New York – The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate hit the United States like an electric storm. To her legions of lipstick-waving fans on the right, Palin is a down-to-earth, God-fearing “hockey mom” whose moose hunting, evangelical faith, and even chaotic family life are all evidence that she is a real, typical American.
To her equally frantic detractors on the left – and increasingly in the center – she is a frightening harbinger of a theocratic America, a mafia-style executrix of state business who lies about the connection of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to Iraq, mocks Barack Obama for his opposition to torturing prisoners, and defies subpoenas. Think of her as George W. Bush II, but in designer pumps.
Both groups are reacting to genuine evidence. Her supporters are responding to a potent set of symbols, and her detractors to an even more potent set of facts.
Palin’s symbolic appeal to a certain group of female voters is important to understand, and we must respect the rage and hunger that it reflects. The subtext of that appeal is class.
Working-class white women in America have had their talents exploited and undervalued for as long as the nation has functioned. While affluent white women, or women of any background who managed to get a high-quality education – America’s Hillary Clintons, Madeline Albrights, and Condoleezza Rices – broke through the glass ceiling, and even have the women’s movement to lionize them, working-class white women have watched their rise with understandable resentment.
Their more affluent peers hire women like them to do the dirty work, or else they have had to deal with stagnant minimum-wage pay in the US labor market’s “pink-collar” or service-industry ghetto. Their ceiling is made of concrete, and it is pitched far lower over their talents and their mobility. Above all, they have been excluded, practically and symbolically, from the country’s political discourse, and are treated regularly with condescension by politicians.
Race, too, is a factor. While reports are surfacing that Palin told a group of African-Americans that she did not have to hire black people, working-class white women often understand their own experience in terms of racial hostility. They perceive an underclass that they believe receives benefits denied to them and a thriving economy in the developing world that siphons off well-paying blue-collar jobs.
So, when Sarah Palin is escorted into the media limelight, she becomes the symbolic revenge fantasy of many of those silenced, exhausted factory workers and secretaries. To see a working-class white woman be picked to serve a heartbeat away from the US president resonates powerfully with them. Think of the appeal of films like Thelma and Louise or Working Girl, in which the leading character is a gutsy, exploited secretary who, trampled by a snooty female Ivy League boss, nonetheless manages to end up with the dream job, the dream guy, and the corner office.
Just about any woman who was not born into privilege, has small children at home, and is not a cannibal or a Satanist would elicit initial roars of approval from women in general, and surely from a group that has been silenced and trivialized for so long. When you’ve been making the coffee forever, it’s nice to imagine leading the free world.
That said, Palin’s sinking approval ratings show that, while such women thrill to symbolic validation, they are not fools. They have begun to notice how Palin is trotted out like a model at an auto show to be introduced to heads of state as if they are local car dealers, and how the media are allowed to take pictures but not ask questions (“That’s me with Henry Kissinger!”). They also notice that the economy is imploding, while Iraq is calming down only because the US is paying insurgents and al-Qaeda sympathizers the equivalent of a monthly car payment per person not to kill its soldiers.
Moreover, as Palin’s political persona takes shape, it looks increasingly alarming. The problem is not just that the McCain campaign has surrounded her with veterans of the Bush-Cheney cabal (Karl Rove’s acolytes and operatives now write her speeches and manage her every move). It’s also that she believes that God set her legislative agenda in Alaska, and that she has failed to venture much beyond the Discovery Channel when it comes to foreign travel.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is the fact that dermatologists are confirming that the form of cancer for which McCain has been treated has an actuarial survival rate of two to four years for a person his age. So, as the disturbing prospect of a long Palin presidency starts to set in, she doesn’t look so great to working-class white women anymore.
So, what should this brief Palin bubble teach us?
In becoming the poster girl for a re-branded continuation of the Bush administration, Palin is showing herself to have much in common with glossy faux-populists like Eva Peron or Denmark’s anti-immigrant leader Pia Kjærsgaard. What we should learn – for next time and for every time to come – is that great leaders and great dreams are being overlooked in the women who prepare our food, process our Internet orders, and wipe up the spills in our hospitals.
It is these women’s voices that deserve support – not that of a scary stalking-horse for eight more years (or more) of rule by the thugs who looted America’s treasury, wrecked its economy, and sent 4,000 brave young men and women to die in a war based on lies.