Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Problems (and Not) of Sarah Palin

Us Dems are all up in arms about how much Sarah Palin spent on her wardrobe. Aha!--we cry--an instant showing of hypocrisy. Sarah and the McCain campaign are pushing the Obama-the-elitist-and-McCain-the-populist angle! And here they are spending lots of money! Proof that they are, in fact, elitists!

Unfortunately, to many people, elitism has much less to do with how much money you make or spend, and much more to do with how you communicate with them. I'm not talking about some intangible, mythical "connection," rather, about the candidates' accents. It's notable that the Republican party has milked this Eliza Doolittle's accent for all it's worth rather than teaching her which syllables to pronounce and how to say her vowels. And that Obama, unlike many successful Democratic (and of course Republican) candidates of the past, has nary a twang amongst his dulcet educated tones.

This all speaks less to how much money a candidate has, and more to how they were educated. And that's really what the Republicans are after: they want someone who was educated like they were. Obama is off-putting because his East-coast education is so foreign to them. Sad as that is, it is frankly a much more realistic basis for liking or disliking a candidate than is the amount of money they spend on clothes, or how many houses they have. I myself like to think I'll vote for the ticket that is the best educated (whether in schools or in practical experience) to lead my country--but for many Republicans, I think, that requisite schooling just looks different. In many cases people are going to vote for the person who is educated most like themselves, instead of someone who is educated for the position they are voting him into.

But I'm not here to argue that identity politics is wrong--I'm here to argue that it is very much at play, no matter how much various Republicans spend on Palin's wardrobe. Our crowing over absurd price tags misses the point: people will like Sarah Palin and think of her as non-elitist because she talks like them--no matter what clothes they dress her in at the ball.


Jacob H said...

On this topic, I think that Jonathan Haidt's talk at TED makes for excellent viewing during election season:

Haidt makes the same point that good policy analysts and good Philosophy 11 professors (T.P. Smith) do, namely that everyone does what they do for reasons that they think are good. You have to understand opposing arguments on their own terms.

So, yes, Republicans think that the requisite schooling looks different because they think that highly competitive East Coast universities aren't necessarily useful in training one to hold the highest office in the land. Once the issue is framed like that, it becomes (potentially) amenable to objective inquiry because we could run a study looking at how our best presidents were trained (the problem, of course, would be agreeing on who the best ones were;-). But being able to equivocate long enough to bathe in the other side's arguments is a necessary step for getting us outside of the matrix of partisanship (even if we only get out for a moment).

AGW said...

I agree, Jacob. To really have a productive conversation, both sides have to be talking about the same thing, so both has to understand the other side's terms--their reasons for thinking something is good. Then you can really get into the nitty-gritty about your real differences--and how to get past them, or use them constructively to reach common goals in different ways.

AGW said...

My roommate also made a good point when we were talking about this the other day: one reason why Sarah Palin is so attractive is her Cinderella story. She *was* non-wealthy (hence the accent, the sense that she understands Joe Sixpack, etc.), but she has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made it big time. She's a role model. So her expensive clothes are just a part of that narrative and actually an appealing incentive to vote for her, especially if you want to repeat that narrative for yourself.