John Buell

Home Economics, Sarah Palin Style

What to make of Sarah Palin? Even some of my life-long Republican neighbors are shocked by the choice, but she inspires enthusiasm among others. The pundits — even those on the left — have also expressed a broad range of views.

Michael Tomasky of the Guardian treats her selection as one more instance of McCain’s impetuous management style. Other left commentators regard Palin as a brilliant if risky gamble on changing the shape of the campaign. They suggest that attacks on Palin’s lack of experience will only make her a more sympathetic candidate for marginalized working class whites whom Republicans must attract.

I am more persuaded by the second view, but I would not place her off limits for appropriate criticism. Obama supporters might fruitfully point to the ways in which Palin’s agenda and past record—not lack of experience—is the problem for the working-class families both parties court. How does a Republican win the presidency when his party presides over an economy in steep decline, with unemployment surging to 6.1% the week Palin was nominated?

McCain may throw around the word maverick and a largely lap-dog media will routinely apply the label to him. Nonetheless, this strategy only goes so far for a sitting senator who has endorsed Bush’s unproductive tax cuts for the wealthy and disastrous deregulation of financial markets.

Why not turn to the old Republican staple of social issues? If crime with a racial subtext was the key wedge issue in 1988, today’s wedge is family values and the threat to those values supposedly posed by liberal elitists.

Democrats would be foolish not to take family values seriously. The issue will not go away merely by emphasizing the “real” economic circumstances of most Americans. With whom we live, how we love and marry, and what privileges we enjoy matter as much as dollars in the pocketbook.

George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, remarks: “Our national political dialogue is … metaphorical, with family values at the center … Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority … tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility.”

I would argue that social conservatives are hardly monolithic. In addition, their gut level values are themselves not as simple, uniform, or stable as sometimes portrayed.

Some pro-life voters do support broader health care and maternity benefit options as keys to enabling women to make what they deem the morally right choice. Many who draw sharp lines between good and evil also recognize that current corporate practices hardly represent the straight and narrow. Many value cooperative—albeit nongovernmental—problem solving. Their emphasis on individual responsibility often shades into understanding the value of neighborhood cooperation and the importance of extended families. They distrust current trade treaties, which enable the job flight that undermines the communities they regard as central to our lives.

Progressives should not abandon social causes. They must remind voters that Palin is an extremist even in the pro-life community, making no exception for rape or incest. The struggles for economic rights for women and minorities are vital. Palin’s career itself reflects the success of some feminist movements. To ditch concern for the social issues is disingenuous and unlikely to work. But to focus merely on her pro-life stance is to preach to the converted, and to reinforce an image of Democrats as “cultural elitists,” who disdain the experience of and injustices faced by many working class whites.

Democrats must not miss an opportunity to connect with many social conservatives on other grounds. The Obama campaign should highlight the dilemmas for real families of the McCain/Bush/Palin agenda. Social Security privatization would leave older Americans and their children dependent on volatile and often corrupt stock and financial markets. In the weeks following the fall of Lehman and Merrill Lynch, that message is more important than ever.

Republican attacks on unions, overtime standards, and occupational health and safety laws leave Americans less time and health with which to enjoy family and community life.

Finally, a woman who supports special needs children and did, commendably, use Alaska’s gushing oil revenues to fund their needs, represents a party in denial. Despite a growing recession and surging oil profits, it consistently resists fair taxation of oil companies and the speculative excesses of Wall Street. Nor will it commit to a much needed stimulus package that would allow state governments to avert drastic recession-induced cuts to Medicaid, as well as supports for foster parents and the mentally ill. Many families across the cultural spectrum will suffer in the wake of McCain/Palin’s consistent politics of denial and diversion.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2008

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