Why is Sarah Palin so popular? Because she is the Last Real American White Man.
She leaves the governorship of Alaska trailing vibrations of Natty Bumpo, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan and Teddy Roosevelt. She shoots big critters like Moose, strides into the H20 in hip waders, has little use for effete book learning and thinks cities are for wimps.
The fact that she's a woman adds more than a dollop of irony to the mix. Sarah is a tintype of what we used to be -- or who we believed we were: rugged individuals who charged across the continent, pushing everybody else out of the way, ripping up trees and taming the prairies. We relied only on our own brass and brawn, needing no help except for the neighbor who occasionally wandered by for a barn raising. (Plus, as judge Sotomayor pointed out, the slaves who picked our cotton or the Chinese who built our railroads, but they didn't count.)
The real America, Palin implies, is the one where fewer and fewer of us live, the rural America where the good hearted folks are the only ones who represent our traditional values. The others -- in cities and suburbs -- many of them several shades darker than the Deerslayer --r ead books, chat about foreign policy over white wine, probably hook up with people of the same sex and don't like guns much.
In a nation that just elected its first African-American president, where state after state appears ready to make same-sex marriage legal, where white folks will soon be a minority, Sarah Palin's incarnation of a mythic past is bound to raise a storm of nostalgia; it's nothing new.
The historian Frederick Jackson Turner developed the notion that it was the frontier that forged the unique American character. The first settlers behaved and thought like Europeans, but as these immigrants pushed west, in the clash between their version of civilization and the "savagery "of the wilderness, a new identity emerged. Americans became more individual, more violent, less trusting of authority or government, and suspicious of Europeans, reading, art, and cities. The latter were seen as swamps of depravity and Un-Americanism.
In the mid-19th century, the closing of the frontier was bemoaned as signaling the end of manhood. "By midcentury," writes sociologist Michael Kimmel of SUNY Stonybrook, "masculinity was increasingly threatened by the twin forces of industrialization and the spread of political democracy." With the end of the frontier, critics worried, went the ideal of the free, unfettered American man, able to push West, to cut down trees and plow the prairies, and then just pull up stakes and move again. Urbanization was changing the landscape and altering men's relations to their work.
Before the Civil war, 88 percent of American males were small farmers or independent artisans or small businessmen. But by 1910, less than one-third of all men were self-employed. Americans worried that manhood was vanishing as men became mere cogs in machines, no longer having control over their labor; that city life was making men weak and cities represented "civilization, confinement and female efforts to domesticate the world," as one critic put it. And no less a sage than novelist Henry James muttered in The Bostonians: "The whole generation is womanized. The masculine tone is passing out of the world. It's a feminine, nervous, hysterical, chattering canting age..."
Intellectual achievement was seen to be unmasculine, prompting Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge to counsel boys to "avoid books, and in fact avoid all artificial learning, for the forefathers put America on the right path by learning completely from natural experience." The Boy Scouts were founded in 1910 in large degree because of a worry about the "feminization" of young boys who spent their days in the female world of school.
It was against this backdrop that Teddy Roosevelt's hyper-masculinity strode onto the world stage. It wasn't secure manhood that the Rough Rider represented, but the anxiety of the time about what men and boys were, or ought to be. World War I represented another crisis for the male image; Americans were shocked when nearly half the recruits were physically or mentally disqualified for military service. "In these and other ways," writes psychologist Joseph Pleck, a leading authority on men's lives, "American men in the nineteenth and early 20th centuries were having trouble meeting male demands."
In the early 20th century, it was the flood of immigrants from eastern Europe with their strange, foreign ways that made Americans uneasy. Today, immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and the West Indies are arriving -- and often thriving and intermarrying with Caucasians, meaning that the face of America will soon likely resemble Barack Obama or Tiger Woods more that the pale faces of the past. Most people live in cities today; the frontier is long gone.
Into this whirl of anxiety strides Sarah Palin, with her hip waders and her moose-blasting skills, to many eyes, a modern rough rider. The Last Real American White Man is a woman.
Maybe that's progress.
Caryl Rivers is professor of Journalism at Boston University, and author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women." (University Press of New England.)