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Prior to Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican Convention, I was preparing an article arguing that John McCain’s VP pick would lead to the implosion of the Republican Party and imminent defeat in the November election. After watching Palin deliver her speech however, I realized I would have to scrap my plans. While Palin certainly didn’t say anything of substance, the Alaska governor was poised on stage and even managed to get in a couple of memorable zingers. Amongst the chattering classes on TV, the consensus seems to be that Palin vaulted over her first political hurdle and overcame initial widespread skepticism towards her candidacy.
This election is fast sizing up as a showdown to see who can effectively capture the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats, perhaps the most shiftless, fickle, hyper-nationalistic and racist constituency within the U.S. electorate. Geographically located in the Rustbelt and Midwest, they are susceptible to vicious GOP strategizing seeking to paint Obama as a cultural elitist and a highbrow intellectual. Palin, who the GOP wants to cast as a working class hero, could emerge as a major headache for the Democrats in key battleground states.
Roseanne and Palin: A Psychological Analysis
Spunky and scrappy, Palin is akin to Roseanne Barr, an Emmy-awarding comedian who had a hit TV show on ABC between 1988 and 1997. The show portrayed a working class family struggling to get by on limited income in small town Illinois. Roseanne herself was dominant and caustic but had a wry sense of humor. In sheer economic terms Palin bears little resemblance to Roseanne: the Alaska Governor makes a yearly salary of $125,000 and her husband Todd has done quite well for himself as a commercial fisherman and oil production manager.
In a sense however these economic differences are irrelevant since Palin comes off as culturally working class. She didn’t attend elite colleges, which is always considered an asset amongst the Reagan Democrats. What’s more she was an athlete in her youth and earned the name of “Sarah Barracuda” because of her intense basketball play.
Roseanne’s husband Dan, played by actor John Goodman, was a lot more portly than Palin’s husband Todd. In other respects however the Palin household bears some similarity to Roseanne’s family. Take for example the TV character Becky, Roseanne’s eldest child. Like Bristol Palin, who had premarital sex and got pregnant at the age of 17, Becky also ran into trouble when she skipped college and eloped with her boyfriend. She eventually wound up living with him in a trailer park.
Working Class Women in the November Election
On the face of it, Bristol’s underage sex life would seem to undercut her mother’s candidacy as this deviant behavior clashes with the Alaska Governor’s longtime emphasis on Christian morals. On the other hand the reality is that teen pregnancy is a feature of many white working class families. As a result some women might identify with Palin’s situation and see the Alaska Governor as more “authentic” in their eyes.
On the surface at least one might think that women who work and juggle family and jobs would identify as feminists and not support Palin’s candidacy. However, many feel uncomfortable with the feminist label because they see it as too liberal or secular. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Democratic strategist Susan Estrich remarked, “I have been hearing from women, especially women who didn’t go to Harvard or Yale Law School, saying, ‘Hold on, this is a woman we can actually relate to. The very fact that she could go from the PTA to the vice presidency is the story they connect to—without regard to her position on abortion.”
The Democrats should pray that Palin never gets as popular as Roseanne: the TV show became a national sensation. Though the program declined somewhat by the mid- to late 1990s, in its first few years it consistently racked up high Nielsen ratings. In the 1989-1990 Season Roseanne even tied the Cosby Show for #1.
Palin vs. Biden: Will the Real Working Class Hero Please Step Up?
At the convention, the GOP sought to build up Palin and the working class narrative by playing uncool classic rock like John Fogerty and, of course “Barracuda” by Heart. It’s a cultural strategy that the Democrats have sought to counteract when they introduced Joe Biden. When Obama trotted out his running mate in Springfield, Illinois loud speakers played Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” in the background.
The song is about a firefighter who gives his life while trying to save others in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The last verse takes place at his funeral, with his wife and kids in attendance. “The Rising” is a good song to be sure but somewhat odd for a campaign rally. It doesn’t really matter though: the reason the Party played the song is that Springsteen is a working class icon and appeals to Reagan Democrats.
With all of the calamitous domestic and foreign policy problems confronting the country, it’s absurd that the Culture Wars should once again figure so prominently in electoral politics. For better or worse however, the Obama camp will have to convince the fickle Reagan Democrats that Biden is more working class than Palin. It’s not an easy task anymore since mainstream media pundits, particularly men, won’t want to be perceived as bullying the Alaska political neophyte.
Shrewdly, Palin herself laid down the gauntlet in her convention speech. “I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment,” she said. “And I’ve learned quickly these past few days that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here’s a little news flash for those reporters and commentators. I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country.”
Palin’s line drew some of the loudest cheers of the night.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)