) reformer who isn't a Beltway or corporate insider. In some ways, she's very McCain, in others she's a little bit Mike Huckabee — a working-class populist with a family that looks like the folks you see at Wal-Mart. The GOP has drifted so far from its mainstream roots and its purported values that Sarah Palin is a kind of Happy Meal for a starved political base. McCain has moved to take the party back from the suits.
Palin is familiar. I think of another conservative Republican anti-abortion populist, a scrappy self-styled reformer who shook up a state and then took on the Beltway elites. A woman who also had an unwed teenage pregnant daughter and came from an ex-urban part of the West noted for its middle American values and its political independence.
Her name was Linda Smith, and she served in the Washington legislature in the '80s and '90s, then beat a Democratic incumbent for Congress with a write-in campaign. She was the two-fisted "housewife from Hazel Dell" in southwestern Washington, and she was swept in during the Newt Gingrich revolution in '94. Yet she wasn't afraid to take on the GOP establishment — she voted against Gingrich as speaker and once likened him to "a fat kid." She was a paleo-Palin, and left elective politics after she was defeated in a Senate race against "mom in tennis shoes," Democrat Patty Murray.
Smith had the kind of maverick qualities McCain sees in Palin — the part of himself he sees in his running mate. And for the public, for a while, many embraced Smith's mercurial populism. As Seattle's one-time gadfly city council member Charlie Chong once said of her, "she represents the people, not a party."
That could be true. It could also be the sign of a colossal ego trip. With Smith, people couldn't tell which. Kathryn Robinson wrote an outstanding, in-depth profile of Smith for Seattle Weekly back in 1997 that's worth reading in light of the Palin phenomenon. (It also makes me realize how much I miss Kathy's writing and reporting on such subjects — man, is she good.) Robinson wrote:
If Linda Smith is driven by a fine blend of ego and principle, her packaging will forever obscure the exact ratio. For whatever else she is, Smith is first, last, and always a maestro of spin: a lifelong self-reinventor whose unscripted moments contribute as masterfully to her outsider persona as her scripted ones. Linda Smith politicks by being impolitic....
The Palin VP pick brings back the culture wars, some say, but I think that war is largely within the GOP itself, and embodied in the McCain/Palin candidacy. And it largely explains some of the cognitive dissonance of the GOP convention where delegates cheer for Bill and Hillary Clinton and running against the policies promulgated by their own elected two-term Republican president. The battle is for the soul of the Republican party. Does it do the bidding of the Big Boys, or are they still in control and dressed in drag, disguised as a hockey mom with a Downs baby for a prop? Does the GOP really now reflect Wall Street or Main Street, or its modern equivalent, a strip mall in Wasilla?
As for you voters hoping to elect people like yourself, beware of what you wish for. You might find there are better leaders in people who are very unlike you. In fact, that's almost certainly the case.