Sarah Palin as Cultural Metaphor

Quote of the day for Tuesday, December 7th, 2010:

Timothy Dalrymple, posting at Patheos yesterday on the meaning and underlying cause of what he calls “Palin Enragement Syndrome”:

[M]uch of the opposition to Palin is not political. It is deeply and thoroughly cultural. Sarah Palin is Miss Jesusland, the living emblem and foremost representative of an America that progressive elites had hoped had been swept into the dustbin of history. One definition of culture is “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.” Palin represents the values, tastes, and institutions, the attitudes and behaviors, that are shared by one American sub-culture and despised by another. Hugh Hewitt had it right over a year ago, when he said that Palin is “the opposite of every choice that lefty elites have ever made . . . the antithesis of everything that liberal urban elites are.”

In a very peculiar sort of way, then, Sarah Palin herself has become the latest contested territory in America’s ongoing culture war. The fight over Sarah Palin is a proxy battle over cultural issues and over the meaning of America: not only Democrats and Republicans but low culture versus high culture, conservative Christianity versus progressive religion, pro-life versus pro-choice, traditional family versus modern family, rural versus urban, the wisdom and goodness of the people versus the technocracy of the elite. It’s a proxy battle over which culture — which set of values, attitudes, and behaviors — ought to pervade and guide our nation and its government.

It was obvious in the summer of 2008 that Sarah Palin had instantly touched a venomous nerve in progressive circles. It was not entirely clear why. I thought some of it could be chalked up as a reaction to the energized thrill with which the more conservative elements of the electorate met her ascension to McCain’s Presidential ticket – I know for my part, I’d fully expected McCain to select a middle-of-the-road running mate, even someone pro-abortion, and I was delightfully surprised that he selected a social conservative, and I doubt I was alone in that surprise any more than I was in that delight.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of social conservatives out there, and while they do get trashed by the liberal press on principle, they don’t get trashed like Sarah Palin gets trashed. I agree with Dalrymple that she is more symbol than human being to the left, but that still doesn’t explain why she became such a lightning rod, rather than any of the many other people, including women, who generally share her views. And as a national figure, she is almost purely a product of the left’s obsession with her. They call her stupid(of course), but she’s dumb like a fox, and has proven herself to be one of the more prescient members of the chattering class, which I think is changing her perception among non-progressive elites.

In the end, I think Dalrymple overstates this somewhat, because even though he is correct about Palin being a flaming icon of the broader cultural conflict to the left, I think the moderates and more conservative folks are seeing her as more of an effective conservative political figure, especially as time goes on. She’s more about results than ideological grandstanding – even if she is not prone to compromising principles. Pure populist, yes, but she’s turning into a genuine movement leader, not just a token of a broader idea. I suppose that’s why the left turned her into a celebrity: by definition, you can’t take celebrities seriously… Good luck with that.