Sex, Culture, and Sarah Palin

Democratic politics, in the end, is not about rational deliberation. It is about coalitional signaling. It is about expressive solidarity. It is about identity and emotion. That's why I have a deep mistrust of democratic politics. But I think I'm as attuned to the subrational frequencies of electoral politics as anyone; I just don't take my gut reactions to provide reasons for endorsement or action. Indeed, I tend to think both rationality and morality require that we often disapprove of, discount, and override our gut reactions. That said, my gut found Sarah Palin enormously appealing.

First, let me just get it out of the way: I think she is a tremendously sexy woman. How this will effect the race, I have no idea, but it's just got to. It's not an issue of glamour so much as a kind of Paglian chthonic sexual power. Set in that context, her unabashed embrace of her fecundity and motherhood as a kind of qualification makes a lot of sense. Megan O'Rourke's post on Palin's political eros has it right, and I think she may even be on to something when she says we got a “glimpse of a novel problem for a presidential candidate: sexual tension with his VP.”

Palin exudes sexual confidence and maternal authority, which in a relatively conservative culture like ours is the most recognizable and viscerally comprehensible form of female power. It makes a lot of men uncomfortable, but that's because it's the kind of female power they are most often subject to, and most often fail to successfully resist. I spent much of my life taking orders from women a lot like Sarah Palin — women like my mother and my Iowa public school teachers. Indeed, it makes a lot more emotional sense for me to feel led by by a woman like that than by some hotshot Air Force pilot. When a guy with a buzzcut says “jump,” I say “screw you.” When a woman like Sarah Palin says “jump,” I am inclined to deferentially inquire into the requirements of this jump.

Palin's speech, I think, set in stark relief what Hillary was/is lacking. Again, I think O'Rourke gets it right when she says,

Ironically, [Palin] may have an easier time bringing what CNN called “toughness and femininity” together precisely because she never assumed at the outset of her adult life that she'd end up in a role like this.

I have very mixed feelings about this. I do not think politics is noble, and I deplore career politicians like Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, and, yes, Hillary Clinton. I would in fact rather be ruled by competent small-town mayors than accomplished professional rent-seekers. (Palin, being very smart, made great strides in this regard during her short time as Governor, because opportunistic predation is what politics is.) But I feel that Hillary's struggle to connect as a strong leadership-worthy woman was part of an attempt to forge a sense of feminine authority not founded an maternality and female sexual power. That she almost succeeded in this is astounding, and I think hugely to her credit.

But we all know that politics is a primate sport. We're used to marveling over the fact that the taller man usually wins, that a commanding, alpha-male jock toughness is de rigeur for successful presidential candidates. Palin's gut appeal drives home the perhaps inevitable but nevertheless regrettable fact that female political success is at some level going to be grounded in primate appeal, too. And, as a female primate, Palin is evidently “a force to be reckoned with” — as the pundits kept saying.

But I don't want to push too hard on the biopsychology of this. Biology is heavily strained through through the filter of contingent culture and identity. That Palin reminded my of my school teachers is a matter of her acquired manner and the assumptions beneath them, a matter of her Upper-Midwest-sounding accent. I'm from a small town. She's from a small town! And damn straight: people who study at the University of Idaho (which is, in fact, where my sister is currently studying law) are every bit as smart as all you snide elitist Ivy League cosmoplitans!

The overwhelmed Republican delegates interviewed after the speech were at a total loss when asked to pin down specifically what they had liked about Palin's address. What they liked is that they saw a feminine yet powerful conservative Christian mother — someone they understand, someone they would like to have as a friend, someone they are or would like to be. What they liked was the thrill of such direct cultural identification, of being on that stage and commanding attention and respect. I do not doubt that conservative Christian moms all over the country were brought to tears by the power of this. There are a lot of conservative Christian moms.

Palin made my gut want John McCain to win and then suffer a fatal heart attack. But I am a studied skeptic of my gut, and no wordly force could deliver my vote to him. However, every stars-and-bars stripes backdrop, every picture of the bloodied-but-not-bowed McCain in hospital, every Shephard Fairey icon of Obama, tells me that this skepticism is not broadly shared.

[Photo by Ryan McFarland]

  • nzuckerman

    I have come a bit late to this hysterical rant by a guy who doesn’t approve of democracy and elections–why bother living here?–but who has the hots for Palin,a bit over the hill for most babe lovers, who strikes most folks as a real dummy and very very ambitious, with a totally dysfunctional family. It is nice though that you can get so excited about something so funny to so many of the rest of us, and shows that when the dick stands up, the brain goes to sleep.