Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and the race of folk wisdom

I'm going to spend a few sentences explaining why I think Sarah Palin's place in politics is oddly and vexingly like Barack Obama's, so let me foreshadow the end of the argument by illustrating the profound difference between them. Imagine Obama saying at the Democratic National Convention,

Before I became a senator of the great state of Illinois, I was a community organizer. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a community organizer is sort of like a small-town mayor, except that you have actual responsibilities.

As I'm sure you know, this is a reversal of Palin's famous zinger from the RNC, with a similar level of sneering inaccuracy. While Palin's line about community organizers immediately stood out as unusually inflammatory and mean, this Obama version would, I think you'll agree, have ended the campaign in an instant: hello, President McCain. I'll return to this.

Lots of Democrats, including me, are feeling their heads explode anew every time Palin reveals her ignorance of the fundamentals of federal policy: she doesn't know what the "Bush Doctrine" is (OK, it's complicated, and an informed request for clarification would have been fine--but not a look of uncomprehending fear), she doesn't know how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac work, she doesn't know how countries get admitted to NATO--this last in a way that brought her alarmingly close to arguing for a war with Russia that even McCain wouldn't seek. And pointing out these problems seems only to prod Palin's supporters to new levels of defensive loyalty.

Obama's supporters have a similarly defensive loyalty. The defensiveness does not arise from policy-related gaffes, which Obama avoids with wonderful deftness: as M. J. Rosenberg has said (supported by details that are worth reading), Obama "knows his sh*t." But when his rivals challenge Obama's experience, the defense lies not in his knowledge, exactly, but in his "judgment," which partly means judgment but is also politically acceptable code for curiosity and, yes, utterly extraordinary intelligence--not only the possession of such intelligence but the unapologetic willingness to display it.

In other words, Obama supporters want someone with that kind of mind running the country: dispassionate, probing, academic. Big issues require elite capabilities, the kind of extraordinary talents that may be visible in a young candidate. This fact explains part of Obama's longstanding education gap among Democrats, which is more widely known than when I first noted it but remains underanalyzed. This valuing of the extraordinary young candidate works directly against the logic of blue-collar unions, which tend instead to value experience and credentials.

The logic of the Palin candidacy holds that big issues require the expansion of common sense: a connection with regular people and a certain set of values trump policy and elite rhetoric. As David Brooks points out today, this conflict between Obama and Palin has deep roots in American political rhetoric--or, I would say, in a longer, more European line of thinking about the potential sovereignty of the people. The arguments about Obama and Palin reflect centuries of debates about the relative powers of individual intelligence, personal experience, and collective (or folk) experience.

This last factor deserves more attention. Every major candidate must make a populist claim to the wisdom of the folk. Among the four major candidates now, Biden makes the most conventional claim: he has experienced a working-class childhood in Scranton and a terrible tragedy within his family. The other three candidates' claims are more interesting. McCain has used his military experience to express his solidarity with others' experience of battle, a routine political idea in itself but remarkable in its ability to cover for McCain's otherwise entirely unfolksly and occasionally sordid personal life.

As ever, though, the truly fascinating cases are those of Obama and Palin. Obama does speak convincingly of his family's financial difficulties, but his signature piece of folk experience has always been his move from editing the Harvard Law Review to doing community organizing on the South Side of Chicago: this is the folk connection of an elite man. And his rhetorical populism was until recently characterized by the call-and-response tradition of American Black churches. His DNC speech was essentially an artful reworking of old material with the call-and-response sequences removed.

Palin, however, identifies strongly with a "small-town" background. Other parts of her RNC speech have attracted more attention, but this theme was dominant: she claimed to represent a small-town culture that Washington and media elites could not appreciate, but the folk can.

The oddity of these identifications is that, taken narrowly, they are losing electoral identifications. A Democrat doesn't win an election by winning the Black church vote; a Republican doesn't win by winning the small-town vote. In the politics of folk identification, therefore, Obama and Palin are targeting the popularly marketed fantasies of these identifications, the fantasies that have made hip hop and country music into "popular" genres.

The difference is race.

Palin can mobilize the small-town identification explicitly, even relentlessly. The notion that rural people can represent the purer form of everybody is authorized by centuries of cultural products. While the identification with urban culture may be as powerful as that with rural folk, it must be hinted at and hedged against. In the conventions, Palin emphasized her rurality while Obama dropped the most racially-inflected elements of his rhetoric.

Palin played up her rural roots most memorably in the sequence I referenced at the beginning of this post:

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

This statement was, from the beginning, obviously extreme. As Nate Silver put it based on the advance text before Palin spoke, "it seems awfully petty for a party campaigning on the theme of service .... If you want a punchline that underscores liberal 'elitism', why not go after Obama's time as the President of the Harvard Law Review instead?"

My answer: this line was always about the reaction it would inevitably produce, which is the retelling of the well-known story that includes the Harvard Law Review and the South Side of Chicago. Palin's sneering portrayal seeks to reframe Obama's story of selfless service in a way that emphasizes simultaneously his elite education and his blackness. Thanks to the obvious demographic differences between small-town Alaska and South-Side Chicago, Palin's speech carefully mapped the common-elite opposition onto a white-black opposition.

Now consider my reversal of Palin's statement at the top of this post, its unspeakable mirror image. Unlike Palin's, it privileges mobility over rootedness and urban experience over rural experience. In the reversal, you can see what kinds of elitism are (and have long been) acceptable and unacceptable in American politics.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Your demystification of Palin’s over-the-top “zinger” is extremely helpful to me as I try to make sense of this oh-so-subtly racist election. Your post also made me even angrier at her, which I didn’t think was possible.