George W. Bush is a stunningly and deservedly unpopular president. His approval ratings rival Nixon’s after Watergate, and the Republicans largely avoided any mention of him at their convention in St. Paul, a convention from which Bush was conspicuously absent. Under his leadership, we have become embroiled in a war that has cost thousands of American lives and billions of dollars, witnessed middle-class incomes stagnate as our manufacturing base has continued to disappear and our budget and trade deficits have soared, and become enmeshed in a financial crisis that has already seen government bailouts for Bear Stearns, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae; the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers; and the purchase of a failing Merrill Lynch by the Bank of America. We may yet see a more general collapse of an economic system built on oceans of debt. And yet, as of this writing, Republican John McCain is neck and neck with Barack Obama in the polls, and even held a slim lead over Obama following the Republican convention. How can this be?
The answer may be found in the reaction to McCain’s selection as his running mate of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a figure who now enjoys a higher approval rating than McCain or Obama, not to mention the hapless Joe Biden, who is traveling the country in a chartered 737 that is 80-percent empty because so few reporters are covering him. Palin has helped solidify McCain as the candidate, broadly speaking, of what is called Middle America, a term roughly synonymous with the conservative portion of America’s white middle class. Many see in Palin a reflection of themselves: She first got involved in politics through the local PTA; she is not a multimillionaire; and she is not part of any establishment. Her husband does manual labor and belongs to a union. And she exhibits, or at least projects, some of the grit and defiance characteristic of the frontier women Roger McGrath has written about in Chronicles.
The hysterical reaction to Palin shows what the left thinks of Middle America. The New York Times’ Frank Rich detected in Palin’s convention speech not only “the vitriolic animus of right-wing populism preached by [Westbrook] Pegler and McCarthy and revived by the 1990s culture wars,” but racism, as shown by the fact that Palin addressed a “virtually all-white audience” in St. Paul and “mocked Obama’s history as a community organizer in Chicago.” Underlying Palin’s appeal was
an abject fear of change. Fear of a demographical revolution that will put whites in the American minority by 2042. Fear of the technological revolution and globalization that have gutted those small towns and factories Palin apotheosized. And, last but hardly least, fear of illegal immigrants who do the low-paying jobs that Americans don’t want to do and of legal immigrants who do the high-paying jobs that poorly educated Americans are not qualified to do. . . . But the ultimate hypocrisy is that these woebegone, frightened opponents of change, sworn enemies of race-based college admission initiatives, are now demanding their own affirmative action program for white folks applying to the electoral college. They want the bar for admission to the White House to be placed so low that legitimate scrutiny of Palin’s qualifications, record and family values can all be placed off limits.
Rich’s words drip with contempt for the people he wants to see swept away by mass immigration and globalization. Is it any wonder that they prefer Palin to Rich’s favored candidate, who entertained an audience of rich leftists in San Francisco by expressing his own disdain for the denizens of the heartland who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”?
Not to be outdone, the Philadelphia Inquirer found a college professor named Catherine Stock to attack Palin for being from the Pacific Northwest, a region “defined by its history of intolerance, resentment, antistatism, and violence,” where “only six counties are more than 5 percent African-American.” According to Stock, “we must never forget that in the late 20th century, ultra-Christian, anti-statist and white-supremacist groups flourished in the states of the Pacific Northwest—called by many the ‘Great White Northwest’—the very region that Sarah Palin and her family call home.” As if Palin’s being from Alaska were not sinister enough, there are her religious beliefs—“dangerously close to those of the Christian Identity movement”—and her husband’s membership in “a political party whose members favored secession for Alaska, suggesting an affiliation with radical antistatism.” Stock concludes: “[I]t is hard to know where [Palin] stands on issues of race, equality, and diversity. Thus it is high time to review the cultural ideals and models of the radical rurals from the Great White Northwest and find out for sure where Gov. Palin stands.” No, this is not a parody from The Onion, but a serious opinion piece written by a credentialed member of the academic elite and appearing in a major American newspaper. Apparently, attending a political convention that has too many white delegates, or being from a part of the country that has too few blacks, is now a mark of shame.
