Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy has caused something of a sensation on the political right. Try and find a figure that compares with Palin and the only one that comes to mind is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – hard and combative leadership in a feminine package. Today the packaging, unfortunately, is paramount.
The leftwing intelligentsia would like to dismiss Palin as a female version of Dan Quayle (mocked as an intellectual lightweight after joining the Republican ticket in 1988). Palin, however, is no Dan Quayle. Instead of being rattled by criticism she reveals the same killer instinct that earned her the nickname “Sarah Barracuda.” It looks bad to hit a girl, and sometimes the girl knows it – and doesn’t hesitate to start a fight on her own. “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a Pit Bull?” asked Palin. “Lipstick.”
Pit Bull Palin could become the first woman president of the United States. Of course, personalities come unraveled in national politics. The true test is the test of durability. Could any politician be as durable as Thatcher? Palin is quite different from Thatcher, and the casual political analyst should hesitate before ascribing durability to an untested candidate. There is a touch of greatness in durability, and greatness is rare. How does the public judge these matters? The electorate is bombarded with sound bites and digital images.
The current election promises something new. Old stereotypes are being challenged. Obama presents the ideas of the left in words that a conservative might swallow, while McCain presents the ideas of the right in terms of serving the people. After fifty years of social change, the country seems hungry for political change. Everything fixed has been questioned: the role of husband and wife, the primacy of patriarchy, the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.” The country has no compass, and nobody knows where we are headed. The Democratic Party subtly offers a passage to global citizenship. The Republican Party seems more flexible and open.
It’s long been known that the electorate favors Washington “outsiders” in presidential politics. While McCain is a veteran senator, he is nonetheless caught up in the great whirligig. He talks of change because after 500 years of progress and scientific advances, change signifies something good. So it’s change, change, change. We have lost the instinct of finding security in the familiar.
An old Roman senator would decry today’s slogans of change. The ancient idea of sticking with tried and true principles, of adhering to tradition, was the very ground of Roman political understanding. That is why Julius Caesar appeared as a scandal and a horror. The Roman Senate had to get rid of him, because he was a change agent. What we learn from the late Roman Republic goes something like this: change signals crisis, and crisis results in emergency powers given to one man or one party. And emergency powers lead to tyranny – to a permanent state of unnatural, unstable relations between the people and their government.
In terms of national candidates, McCain and Palin, together with Obama, seem to represent something new in American politics. It is wise to be skeptical, however, and to doubt they will bring significant changes. Rather, I think they are the result, the end product, of inner transformations accomplished long ago. They will not bring change because they represent changes that have already occurred. You see, television has become so huge in our post-literate culture, and ideas have become so fluid that heretofore unthinkable political combinations and personalities are now possible. Knowledge of great politics, carried forward by traditional thinking, has given way to something more chaotic. People without experience in national politics can put themselves forward as candidates for the highest office, and the electorate will accept them because they look good in front of a camera.
The intellectual content of our political ideas has been reduced to snippy and superficial slogans. If the Devil is in the details, the details are completely avoided under this new political dispensation. Any idea might win favor, depending on the personality or image-building machine behind it. Any person might become a political superstar overnight. While it is possible to produce a good leader in this way, a more disastrous outcome is more likely. For in the course of time the advantage accrues to the clever and likable demagogue. Image is not reality, and television makes a mockery of getting to the heart of things.
McCain and Obama seem to be nice fellows. The problem is with the country as a whole, and the crisis that is approaching. The process we are witnessing, despite the best intentions of both candidates, is one of national polarization. This has not been fully understood. What we have is two sets of images, two notions of reality, and two ideological camps in one nation. It is a stopgap measure to paper over this ideological divide with mere words; for the crisis intrudes, even now.
While the Republican National Convention was ongoing, the economy was groaning. The financial floodgates are creaking. The international order is coming apart. Something is in the air. Something is about to snap. Change is coming, and it’s not a good change. What the candidates are talking about in this election may be completely irrelevant.
As a Russian diplomat explained last July, America is about to enter “a crisis of its existence.”
About JR Nyquist
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