We like our hockey in Michigan, especially smash-mouth hockey. And this week self-identified hockey mom Gov. Sarah Palin delivered. An audience of 37 million testifies that we are not alone, plenty others like the that audience also raises the question of what exactly was she tapping?
Was it just the smash mouth politics?
Was it the thrill of watching the death-defying dare devil and the possibility of her failure? Perhaps.
Rather than fear the start of another cultural war, Democrats should recognize this conservative populism grows from the pain and anger of real economic and social loss. The very enthusiasm for Palin is a testimony to the failure of the previous eight years, as well as a desire to get some answers to the economic problems harming our communities. Whatever tactical advantage she bestows on the Republican Party, strategically, she bears witness that the Republican program for our economy does not work.
As the visceral response in the hall also showed, Palin is touching a deep chord in the party and more broadly among social conservatives. Yes, there is the matter of resentment, as Paul Krugman notes. And one can find examples throughout the conservative wing, as this comment from a conservative webzine demonstrates:
The elitism we decry is the opiate of the leftist, so sure of his towering intellect and moral arete that he presses on with every fiber of his being into the teeth of truth, vision still distorted by an economic lens that has been relegated to the scrap heap of history. It is the sneering condescension toward us “mouth breathing troglodytes” by the highly self-regarding and self-anointed custodians of what’s really best for the rest if only we were smart enough to vote for them. The sort of clueless solipsism that says things like “bitter people clinging to their guns and religion.
Not the whole story
But this sense of being put upon is not the whole story to this populism. The narrative of condescension is more meta – than anything, it organizes values and arguments and as such, uses current discontent as its fuel.
Sarah Palin is the face of a specific community – that’s the meaning of her small town. Wasilla in all its quirkiness stands in for towns we know throughout Michigan – the Eaton Rapids, Allegan, Hesperia and Hersey, and thousand more. In her they see themselves. She may be a high-stickin’ hockey momma, but for folks in such towns (and in the ‘burbs) she’s their hockey mom. Her words become cathartic. As other minorities know – even as Democrats out of power know – to hear their arguments delivered boldly is thrilling and energizing.
At last, at a national level, they get heard. The voice is no longer mediated by the slick (e.g. John Ashcroft, himself an Assemblies of God member, albeit a graduate of Yale), or by the outsider (e.g. James Dobson). This is what takes her candidacy past the politics of resentment.
More than the politics of identity.
And what of the grievance? Is it only so much identity politics and the frustration of Agenda Goals (Ending Abortion being among the most prominent)? There is little in the local response (and affection) that would indicate this is true. The force of the response, the repetition of the word “change” point to a populism flowing from pretty much the same place as the more liberal form does: large forces outside our community, state and country are wrecking what shouldn’t be wrecked. Who then will stand up?
Governor Palin gives voice to a landscape of grievance and hope. Her call to stand up resonates with those who have been pushed down. By contrast, Governor Granholm at the State Convention got it right– “change” is another word for what’s wrong.
The sheer irony is that the tax cuts proposed by McCain-Palin reward the same economic elite who have so savaged workers, stripping their jobs from the state; turning farms into unprofitable ventures; and then to add insult, rewarding those who engineered the selling out of their homes.
Palin’s initial presentation seems to suggest that she will be in temperament a tribune, an the advocate for this community. But with no program, hers is fundamentally a false promise, an icing of the policy question.