The specific focus of the attacks is on Palin’s challenge to the left’s belief that the central defining value of all right-thinking people is support for legal abortion and mandatory sex education. After all, what shocked the media was not that Bristol Palin had engaged in fornication—an activity regularly lauded in the press and glamorized in all the offerings of Hollywood—but that she had not been supplied with condoms and a check made out to the nearest abortionist. And there were ugly criticisms of the fact that Palin had not murdered her youngest son when she learned that he would be born with Down syndrome. The Obama campaign even reacted to Palin’s nomination by starting an ad campaign attacking John McCain’s professed pro-life stance, no doubt intended to stir fear that, if the crazy Palin makes it to the White House, women will no longer be free to kill unborn handicapped children or unborn children conceived during youthful fornication.
The clearest example of this variety of leftist hatred for Palin was that offered by Cintra Wilson in Salon:
What her Down syndrome baby and pregnant teenage daughter unequivocally prove, however, is that her most beloved child is the antiabortion platform that ensures her own political ambitions with the conservative right. The throat she’s so hot to cut is that of all American women. . . . Bristol Palin will no doubt be a fine example as first teen, particularly now that her mother is inflicting an old-fashioned shotgun wedding on the hapless, horny, condomless youth who impregnated her.
In somewhat more refined circles, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd dismissed Palin as “the glamorous Pioneer Woman, packing a gun, a baby and a Bible”; the head of the Democratic Party in South Carolina claimed that Palin’s “primary qualification [for vice president] seems to be that she hasn’t had an abortion”; and Dr. Andre Lalonde, executive vice president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, worried that Palin’s example would encourage other women not to abort their Down syndrome children. (At the far-less-refined end of the leftist spectrum, there was the blog purporting to be from Palin’s Down-syndrome son, featuring such witticisms as “Thank you abastinse educashun for making sister a mommy too,” and “They no evolushun. I am creachism. I am miracle of Lord!”) With many more voices on the left expressing sentiments such as these, is it any wonder, as Cintra Wilson wrote, that the Republicans have so “successfully framed themselves as the custodians of Christian ethics and conservative family values”?
The fact that Palin struck a chord with so many is a positive sign. It is healthy that millions of Americans still respond to evocations of small-town life and the frontier. It is healthy that millions of Americans reveled in Palin’s convention mockery of a corrupt and effete leftist elite that wishes to erase the last vestiges of Christian morality and pride in the America that existed before the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s. And it is healthy that millions of Americans recoiled from the type of attack launched on Palin by the media and the Obama campaign.
Unfortunately, John McCain is advocating policies that will undermine and eventually destroy the Middle America that has embraced Palin. McCain’s thoughts on economics have been shaped by the likes of Phil Gramm, the former water boy of Wall Street in the Senate, and now the vice chairman of a Swiss bank, who resigned as an advisor to McCain after describing the current economic downturn as a “mental recession” and denouncing those worried about the state of the economy as “whiners.” (It’s easy to view worries about the economy as “whining” from the commanding heights of a Swiss bank.) But his other comments in that interview were equally troublesome. In addition to claiming that “we have benefited greatly” from globalization and advocating more immigration on the grounds that “The American story is a story of immigration,” Gramm said, with a straight face, “We’ve never been more dominant; we’ve never had more natural advantages than we have today.” Apparently, Gramm regards stagnant incomes, massive trade and fiscal deficits, and an unprecedented dependence on foreigners as signs of strength. Then again, the type of deregulation of the financial sector that Gramm advocated in the Senate helped bring on the Enron debacle and the current financial crisis. Gramm is being touted as a possible treasury secretary in a McCain administration. And McCain is foolish enough to take economic counsel as well from former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, an outspoken advocate of outsourcing. (“There is no job that is America’s God-given right anymore.”) Her reward for failure at HP? A severance package worth $42 million.
