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September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin and the cultural divide

Although this is already well-traveled terrain, I'd like to venture a few paragraphs about why Americans seem so divided in their early reactions to Sarah Palin.

That we are divided seems clear. Even before there was much publicly available information about Gov. Palin, The New York Times ran an op-ed explaining what would happen if a vice-presidential nominee had to quit; and Republican consultants were recorded saying that her nomination was disastrous for their side. But also before any of us had much information, some Americans were so excited by her arrival on the national scene that the Republican ticket bounced up in the polls. This trend reflected an average--closer inspection showed enormous differences by state.

Pretty clearly, some kind of "elite" is opposed to some kind of a "populist base" on the question of Sarah Palin, who supposedly belongs to the latter camp. But this elite cannot be defined by money, because the Palins have quite a bit of that--as do many of the excited Republican delegates and voters. Nor is it about power: she is a governor, selected for national leadeship by a senior Senator. Nor is it about intellect, because none of us have any basis on which to judge how smart she is. If the "elite" side assumes she is dumb, that is about them, not her.

So maybe we should drop the term "elite" for the purposes of this discussion. There are relevant cultural divisions among wealthy and powerful Americans. For instance, Sarah Palin graduated from college after obtaining credits from several state schools; she married a man without a college degree. Barack Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review and an instructor at the University of Chicago. It would be extremely rare for someone in his shoes to marry a woman with much less than Michelle Obama's educational attainment (a Princeton BA). I say this not as a value-judgment. I would be the first to dispute the assumption that Princeton and Harvard add more value, or educate better, or produce more qualified graduates, than Western state colleges and fishing crews. I merely state, as a sociological observation, that people like Barack Obama value certain kinds of educational attainment so much that they expect it of their spouses and children. The same is true of many strong Obama supporters and Palin denigrators. They may not have Harvard degrees, but they value them.

Harvard and Princeton are just symbols of this divide. They are not "liberal" institutions in any tight sense of that term (they are enormously rich; lightly regulated, private institutions that graduate tons of Republicans). But they stand for one side of a Kulturkampf. Other markers of this divide include evangelical Christianity, hunting and fishing, the suburbs versus the cities, and one's attitudes toward the metropolitan coasts. If you have lots of money and you're on Sarah Palin's side of the divide, you're likely to spend it on country club memberships and hunting trips. On the other side, people travel to Tuscany and drink those lattes whose mention is inevitable in posts such as this one.

We don't have to like each other, but we are going to have to live together, and that means that it's important not to let these differences blow out of all reason. There are, after all, fundamental ways that people like Obama and Palin are alike. There are also many, many Americans who are not much like either of them. It's not a bipolar country; it's a great kaleidoscope.

September 16, 2008 5:31 PM | category: none


I'm usually on board with your analysis, but here I suspect that your premise, that people responded to Palin before gathering sufficient information to make a good judgment, is mistaken. If anything, the polling shows a two stage reaction: surprise and dismay amongst Democrats and Obama supporters, and then renewed energy among Republicans and McCain supporters as they began to see the strategic genius of the choice. In part, this is because information flows much more smoothly during presidential elections, especially around the conventions when millions of voters become viewers. Because of blogs and the internet, this process has become even smoother. Convention presentations may not count as valid sources of information for elites, but that largely accounts of the polling bounce. The blogosphere's reaction accounts for the speed of elite responses like the NYT op-ed.

In fact, Palin had been considered by political analysts and bloggers before her surprise nomination. She was classed with Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee as a young, conservative Christian likely to represent that element of the Republican party at some point in the future. Her gender was long considered a potential advantage, a trump to the perceived distinction of a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. She was also ruled out early as a potential VP candidate due to her scandal-ridden governorship and unconventional family life, the presumption being that the VP shouldn't take attention away from the presidential nominee. So the excitement and polling bounce, as well as the op-ed, were not the work of ill-informed voters and elites responding with gut-level repugnance or joy, they were the informed reactions of an efficient and speedy information distribution network.

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with kaleidoscopes and reasonable pluralism; as I see it, the genius of American politics is that presidential elections largely crystalize economic factions into opposing, massified political parties. That's also the danger, of course: we're perhaps -too- insulated against inequities of office and economics by the city mouse/country mouse cultural differences you're celebrating.

September 17, 2008 6:10 AM | Comments (1) | posted by anotherpanacea

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