Sarah Palin and the Politics of the Irrational

10/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby writes: "If Bush's election was not a measure of conscious anti-intellectualism on the part of voters, it was certainly a measure of the public's indifference to demonstrable mental acuity and knowledge as standards for the presidency." (p. 285)

In recent years, presidential races have become highly personalized media events. They focus voters' short attention spans on the individuals who are running, rather than on the policy prescriptions they represent. This battle of wills allows the Republicans to construct a false narrative that might resonate with just enough voters to put them over the top in the Electoral College. The qualifications of a presidential candidate don't seem to matter much. Experience, intelligence, and competence actually can be detriments -- just ask Al Gore and John Kerry. Whether it's the Florida recount in 2000 with an assist from a Republican Supreme Court, or Swift Boaters eviscerating a war hero's military record in 2004, or Willie Horton scaring the bejeezus out of white middle-class people in 1988, the Republicans have turned American presidential elections into quadrennial experiments in applied social psychology.

As John McCain's campaign manager said: "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

At this point in the election of 2008, with the red states becoming redder and the swing states tightening up, we're heading straight into familiar Republican ground. In Great American Hypocrites, Glenn Greenwald notes: "What matters is that Democrats and liberals are weak, effete, elitist, nerdy, military-hating, gender-confused losers, whose men are effeminate, whose women are emasculating dykes, and who merit sneering mockery and derision. Republican right-wing male leaders are salt-of-the-earth, wholesome, likable tough guys -- courageous warriors and normal family men who merit personal admiration and affection." (p. 90) The fact that these Republican tropes are based on lies only seems to strengthen their appeal as faith-based political belief. And the corporate media repeat this meta-frame in a thousand different ways without ever setting the record straight. With Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate the Republicans have the "salt-of-the-earth, wholesome, likable tough guy" -- but this time in the form of a woman.

McCain looks old and haggard and delivers a terrible speech. With his languid, deathly persona he cannot go into the mega-churches like Bush used to do and get the faithful eating out of the palm of his hand.

Enter Sarah Palin.

According to Susan Jacoby, two thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught along with evolution in public schools; over half of Americans reject any form of biological evolution (even guided by God); and "42 percent say that all living beings, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." (pp. 22-23) And "25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion." (p. 299)

Although impossible to measure, part of the rise of right-wing Christian fundamentalism in recent years was a backlash to the cultural and social gains women made with the successes of the Second Wave feminist movement, (like the career opportunities Sarah Palin has enjoyed). The Republicans have cleverly figured out a way to channel that anti-feminist backlash into garnering support from conservative voters by nominating an interesting and attractive (if unqualified) woman candidate who embodies the old white male social agenda. This ploy would never work in a political environment where reason and logic prevailed in the collective decisions of an informed electorate.

The 72-year-old McCain looks weak, anemic, elderly; he's not a dynamic personality. Sarah Palin gives him everything he lacks: Christian fundamentalist bona fides, which distract from McCain's adultery and marital history; average "hockey mom" status, which distracts from McCain's $100 million fortune; and hunting, fishing, and general outdoorsiness to compensate for McCain's decrepitness.

Sarah Palin leads anti-abortion rallies. She is a fundamentalist Christian who preaches abstinence-only sex education (even though it clearly failed in her own family), creationism in biology classes, and when she was mayor of Wasilla she tried to ban gay-friendly books in the local library. She and her family hunt moose in the Alaskan wild. Compared to those families who only hunt deer and squirrels in rural Ohio or Pennsylvania the Palins are awesome frontier people; they give an inferiority complex to every hunter in the lower 48. The National Rifle Association couldn't ask for a better spokeswoman. Todd Palin wins the grueling 2,000-mile "Iron Dog" snow machine race every year where as "First Dude" he proves his measure against other Alaskan men. Palin gave birth to a Down syndrome baby choosing "life" by example. Her eldest son has just shipped out to Iraq as a soldier in the United States military. And she is beautiful.

For this election, Frank Luntz's focus group corporation could not have cloned in a laboratory a better Republican woman demographic!

So far the corporate media have given Palin a free ride. When it was obvious in her interview with Charlie Gibson that she did not have a clue what the "Bush Doctrine" is, CNN's David Gergen's analysis was that it didn't matter because "most Americans" and "most journalists" also don't know what it is. I guess we don't have to worry about whether a vice-presidential candidate knows that there are nine justices on the Supreme Court because "most Americans" don't know that either.

"One wonders whether any candidate," Susan Jacoby writes, "instead of trying to prove that he or she is just one of the folks, would dare to tell voters that the nation needs not an ordinary but an extraordinary person as president and that one crucial qualification for the nation's highest office is the intellectual ability to distinguish, in times of crisis and on a daily basis, between worthwhile and worthless opinions." (p. 287)

We'll see whether the Republicans' latest social science experiment will succeed or fail. There is hope. There are over 30 million Americans who claim to have no formal ties to any religion, and 16 percent of Americans describe their outlook as wholly or predominantly secular. There are religious centrists who have been alienated by Bush's Bible thumping and who care more about poverty, the environment, and universal health care than controlling women's bodies and discriminating against gays and lesbians. The economy is in tatters. The Iraq war is unpopular. The Republicans were tossed out of Congress. And Bush is the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon. There are more registered Democrats than ever, and Barack Obama has generated enormous excitement among new voters and the Democratic base. Sarah Palin is a lightweight (like Dan Quayle), which means she's a major gaffe waiting to happen, and even some mainstream journalists seem ready to give her a bumpy ride.

The McCain-Palin juggernaut can be stopped.

But it won't be easy.

The Obama-Biden campaign will need to get out huge numbers of young people, blacks and other minorities, and newly registered voters to counter the formidable army of Christian soldiers that McCain has unleashed by tapping Palin. I wouldn't let her campaign go unimpeded in the swing states without running some TV ads and direct mail that put her on the defensive -- and soon. Democratic 527s should attack Sarah Palin's strengths. Most importantly, the false Republican narrative of an effete, "elitist" Democrat versus a "salt-of-the-earth," regular guy must be countered and disrupted.