Monday, November 03, 2008

The Republican wedge: Sarah Palin, the culture wars, and the 2008 presidential election

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Peter Beinart writes this in today's WaPo:

Why has America turned on Sarah Palin? Obviously, her wobbly television interviews haven't helped. Nor have the drip, drip of scandals from Alaska, which have tarnished her reformist image. But Palin's problems run deeper, and they say something fundamental about the political age being born. Palin's brand is culture war, and in America today culture war no longer sells. The struggle that began in the 1960s -- which put questions of racial, sexual and religious identity at the forefront of American politics -- may be ending. Palin is the end of the line.

I got caught up in the culture war(s) when I was at Tufts in the early-'90s. The economy wasn't going all that well, but, overall, it was a time of prosperity and, with the Cold War just ended, hope. The problem is, with prosperity comes the sort of security, which in itself isn't a bad thing, that gives people the time to focus on other things, like, say, "moral values" and "culture." In other words, when you aren't focusing on your immediate security, economic or otherwise, you tend to turn your attention to other battles.

Beinart is right, to a point, that "Palin's attacks are also failing because of generational change. The long-running, internecine baby boomer cultural feud just isn't that relevant to Americans who came of age after the civil rights, gay rights and feminist revolutions."

The thing is, I have no confidence that Palin "may be the last culture warrior on a national ticket for a very long time," or that a new, post-culture war "political age" is being born. While it is true that economic insecurity and, lest we forget, national security insecurity are the dominant issues of the day, "culture" is a weapon Republicans are not about to lay down.

We have seen that this year -- we see it today just a day before the election. Losing on the issues, and in the polls, the McCain-Palin campaign, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement that supports them, have turned to "culture" to drive wedges into the electorate. What is "Joe the Plumber" if not a weapon of the culture war? What are all the smears of Obama if not, in this sense, "cultural"? The attacks on Obama haven't been issue-based, after all, nor even experience-based. Rather, they've been personal: Obama portrayed as a dirty and dangerous Other. Even the attacks on Obama and Biden over taxes have been waged as part of the old-style culture war: Obama and Biden portrayed as socialists, as un-American.

And I needn't even mention the bigoted claim, frequently heard at McCain-Palin rallies, that Obama is a Muslim (because, for many, there is something terribly wrong with being Muslim), and therefore a terrorist (because, for many, the two are the same), or the unpleasant fact that many people won't vote for Obama simply because he's black, or the fact that McCain's claim that Obama wants to redistribute wealth has racial/racist undertones, or the fact that racism plays a large part in the attacks on Obama over Jeremiah Wright (because predominantly black churches like Wright's can be easily vilified, for many, as somehow un-Christian and anti-American).

And, as for national security, it was Bush turned 9/11, the war on terror, and the Iraq War into weapons of the culture war. McCain hasn't followed Bush in this regard, perhaps to his credit (though circumstances change -- 2008 is not 2004), but the various attempts to smear Obama over his association with Bill Ayers, for example, including from McCain and Palin themselves, were straight out of the Republican playbook.

This is not about to change. Republicans and conservatives will continue to seek to divide Americans in terms of what is loosely called "culture." For them, there will always be an "us" and a "them," a divide to be exploited and exaggerated whenever politically expedient, even as the country continues to move beyond identity politics, even as race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation lose their grip on American political consciousness overall.

True, much of the political discourse in the United States going forward will focus on such issues as the economy, national security, health care, education, and the environment, and there are Republicans and conservatives who will join in with substantive policy positions, but, when it comes down to electoral politics, to winning and losing, "culture" isn't going away anytime soon.

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