In the week after the Republican convention, swelling crowds screamed in delight as Palin, the self-proclaimed hockey mom, repeated her well-rehearsed and teleprompted lines
Sarah Palin doesn't know much, but she's sure about it
As much as the Obama phenomenon exposed a fault line in the US body politic, with Obama struggling to close it, its opposite, the Palin phenomenon, is confounding these efforts, working instead to deepen the rift. The gap is wide, with the two sides looking across the chasm incredulously: appearing, at times, to speak different languages. A change in John McCain's strategic approach to this campaign, and the addition of the Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the ticket, has altered the dynamic of the contest. In the week after the Republican convention, swelling crowds screamed in delight as Palin, the self-proclaimed hockey mom, repeated her well-rehearsed and teleprompted lines. Republicans worried once about the ability of their standard bearer, a maverick and aged war hero, to galvanise the party's base and expand its appeal into the white working class: McCain had appeal, to be sure, but generated no excitement. Now, with Palin at his side, the anaemic Republican campaign seems revitalised. But why?
Only paid party operatives were bold enough to look straight-faced into TV cameras and claim on Palin's behalf: "She is experienced as an executive" (two years as mayor of a town of 7,000 and less than 20 months as Governor of one of the US's least populous states); "She is a proven reformer" (in the face of growing evidence of earmark abuse, petty corruption and a bit of nepotism to boot); "She has foreign policy experience" (Alaska sits just across the Bering Straits from the most desolate parts of Russia); or, finally, "She is a proponent of family values." One can argue all of these matters, but none is sufficient. The explanation behind the emotional outpouring generated by Palin lies elsewhere. In part, like its mirror image in the Obama phenomenon, it is evidence of the profound alienation that has gripped the electorate.
Americans feel adrift in a world seemingly out of control. Cultural, social and economic transformations are exacting a toll. Obama understood the resultant angst, and inspired hope. He created silence in his crowds, urging them to think and act, and to empower themselves to become agents of change. Confronting the same angst, McCain and Palin affirm the rightness of what people already believe and dismiss those who question these beliefs as "out of touch". Obama challenges America to ask questions and assume personal responsibility. Palin, like McCain, preaches certainty. And while Obama speaks to "the angels of our better selves", Palin uses sarcasm and anger at "them" - the "elites" and others who have abandoned "us" and threatened "our" way of life.
I have been brooding over the message McCain projects in an effort to understand the subtext of his appeal. I listened carefully to both McCain and Obama in the interviews they gave at Saddleback Church in California last month, and was struck by their extraordinarily divergent approaches. Because it was a church and the focus was on faith in action, commentators examined the religious dimension of the discourse. One instant analysis presented the number of times each used the word God (Obama 5, McCain 1). But something else occurred to me, and so, doing my own word count, here's what I found: Obama used the expression "I think" 60 times, while McCain used it only eight times. McCain, on the other hand, used the phrase "my friends" - which he often employs before uttering what, to him, is self-evident truth - 14 times. On more than a dozen occasions McCain used another rhetorical device: repeating a punchline for emphasis, as in: "My friends, that is the truth, the truth." There, in a nutshell, was the difference: a reflective intellect asking challenging questions versus glib and condescending certainty.
It is this same desire for affirmation that the sarcastic self-confidence of Sarah Palin satisfies. She may not know much, but she knows enough; and what she knows, she knows with certainty. After her appearance at a rally in Virginia, one Palin devotee declared: "She justifies what we do every day." Another said: "She's a courageous woman, and what she doesn't know she can learn quickly. Let's face it, no president knows all the issues." A third noted: "I know people who have experience who are totally incompetent."
Add to this the "commonness" of Sarah Palin, and her appeal becomes even clearer. At the same Virginia rally, one woman said: "She's just as flawed as we are, and let me tell you, there are more American parents with unwed pregnant teenaged children than there are American parents with Harvard grads." Another added: "She's more like us than Obama." These are the angry white voters to whom Hillary Clinton appealed, with pointed references to Obama as an "elitist" and "different" - and this is the same appeal that Palin now exploits.
This is not new, of course. It was Richard Nixon and his feisty Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, who expanded the Republican base by striking out at elites and directing anger at "them". And it was George W Bush who, on both maternal and paternal sides was the grandson of patrician wealth, broadened that base once again by posing as the common man, complete with an affected drawl. With Palin, both themes come together: the anger and the elevation of the common. And for Republicans, these are necessary ingredients for victory. In the face of widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican president and his handling of the economy, foreign affairs and more, the GOP would have difficulty winning their case on the merits. To get working-class voters to vote against their interests, they needed, as they have in the past, to change the debate. This is what Palin has helped them to do.
Dr James J Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute