Palin: Last of a breed

Did Sarah Palin arrive just in time for the culture wars to end?

Published November 3, 2008 4:59PM (EST)

Did Sarah Palin arrive on the American political scene a few cycles too late?

In the Washington Post today, Peter Beinart -- with whom I almost always disagree when he writes about foreign policy, but is usually spot-on when he writes about domestic and economic issues -- says Sarah showed up for a culture war just as it is ending:

Why has America turned on Sarah Palin? Obviously, her wobbly television interviews haven't helped. Nor have the drip, drip of scandals from Alaska, which have tarnished her reformist image. But Palin's problems run deeper, and they say something fundamental about the political age being born. Palin's brand is culture war, and in America today culture war no longer sells. The struggle that began in the 1960s -- which put questions of racial, sexual and religious identity at the forefront of American politics -- may be ending. Palin is the end of the line ...

The relationship between prosperity and cultural conflict isn't exact, of course, but it is significant that during this era's culture war we've gone a quarter-century without a serious recession. Economic issues have mattered in presidential elections, of course, but not until today have we faced an economic crisis so grave that it made cultural questions seem downright trivial. In 2000, in the wake of an economic boom and a sex scandal that led to a president's impeachment, 22 percent of Americans told exit pollsters that "moral values" were their biggest concern, compared with only 19 percent who cited the economy.

Today, according to a recent Newsweek poll, the economy is up to 44 percent and "issues like abortion, guns and same-sex marriage" down to only 6 percent. It's no coincidence that Palin's popularity has plummeted as the financial crisis has taken center stage. From her championing of small-town America to her efforts to link Barack Obama to former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, Palin is treading a path well-worn by Republicans in recent decades. She's depicting the campaign as a struggle between the culturally familiar and the culturally threatening, the culturally traditional and the culturally exotic. But Obama has dismissed those attacks as irrelevant, and the public, focused nervously on the economic collapse, has largely tuned them out.

Palin's attacks are also failing because of generational change. The long-running, internecine baby boomer cultural feud just isn't that relevant to Americans who came of age after the civil rights, gay rights and feminist revolutions. Even many younger evangelicals are broadening their agendas beyond abortion, stem cells, school prayer and gay marriage. And just as younger Protestants found JFK less threatening than their parents had found Al Smith, younger whites -- even in bright-red states -- don't view the prospect of a black president with great alarm.

The economic challenges of the coming era are complicated, fascinating and terrifying, while the cultural battles of the 1960s feel increasingly stale. If John McCain loses tomorrow, the GOP will probably choose someone like Mitt Romney or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to lead it back from the wilderness, someone who -- although socially conservative -- speaks fluently about the nation's economic plight and doesn't try to substitute identity for policy. Although she seems like a fresh face, Sarah Palin actually represents the end of an era. She may be the last culture warrior on a national ticket for a very long time.

Beinart has it exactly right. Which is why I reiterate what I said last week: Run, Sarah, Run. Only she and her ideologically blinded supporters, like Japanese soldiers found in uniform on a deserted island years after the war is over, seem not to know it.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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