By Robert Cohen, December 30, 2009
When Sarah Palin was nominated to be John McCain’s running mate, it was only a matter of weeks until the American Left grew to hate her more than perhaps any other Republican figure. This was an unexpected development, since as a strong, self-made, and successful woman, her nomination for such a powerful position in the conservative party could have been seen as a culmination of the feminist movement, whereby women from any part of the political spectrum could now be the leaders of their family, their community, and perhaps the free world. Instead, that over a year removed from her loss at the polls the mention of her name still elicits such contempt from committed Democrats—more than does the mention of Dick Cheney or George W Bush, whose list of grievances against the left is certainly far greater—is a curious phenomenon demanding an explanation. There must be something going on in the minds of all these liberals, and understanding it may help diagnose the unspoken reasons for the extreme division currently paralyzing and destroying our nation.
The modern feminist movement has run into trap of competing expectations. Modern women feel pressure from the efforts of the forbearers to equal men in success, ambition, and independence; meanwhile, their human yearning for companionship means they must take heed of the desires of men, which on average have been slow to adapt to the goals of the feminist movement. Modern men, for the most part, want women who are feminine, a characteristic difficult although not impossible to reconcile with ambition and power. Thus, modern women are wary of embracing feminism for fear of threatening or emasculating the men whose success they often now eclipse but whom they nevertheless want to marry. On top of it all, women feel a biological instinct to be mothers, but the tiring pregnancy necessary for motherhood takes time away from advancing in the cutthroat world of capitalism. Thus, the standard to which women today find themselves aspiring seems an almost an impossible contradiction of characteristics: successful but not intimidating, attractive to men yet independent, and self-made while eternally nurturing.
Sarah Palin seems, therefore, like she should be a hero of the movement because she found success in this difficult paradigm. Unlike Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, she is not famous because of the man she married. She achieved her status through her own talents, while her husband took a supportive—but to look at him, certainly not emasculated—role. She was able to rise to the top of the cutthroat political arena while also mothering five children. And, she is gorgeous, but she does not milk her sex appeal for cheap attention the way the most male politicians, should they be so lucky, probably would. Few other women in today’s world—I cannot think of any other than the late Benazir Bhutto and maybe Angelina Jolie—have found a way to balance the challenges of modern womanhood.
And yet she is deplored, first and foremost, by progressive women, more than is either Cheney or Bush. On the surface, this makes no sense, but it has turned out to be very unfortunate for those interested in national unity. Her high profile status combined with the polarized reactions to her has over the past year helped cement the partisan Left and the partisan Right in their corners, as well as crystallizing why the two groups hate each other. Understanding the origin of this hate is crucial if we hope to unify the country again. I propose that this hate, on both sides, is about abortion, perhaps the most emotionally charged and divisive issue.
Since few people are willing or able to voice the true reasons behind their contempt for someone, asking Palin’s haters to explain their rationale is not likely to be productive. However, in polarized America, we may be able to assume that the reasons tea-party Republicans love her are the same reasons liberal Democrats hate her. And there are at least four obvious reasons that party-line Republicans are avid Sarah Palin fans.
First, she is a partisan Republican. Unlike her heroic running mate, there are few issues where she truly displays a maverick streak from Rush Limbaugh orthodoxy. As such, she confers legitimacy on an ideology that some Republicans hold dear, giving partisan Democrats ample reason to feel the opposite. However, there are many partisan Republicans in the arena, and the fact that she earns so much more contempt than does Mike Huckabee implies that her partisan nature can hardly be the full story.
Second, she excites Republicans because she is a fresh face. For a party searching for its next savior, and worried that perhaps none of its current leaders could defeat Obama in 2012, she offers genuine excitement. The John McCain campaign, for which I worked, knew this well. Before she was nominated, we averaged 3,000-5,000 attendees per campaign rally. When she was on the ticket, our numbers increased to over 20,000 per rally. There is no doubt she excites conservative Republicans in a way that Mitch McConnell does not. For partisan Democrats, therefore, she is certainly the devil they don’t know. And all humans are fearful of that.
Third, Republican men specifically love her for the same reason they watch Fox News: they like to hear about conservative ideas while looking at attractive women. This is not an attack on Sarah Palin, conservative men, or Fox News; it is simply a fact of our situation. Both Sarah Palin and the babefest on Fox News harken back to a time when flight attendants and waitresses were hired in part for attributes that would please males, a time which conservative men enjoyed but which the feminist movement found objectionable. Thus her looks evoke strong emotions from conservative men and, perhaps because of its appeal to the prefeminist mentality, liberal women. Few feel comfortable admitting it, but everyone knows that her unusually good looks are part of what defines the Palin personae. Perhaps this is an unfortunate complication of being a female politician, but that is irrelevant. Our inability to discuss what drives our emotions has led to anger without discussion.
Fourth, and most important, Sarah Palin is a powerful figure in the pro-life movement. No issue has defined the feminist movement more than has the right to have an abortion; similarly, no issue in American politics demands more ideological purity. No Democratic candidate in the 2008 presidential primaries was pro-life—it is hard to conceive that one possibly could be—and only one Republican candidate was pro-choice (Giuliani, and despite a spirited campaign he never finished better than third). Thus, precisely because Palin is in many other important respects the culmination of the feminist movement, her pro-life stance—and lifestyle—threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the feminist abortion argument. She stands as evidence that advancement for women may not mean the right to an abortion. She thereby poses a bigger threat than does any man to pro-choice feminists; to them she is a dangerous traitor regarding our nation’s most divisive and emotional issue. That is why James Dobson endorsed our campaign immediately after she was nominated, and it is why the pro-choice movement feels she must be destroyed.
Some Democrats will complain that in fact it is her unworldly intellect or the pandering nature of her nomination that elicits their contempt. But the former charge strikes me as sexist, considering the number of intellectually inadequate men who have pursued high office, while the latter has nothing to do with who she is, and in either case, the hate that has descended upon her is out of proportion to these complaints. I propose that the Palin Derangement Syndrome is borne out a perceived threat to the pro-choice movement, with her sexual appeal to conservative men emotional icing on the cake, appearing on the scene as the devil Democrats don’t know.
If we are ever to be united again, we must stop hating each other. Sarah Palin stands at the center of the hate; liberals hate her and what she represents, and conservatives hate right back because they like what she represents and are angry that it is under attack. This “us against them” mentality—responsible for so much pain and intransigence in the world, from Palestine to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to North Korea—paralyzes Washington and our attempts to solve our great challenges. Solving partisanship will require resolution on many fronts, but right now no figure is more emblematic of our polarization than is Sarah Palin. Once we understand the anger behind the Palin debate and the many other issues where unreasoned emotions drive division, both sides may be able to take a deep breath and take steps to become more tolerant of each other. If that happens, we might someday overcome the “us against them” mentality and at least learn not to view our fellow Americans as enemies. This will be a precondition for all future success. The path could begin with the Left examining and then stopping their relentless attacks on the former Governor of Alaska.