Tyler Bilbo, Staff Writer
Ideology: Partisan Democrat | Writing From: Washington, DC
The media has pathological obsession with Sarah Palin and her personal life. For an unsuccessful running mate who can barely form a sentence, she gets an undeserved amount of free media. The media’s fixation on the most trivial aspects of her celebrity, however, comes at the expense of her relevance as a major player in the 2010 elections.
Palin, however, is potentially a major player in the 2010 midterm elections. Palin’s background constitutes much of her star power and the media is not entirely ridiculous for examining her personal life. A mother of five from Wasilla, Alaska, Palin is the type of atypical politician that attracts disaffected voters in the type of anti-incumbent environment that has fallen upon us. From her folksy charm to her status as an unabashedly conservative woman, Palin defies a variety of conventional features of American politicians. It is this overarching contrast from the conventional American politician that has maintained Sarah Palin’s relevance since her unsuccessful bid for Vice President.
Since last November, however, Palin has evolved beyond a relevant political figure and into a spokesperson for the GOP’s conservative base. As the memory of Ronald Reagan fades, Palin has established herself as the preeminent face of grassroots conservatives. Her ascendance since Senator McCain selected her, however, is not merely the by-product of a politically frustrated electorate that demands a radically different alternative to the status quo. Unlike any other Republican, Palin appeals to the mythically revered values of rugged individualism that characterize the American West while simultaneously carving out an equally significant niche among racially anxious Southerners. Her ability to enthuse both of these regions is what makes her a superstar that has the ability to influence the upcoming midterms.
Backlash politics is at the heart of Palin’s appeal to such different areas of the country. As I’ve previously discussed, backlash politics exploits culturally conservative voters who feel threatened by a dominant class of cultural progressives. While many of these voters are deeply embedded in the ongoing cultural wars that emphasize social issues, their cultural conservatism targets a wide array of institutions that operate within the so-called “liberal elite.”This mindset triggers a rebellion against left-wing economic policies when social welfare programs become implicitly associated with cultural progressives.
The concept of backlash politics that I outline differs significantly from its original application in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. As I wrote back in September, Frank portrays the type of cultural divide in America that directs a backlash against the perception of culturally liberal elite that I describe above. Frank’s analysis, however, does not go beyond the typical issues of our ongoing culture war such as gay rights and abortion. What’s unfolding today transcends the religious conservatism that dominates the culture war between the religious right and the rest of America and Sarah Palin is well-positioned to lead backlash voters in both the South and the West.
The backlash mentality of the American West arises from a set of distinctly individualistic characteristics that have existed since the American frontier that Palin effectively stimulates. The harrowing stories of pioneers throughout the American West have constructed a narrative of rugged individualism that instills the region with a unique sense of pride. Naturally, the region’s more conservative descendants have developed an aversion to the notion of an active federal government and Sarah Palin’s anti-government rhetoric coincides nicely to the West’s fear of government intervention.
What separates Palin from the typical anti-government politician is her ability to endear conservative voters in the region to her status as an independent conservative woman. As a region, the West pioneered the women’s suffrage movement as Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote while Montana elected Janet Rankin, the first women to serve in the United States Congress. Palin’s profile as a powerful and independent woman who still sufficiently personifies conservative notions of womanhood enthuses the region’s backlash voters in a way that a man simply cannot.
The symbolism of common, every-day Americans setting out for a better life on the frontier has created an embrace of Palin’s down-to-earth “hockey mom” shtick. In a region that was built on the backs of ordinary Americans who settled in the West, Palin registers an endearingly ordinary appeal that identifies with her constituency. When people hear Palin bemoan the absence of down-home common sense among our political class, the West’s backlash mentality conjures up images of the region’s ruggedly individualistic roots and how its characteristics are notably absent from the public policy arena.
Palin’s appeal in the South is more complicated because it is much more intertwined with our President. This is not to suggest that any of the West’s characteristics of a ruggedly individualistic frontier are entirely absent from the psyche of the South’s backlash constituency. It is, however, important to note that Barack Obama made significant inroads in the West last year while he did not manage to win a single state in the Deep South. Although Obama’s contrast against the failures of the Bush administration was enough to appeal to the character of many Western states, the South ultimately rejected his candidacy. Virginia and North Carolina, the only states in the region that did not, both contain unusually high concentrations of cultural liberals for Southern states.
Palin energizes the Southern grassroots because she is the anti-Obama who effectively preys on the region’s volatile racial animus. This is not to suggest that racial tension is exclusive to Southern politics. The region’s sorry racial history, however, has not magically evaporated and the remnants of Jim Crow persist in today’s attitudes. Barack Obama represents the type of progress for black people that the Southern backlash voter abhors. Palin, a lesser educated, less rhetorically polished conservative Christian not only puts forth an attractive personal profile, she starkly contrasts against Obama’s symbol of racial progress. Her background as an ordinary white woman who was able to climb her way to political prominence represents the same type of narrative that the South’s backlash constituency is trying to reconstruct against contemporary blacks.
There are currently dozens of seats held by Democrats in the South and the West. From deeply entrenched incumbents like Vic Snyder in Arkansas to freshman like Colorado’s Betsy Markey, Democrats in both regions will be on the defensive in 2010. What Republicans need is an aggressor like Sarah Palin on the campaign trail to enthuse the backlash culture that each region harvests. As her critics tear into her newly released memoirs, Republicans should remember her value to the party and establish her as a major figure in delivering two of the Democrat’s most vulnerable regions.