Like a surprise comet, Alaska’s Sarah Palin is shooting across the American political sky, inspiring great hope in many and an almost apocalyptic fear in others. Some see her as the epitome of a very successful, even model woman, balancing family and career and staying true to her most private and fundamental beliefs even when faced with a child with special needs. They see her as providing true gender diversity in the public arena.
Thus far, quite a few women and men of all parties have flocked to her especially in rural areas, and 20 percent of women voters across the country have changed their minds about which national ticket to support since her choice as John McCain’s running mate. For them, her improbable trajectory taps a deeply resonant chord with many women who feel they personally have not received the recognition and appropriate appreciation of feminists, the media and society as a whole.
Still others say Palin — in and by herself — harshly threatens the almost sacred feminist paradigm monolith currently in vogue and claim that she is not even “a real woman.” A true woman, they say, could not be pro-life, pro-gun ownership, pro-oil drilling and pro-military. In fact, some assert she cannot hold these views and still claim to be a woman.
Further, Palin is accused of being a rustic, a rube and a shallow “Wal-Mart” mom — even “a threat to the planet.” Some find her a gross parody of what they expect in a “political” woman. Palin is thus seen as a true subversive “outsider,” one who cares not for the approval of the elite, whether male or female, feminist or nonfeminist. As such, she is a threat to some established cultural norms and the professed arbiters of those norms in the media and academia.
Yet, whether she inspires awe, fear or something in between, Sarah Palin and her outsider views lie very much in the American political tradition. Our country’s history, in fact, has seen numerous rural, agrarian and frontier challenges to the eastern and urban political elites. These types of challenges, whether successful or not, have inspired an often similarly violent reaction on the part of the elites of both parties.
Beginning with Andrew Jackson’s challenge to John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, the voice of the frontier has been strong and vibrant. Jackson, one of the founders of the Democratic party, came from the Tennessee backwoods to attack the Eastern elite in 1828. So frightened were the Eastern elite that Daniel Webster noted that they believed that the county had to be rescued from “some dreadful danger.”
William Jennings Bryan accused Wall Street of crucifying farmers on a “Cross of Gold” in 1896. Harry Truman from humble beginnings in Missouri, toured rural America in 1948 on his “whistle-stop” rail tour, decrying Republicans as the puppets of the rich.
Others, seeing the appeal of the outsider perspective in American politics took on its persona, regardless of their true status. “Insiders” have long chosen to position themselves as “outsiders” in order to get elected. For example, 12 years after the frontier-outsider theme worked for Jackson, his opponents repackaged the aristocratic William Henry Harrison as a simple man who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider.
When Abraham Lincoln sought the presidency in 1860, his supporters did not highlight his many years in politics or his corporate success as a railroad lawyer; they presented him as “Honest Abe, the Railsplitter.” Indeed, so powerful and enduring is the “outsider” tradition than even those with virtually no true claim have used it again and again. More recently, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also played the Western outsiders to Eastern power.
It also seems ironic that John McCain, son and grandson of admirals, a member of Congress for a quarter-century, should attempt to play the “populist.” But such irony is part of the game of American politics. Franklin Roosevelt, the Hudson Valley aristocrat, railed against “economic royalists.” Quintessential insiders such as Dwight Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush have draped themselves in the mantle of the anti-establishment crusader.
The excitement, dynamism and unknown destination of the comet that is Sarah Palin serves as a national Rorschach test, one deeply embedded in American political culture for over 180 years. People’s reaction to this most recent challenge to the political and cultural elite will continue to amuse and amaze those who can appreciate its context.
Christian Potholm and Richard Skinner are professors of government at Bowdoin College.