The culture war: It's back!

Democrats may have thought that the disastrous Bush years killed the GOP's favorite tactic. The Palin effect shows they were wrong.

Published September 15, 2008 1:37PM (EDT)

Observing the Sarah Palin phenomenon, does anyone feel like they're trapped in a singularly creepy remake of "Night of the Living Dead"? George W. Bush has been a political corpse for years. But Palin resembles a female version of Bush, brought back from the grave to win the election.

You wouldn't think that the Republicans would want to exhume Bush. After all, his presidency has been a historic disaster, and the American people know it. But Bush was successful at one thing: winning elections. With its policies and ideology in ruins, Bush's political game plan is all that the GOP has left. And so McCain, who sold his soul to win, is following Bush's script -- with Sarah Palin playing the leading role once played by Bush.

Palin represents the reappearance of the one part of Bush that never died -- the culture warrior. Democrats may have forgotten about the notorious red state-blue state divide, or hoped that the failures of the last eight years had made it go away. But it hasn't. It's been there all along. If Palin catapults McCain to victory, it will be revealed to be the most powerful and enduring force in American politics. And that fact will raise serious questions about the viability of American democracy itself.

The culture war is driven by resentment, on the one hand, and crude identification, on the other. Resentment of "elites," "Washington insiders" and overeducated coastal snobs goes hand in hand with an unreflective, emotional identification with candidates who "are just like me." Large numbers of Americans voted for Bush because he seemed like a regular guy, someone you'd want to have a beer with. As Thomas Frank argued in "What's the Matter With Kansas," ideology also played a role. As hard-line "moral values" exponent and former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer told the New York Times, "Joe Six-Pack doesn't understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn't have a say in it." The GOP appealed to Joe Six-Pack by harping on cultural issues like the "three Gs," gods, guns and gays.

Bush played on culture war themes like a virtuoso. His folksy, macho persona connected with the GOP base and independent voters, his bland pre-election talk of reform and inclusion was reassuring, and his post-election Karl Rove-engineered strategy of nonstop flag-waving, demonizing opponents as traitors, and talking populism while handing the country over to deregulated predators, worked brilliantly. Bush was the great divider, masterfully playing on Americans' fear, resentment and patriotism. First Al Gore, then John Kerry were painted as out-of-touch elitists, mandarins and eggheads. It worked: Bush rode the red-state side of the culture wars to victory twice (with a little help from the Supreme Court the first time around).

It's terrifying that so many Americans are so driven by resentment that they will vote against more qualified candidates simply because they seem "different" from them. For what this means is that anyone with expertise, unusual intelligence, mastery, special knowledge, is likely to be rejected by voters who are resentful of "elites." This constitutes a rejection of the very idea that it matters if someone is better at something than someone else.

The peculiar thing is that this only applies to politics: Voters who would not dream of taking their car to an incompetent mechanic or their body to an unlicensed physician have no problem electing totally unqualified candidates to perform the most difficult and important job in the world, simply because they identify with them.

Resentment explains some of this. So does a widespread lack of respect for government itself, and ignorance about what it is and what it requires. Most insidious, perhaps, is the fact that more and more Americans seem to see politics as just another reality TV show. You vote for Palin the same way you vote for a designer on "Project Runway." As Katharine Mieszkowski reported for Salon, Palin's rapturous supporters embrace her because "she represents me." It's the politics of sheer narcissism.

This crudely personalized and debased approach to civic life has always been present, but it's getting stronger, and the Republicans are recklessly exacerbating it. Never mind that if they succeed in dumbing down the electorate and turning politics into the most superficial popularity contest, the country will suffer irreparable harm. Hey, we gotta win this election!

From the GOP's perspective, Palin has all of the virtues of Bush, and none of the drawbacks. She's a red state culture warrior. And in the new GOP gender con game, the fact that she's a woman automatically makes her a "maverick" and an "outsider."

Palin and her handlers have clearly decided that she must constantly invoke these magic words, despite the absence of any evidence that they actually apply to her. In her second interview with Charles Gibson, which was broadcast Friday night on ABC's "20/20," Palin responded to Gibson's skeptical comment that Bush also came to Washington talking about reform by saying, "We are mavericks" and "I am a Washington outsider."

How soon we forget that Bush, like Palin, like all Republican candidates, also avidly claimed to be "an outsider." As Jake Tapper reported for Salon in 2000, Bush put on his Outsider costume after McCain defeated him in the New Hampshire primary. "I was defined as the insider [in New Hampshire], and those days are over," Bush said. "I'm going to make it very clear to the voters of this state who Mr. Outsider is and who Mr. Insider is." In keeping with his new maverick image, Bush adopted the slogan "A Reformer With Results."

