NEW YORK – It is obvious that the left and the media establishment in the United States cannot fully understand the popular appeal of the two Republican tigresses in the news – first Sarah Palin, and now, as she consolidates her status as a Republican presidential front-runner, Michele Bachmann. What do they have that other candidates don’t – and that so many Americans seem to want?
Both Bachmann and Palin are regularly derided in the mainstream press. In Palin’s case, the dominant perception is that she is an intellectual lightweight: a clip of her unable to mention a single newspaper or news magazine that she reads regularly got millions of hits on YouTube during the last presidential election.
Bachmann, on the other hand, is portrayed as being slightly unhinged. Indeed, I can attest from personal experience that to debate her is to encounter someone who is absolutely certain of facts that must exist somewhere in a parallel universe.
But it would be a mistake simply to dismiss their appeal with no effort to comprehend its source. This is especially true of Bachmann. Palin has not managed to secure the support and mentorship of the Republican Party establishment, and will continue to showcase her odd appeal as a media personality. But Bachman, weirdly, might become President of the United States.
The nature of their attraction has to do with two strains in American thought to which the US left and media establishment are truly blind. One is the American tradition of populist demagoguery – a tradition that, in the twentieth century, included the racist Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930’s, the anti-Communist witch-hunter Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, and the radical Malcolm X in the 1960’s. Populist leaders inspire passionate devotion, usually in people who feel (and often are) economically, politically, and culturally marginalized.
These populist movements’ energy can be directed for good or ill, but demagogues in America embrace similar tactics to fuel their rise to visibility and power. They use emotive rhetoric. They often invent shadowy networks of “elite” forces ranged against the ordinary, decent American. They create an “us versus them” scenario. And they ask their listeners to believe that they alone will restore American dignity and articulate the wishes of the unheard.
Palin and Bachmann speak this highly personal or emotional language, which even the most rock-ribbed male Republican finds difficult to emulate. In the last three decades, America’s male-dominated politics has become increasingly wonky, abstract, and professionalized. This is bad for demagoguery, but it does not inhibit the tigresses on the right, who did not come up through the “old boy’s club.”
As a result, Palin is free to talk about “death panels” – a wholly invented threat of President Barack Obama’s health-care reform – and Bachmann can summon the spirit of McCarthy to raise the equally bizarre specter of socialism’s tentacles infiltrating the highest levels of government. Both can issue homespun appeals as “hockey moms” or “soccer moms” – precisely the type of emotionalism that more cut-and-dried professional male politicians, even (or especially) at the top of the party, cannot manage to deliver.
The second reason that Bachmann and Palin appeal to so many Americans – and this should not be underestimated, either – has to do with a serious historical misreading of feminism. Because feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was articulated via the institutions of the left – in Britain, it was often allied with the labor movement, and in America, it was reborn in conjunction with the emergence of the New Left – there is an assumption that feminism itself must be leftist. In fact, feminism is philosophically as much in harmony with conservative, and especially libertarian, values – and in some ways even more so.
The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it is these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left. But, apart from these sound bites, there is a powerful constituency of right-wing women in Britain and Western Europe, as well as in America, who do not see their values reflected in collectivist social-policy prescriptions or gender quotas. They prefer what they see as the rugged individualism of free-market forces, a level capitalist playing field, and a weak state that does not impinge on their personal choices.
Many of these women are socially conservative, strongly supportive of the armed forces, and religious – and yet they crave equality as strongly as any leftist vegetarian in Birkenstocks. It is blindness to this perfectly legitimate approach to feminism that keeps tripping up commentators who wish to dismiss women like Margaret Thatcher, or Muslim women, or now right-wing US women leaders, as somehow not being the “real thing.”
But these women are real feminists – even if they do not share policy preferences with the already recognized “sisterhood,” and even if they themselves would reject the feminist label. In the case of Palin – and especially that of Bachmann – we ignore the wide appeal of right-wing feminism at our peril.