Her last name means “again” in Greek, and there is an eerie sense of eternal recurrence whenever she speaks. I’ve heard this all somewhere before. History should help me here. These are mistakes we’ve made before. Something nags at the edges of my memory.
For fully thirty years now, the two main parties in this country have been loose coalitions; the one that fractures worst loses presidential elections, and if the fracture is bad enough, loses legislative power and influence as well. Both Republican fractures happened this time around.
Sarah Palin’s nomination to the vice presidency clearly had something to do with that. John McCain inexplicably appointed a Number Two who pandered to the religious base of his party and, despite the nonsensical speculation that she would draw away disaffected Hilary Clinton supporters, attracted not a soul from the Independent middle both candidates were courting. It was a disastrous choice in every way. And there was more. With the impression that McCain had become a panderer, any lingering illusion that he was a “maverick,” or that we could count on him for “straight talk” were at an end. Each time he said what he had to say—that he was so proud of her, that she had more executive experience than Joe Biden, that she was fit to take his place at the helm, his duplicity became ever more apparent.
And now comes the fallout, and next comes a reckoning. The fractures within the Party have not subsided. They are intensifying almost daily, and the focus of this maelstrom is none other than Sarah Palin. The intellectual leadership of the battered Grand Old Party is now willing to say publicly that she was unqualified to serve in this capacity, was a regrettable choice with disastrous electoral consequences, and that she was an embarrassment to match.
Palin is not having it, not any of it. She will not go quietly into that dark night. Indeed, she seems to believe in her own sense of personal destiny and mission as deeply as the current president does. Palin is nonetheless not above smearing. Anyone is fair game for the well-armed Governor of Alaska. She has blamed the economic “tsunami” for the McCain-Palin defeat. She has blamed the current administration’s unpopularity. She has blamed the liberal media (though curiously, not Tina Fey). She has not yet blamed John McCain for keeping her on a tight leash, but she may yet. After all, she is a woman of uncommon ambition and an almost unbelievable sense of personal value and qualification. She believes that her unimaginable nomination had a purpose and its purpose will yet be fulfilled. And of course—given the narcissistic religious roots of this kind of faith, with its obsessive focus on me and my soul and where I will go when I die, and not so much attention paid to what kind of planet I will leave behind—of course for such a political animal, the purpose is to be the first female president of the United States of America.
The Republican Party leadership will not have that. And while we’re at it, they no longer buy into the Moral Majority’s rhetoric insisting that the conservative religious base in necessary to (and quite capable) of delivering the White House to the Republican Party, whenever called upon to do so. Perhaps that was once true, though I have my doubts. It is not true now, doubly so for anyone who knows anything about conservative Christianity. It is not a monolith. Those who speak in tongues carry no weight with the followers of the late Jerry Falwell. Evangelicals, Pentocostals, Fundamentalists, Millenarians… it is a very complex religious map, indeed, a vats coalition unto itself. And the party will not kow-tow to them in this time of introspection. A great many Republicans who voted for George W. Bush twice did not vote for John McCain because of the Palin nomination; they expected someone with more heft and experience, and probably one with less naked ambition.
It now seems clear that the religious portion of the coalition will fight back. That is what Sarah Palin’s recent flurry of perplexing and increasingly polemical statements makes very clear. If the Party will punt on her, then she will punt on the Party. Everybody is out to save themselves. The blame game begins. Republicans will devour their young before it is over.
And that is the last issue, the truly serious issue raised by this campaign and its aftermath. The identity of a religiously conservative America is changing, too. Fundamentalists and evangelicals in college today care deeply about the environment, are unpersuaded and unmoved by mindless chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” They are post-racial by and large, and they can’t muster up the same energy for further bickering about gays and lesbians and bisexuals as their parents did. Abortion is a sticking point, but even here, a gospel of personal responsibility, coupled with a clearer sense of the religious pluralism of the nation, is beginning to trump the old impulse toward legislative or constitutional remedies. It is a new and different faith, a new and different nation.
I don’t think that either John McCain or Sarah Palin have understood this generational shift. McCain is a product of the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam; he still inhabits that reality today. Palin is much younger, but it is not at all clear that she understands her own children, much less conservative Christian youth, who have proven to be singularly unmoved by the Abstinence Only policies of their elders. Why else did her alleged son-in-law-to-be not take down his “My Space” page, fail to register to vote, and why does he show no current interest in his alleged fiancé, or the semi-sacrament of matrimony?
The Democratic Party, with its new leadership, has a rare and inspiring opportunity to listen to a younger generation, and even to conservative religiosity, as it imagines the forging of new coalitions for the difficult and challenging days ahead.