Sep 1st 2008

The Palin Factor: How Women Count

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

Every electoral contest needs a social group to elevate, to applaud, and to cherish. Votes are, of course, important, so the politically needy must pick a target for each election. In conservative politics, it's a case of targeting blue-collar voters and making them believe that right wing panache will resolve fundamental breadbasket issues. For those of the left (dare we use that name in the US?) it's a case of looking as de-radicalized as possible, targeting a political arena called 'the political center'. To stray beyond its confines is electoral suicide.

After the Democratic National Convention, the target audience is now less on race, and more on gender. Race, of course, never goes away - the question hovers menacingly over deliberations in press gallery and party room. 'America has changed because an African American is running' does little to dispel that. Enter, then, the issue of women voters, that other constituency that has been elevated, applauded and cherished.

During this US electoral contest, we have been treated to a curious species of women voters. The statisticians are busy on demographic characteristics; the sociologists are out and the 'political scientists' (as if politics could ever be a science) are also there, pondering the new American woman voter. Who is she? What on earth will she do come November? We are deluged with the statistical miasma of age, job and political inclination.

We can only conclude the closer we get to November that this species of voter is markedly enigmatic. We know that this voter has revolutionary traction and violent force: they can make some 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling of US electoral politics. So we find this suggestion first in Hillary Clinton, then in Michelle Obama, who has been, incidentally, reviled first as being unpatriotic (unbecoming in the spouse of a presidential hopeful) and secondly, a bit too sure of herself.

Overly confident and intelligent women, we are led to believe, are not necessarily assets to their husband contending for high office, but likely to self-destruct in a fit of pushiness and intelligent insight. Flat, unimpressive incantation (that's cardboard patriotism for you) is preferable and bound to retail better in the electoral market. The fact that Michelle Obama was also sitting next to John Kerry's wife at stages of the DNC was not something commentators could avoid. That, again, is how women (notably intelligent ones) count in such elections.

But Sarah Palin, vice presidential hopeful for the Republicans, a self-proclaimed 'hockey mum' and former beauty pageant queen, claims that the glass, having now cracked, will shatter. The implication here is that she will somehow ensnare these Democrat females away from their Clinton nest into a welcoming Republican camp. So here, the female voter becomes a mere prop to move on the stage - first, there was Hillary Clinton, with voters who would only vote for her because of her fairer sex. Now, it's Palin, who, it is assumed, will have the same effect. Accusations of condescension should be drowning McCain, but we have yet to see them.

These 'women' (those of the glass-shattering type) have been somehow deprived of any sentience in this electoral race - they are the zombies who will march in November to the polls and defect to the first woman they can find. (Gender pickings for high office are so lean, they must take what's on offer.) Who cares that the 'woman' in question who is meant to execute this change, instead of being their heroic affirmation of a transformed America, is an arch anti-abortionist, a conservative whose first inclination is to drill national park sanctuaries into oblivion? This is about as revolutionary as the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court bench. While Hillary's women, another group of voters supposedly overly determined by their sex, might stay home, they won't necessarily hurl themselves at McCain with salivating eagerness. That's not an assumption McCain will countenance.

McCain has gambled, promoting Palin as a resistance figure against 'special interests'. Her famed target was the oil company. Otherwise, there is very little to scratch here in terms of substance, though, with approval ratings of 80 percent in Alaska, she has claims to be a minor 'celebrity' of sorts. She also has the knack for cardboard incantation: ships are not built to stay in harbor, she assures us.

In her time in office, a little over a year as Alaskan governor, she has notched up a few achievements. But one colleague and House member working with her has described the experience as 'two steps forward, one step back.' A suitable epitaph for any McCain administration.

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