Not only is Palin a Bush rerun, she's a really bad one. Palin's performance in her interviews with Gibson, particularly the first foreign-policy-focused one, was shockingly awful. It's astonishing that McCain was cynical, reckless and contemptuous enough to actually put this grossly unprepared individual in a position to become president. But McCain has become a Rove-style Republican, so maybe it isn't astonishing after all.

Palin didn't know what the Bush doctrine was. She robotically mouthed ancient Bush propaganda lines about the "war on terror." She casually said that we might go to war with Russia. She blandly handed over control of Iran policy to Israel, ignoring the fact that if Tel Aviv attacked Iran, U.S. troops located next door would almost certainly die as a result. She clumsily avoided answering any question for which she had not hastily memorized a stock answer. You could practically see her riffling through her mental cheat sheets.

Palin apparently still believes the ur-lie of the Bush administration, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. On Sept. 11, she told troops shipping out to Iraq, including her eldest son Track, that they would "defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans."

It isn't surprising, therefore, that Palin appears to have no idea who America is actually fighting in Iraq. "The terrorists" attacked us because "they do not believe in American ideals," as she robotically told Gibson, channeling Bush's notorious "they hate our freedoms" line. It may be comforting for Palin and Bush to envision Osama bin Laden sitting in a cave cursing as he reads Thomas Jefferson, but it provides scant guidance for formulating effective Mideast policies.

But where Palin most closely, and disturbingly, resembles Bush is in her dogmatism, her mental rigidity. Like Bush and the GOP in general, she is determined to appear tough above all else. She follows Rove Rule No. 1: She stays on message, even if what she's saying is an obvious lie. The GOP programmers know that toughness sells. But Palin's supposed toughness reveals an utter lack of introspection, intellectual nuance or ability to depart from programmed ideas. Asked if she had worried she wasn't prepared to be president, Palin replied, "I — I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink."

If what America wants is a more uninformed, more right-wing, equally macho version of Bush, Palin's the perfect choice.

Palin's second Gibson interview, focused on domestic issues, wasn't as revealing as the first. Unfortunately, Gibson failed to follow up on most of his questions, allowing Palin to get away with superficial accounts of her inquiries about banning books and other subjects. Palin mostly mouthed safe conservative bromides, and didn't make any errors as egregious as she did in the first interview. However, the interview did reveal another trait she shares with Bush: an inability to tell the truth. Her tortured attempt to claim that she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, when in fact she supported it until it became a national embarrassment, was reminiscent of Bush's claims that he had never linked Saddam and 9/11.

Still more egregious was her bald-faced lie about her position on human responsibility for climate change. When Gibson said she seemed to be adopting a new position on the issue, she said, "I think you are a cynic, because show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect, or no effect, on climate change."

In fact, Palin has repeatedly and explicitly denied that man is responsible for global warming. "I'm not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity," she told an Alaska newspaper in 2007.

Tilt! What played well with her green-hating, oil-worshipping, man-was-given-dominion-over-nature-by-God Alaska constituency contradicts McCain's position and doesn't work on the national stage, so she never said it. But if she lied, so what? Bush said "We do not torture" and "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." As that famous unnamed Bush official told Ron Suskind, the GOP isn't interested in the reality-based community: "That's not the way the world works now."

Palin's talk of being "on the side of the people" would be more convincing if she didn't go around making inflammatory culture-war speeches in which she derides "community organizers" and Democrats. She and McCain are trying to come off like the populist hero George Bailey in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," fighting fat cats and standing up for the little guy. But their actual beliefs and policies resemble not Bailey's but Mr. Potter's, the ultimate Republican fat cat, stern enemy of "do-gooders," champion of individual initiative and defender of the moral virtues of unfettered greed.

Will anyone notice that Palin is simply a debased female version of Bush? Will the fact that she is obviously unqualified to be president mean anything? Will voters be enraged that by picking Palin, McCain has turned American politics into a sitcom, a cheap farce? Or will the culture war still be a winner for the GOP?

It depends on whether eight disastrous years have revived the reality-based community -- or whether the same time-tested right-wing culture-war tactics will work even when the ideas and policies behind them have abjectly failed.

There are some hopeful signs to go along with the torrent of bad news for Democrats. A Newsweek poll that came out late Friday found that 22 percent of people say she makes them less likely to vote for McCain -- the highest percentage of a V.P. pick in recent history. Palin's dreadful performance in her Gibson interviews could be responsible for this. But it's too early to say.

So far, McCain has benefited from the fight that has erupted over Palin, because it is part of the culture war that is insidiously connected to a politics of emotional identification, narcissism and resentment. The Democrats always lose when the battle is fought on this terrain, the terrain of impulse and the id. If they can change the battleground to issues and reality, they can win.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------