Anyone who listens to Gramm and Fiorina on economics is going to follow policies detrimental to the type of voters flocking to Sarah Palin, as McCain’s own words and deeds make clear. During the primaries, McCain told voters in Michigan that the good jobs aren’t coming back, while voicing support for environmental regulation that would make his statement more of a promise than a warning. Indeed, McCain supports legislation that would require American industry to buy permits for emitting carbon dioxide, to the tune of some five trillion dollars in the coming decades, while opposing tariffs on imports from such leading carbon emitters as China, India, Brazil, and Mexico. The effect of enacting such legislation without a tariff provision is predictable: U.S. industries will move their operations abroad to avoid the need to purchase expensive permits, and the Americans who used to work in those industries will lose their jobs. But McCain seems to believe that “Let Them Eat Solar Panels” is sound economic policy. Despite his campaign slogan “Country First,” the economic portion of his convention speech could have been titled “Globalism First.” McCain repeatedly insists that the demands of the “global economy” need to be met, come what may, and he told reporters in July, before jetting off to Colombia to press for more free trade, that “I need to convince [workers that] the consequences of protectionism and isolationism could be damaging to their future.”
On immigration, McCain remains committed to hastening the day when whites become a minority in the United States for the first time in our history. Speaking to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in June, McCain made a perfunctory promise to secure our borders, but added that “we must not make the mistake of thinking that our responsibilities will end with that accomplishment. We have economic and humanitarian responsibilities as well, and they require no less dedication from us in meeting them.” This is a reference to the amnesty bill McCain cosponsored in the Senate, which would have both legalized millions of illegal immigrants and encouraged millions more to join them. More recently, McCain’s campaign has run a Spanish-language ad criticizing the Democrats for the fact that there is “no guest worker program,” “no path to citizenship,” and for not being “on our side”—where “our” refers to Hispanics.
Even on abortion, McCain is unreliable. On February 3, the Washington Post reported McCain’s statement that “It’s not social issues [that] I care about.” And on August 19, 1999, McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle, “[C]ertainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.” In the same interview, McCain stated he would not have a “litmus test” for judicial nominees. McCain’s former Senate colleague, Rick Santorum, an indefatigable champion of the unborn, has stated that McCain did his best behind the scenes to prevent pro-life legislation from coming to a vote on the floor. Robert Novak has reported that McCain has described Justice Samuel Alito as “too conservative.” Novak has also reminded his readers that, back when Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords became an independent and began to caucus with the Democrats, McCain was in negotiations with the Senate Democrats to do the same thing. There is also McCain’s support for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR), which cannot be squared with principled belief in the pro-life cause. Indeed, McCain has recently launched an ad touting his support for more federal funding of stem-cell research, and his campaign spokesman, Brian Rogers, has stated that the ad, which does not distinguish between ESCR and other types of stem-cell research, is intended to reiterate McCain’s support for ESCR.
McCain, then, is an unworthy repository of the political hopes of the voters attracted to Palin. In order to advance, American conservatism needs an atmosphere in which those appealing to the identity of Middle Americans also advocate policies that advance their concrete interests. McCain is quite happy to appeal to Middle Americans on the basis of identity politics, even as he advocates policies that will result in their economic and demographic displacement. But the potency of that appeal does, in an otherwise dismal political season, offer some reason for hope. It is hard to see how paleoconservative ideas would advance in the political arena if appeals to Middle American identity no longer resonate, and the popularity of Sarah Palin in a year that should belong to the Democrats shows that such appeals retain their vitality because Middle Americans remain the decisive force in the electorate. Sarah Palin may well end up proving as big a disappointment as most recent Republican politicians have been, but the fact that millions of Americans responded so positively to the speech she gave and the image she projects suggests that, one day, there may actually be a political market for the ideas and policies that will help to preserve the America Palin’s fans wish to preserve.