September 3, 2008
The Palin Convention and the Culture War Option
John McCain's convention gambit calls for culture war around the Sarah Palin pick. And now The Politico is reporting just that: Palin reignites culture wars. An option is forming. This is my attempt to describe it before her big speech in St. Paul.
“She’s from a small town, with small-town values — but apparently, that’s not good enough for some of the folks out there attacking her and her family. Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Washington talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit.” —Fred Thompson addressing the Republican convention, Sep. 2, 2008.
John McCain’s convention gambit is a culture war strategy. It depends for its execution on conflict with journalists, and with bloggers (the “angry left,” Bush called them) along with confusion between and among the press, the blogosphere, and the Democratic party. It revives cultural memory: the resentment narrative after Chicago ‘68 but with the angry left more distributed. It dispenses with issues and seeks a trial of personalities. It bets big time on backlash.
At the center of the strategy is the flashpoint candidacy of Sarah Palin, a charismatic figure around whom the war can be fought to scale, as it were. The Politico is reporting just that: Palin reignites culture wars.
I have no idea if the ignition system will work; nor do I claim that “this is what they were thinking” when they made the decision to nominate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Other interpretations may turn out to be truer than mine. This is my look at the bets McCain and company seem to be placing. I am not recommending the strategy. I am not predicting it will succeed. I think it was improvised, like my description here.
The storm around Sarah Pailn overtakes the story of the Republican convention and merges with it, like a smaller but stronger company taking over a larger but troubled enterprise. Behind the storm a “wave narrative” builds as her appointment generates headlines on multiple fronts. The irresistible force of fact-fed controversy meets the immovable enthusiasm for Palin as cultural object: charismatic everywoman straight from the imaginary of conservative small town America.
- The basic strategy is: don’t fight the “crisis” narrative. Rather, do things that bring it on, and in that crisis re-divide the electorate hoping to grab the bigger half.
The evangelical wing, and other social conservatives are strongly moved by her candidacy. More and more of their commitment to McCain is vested in him through her. As Andrew Sullivan writes: “The emotions involved - especially among the Christianist base who have immediately bonded on purely religious and cultural terms with Palin - are epic.”
- The strategy: sell the epic version of her candidacy. Allow her to become bigger than McCain in narrative terms. And let the two mavericks together overawe the Republican party, a damaged brand.
Continued bad news on the investigation front adds further drama, new fact streams and more protagonists to the Sarah Palin story. As more comes out about the decision to name Sarah Palin to the ticket, it’s harder to see how anyone on the inside thought it McCain’s best choice for president-in-waiting.
- Strategy: Give no ground, pile on the praise for her performance in Alaska, pump up her governor’s experience to death-defying extremes, hope for theatrical confrontation with characters in the mainstream media who can star as the cosmopolitan elites in the sudden politics of resentment the convention has been driven to.
Bloggers and open platforms continue to publish riskier—and risque—material, some of it unfit for family consumption, some of it false, salacious and reckless, some of it true, relevant and damaging, a portion of which is picked up by the traditional press.
- Strategy: confound and collapse all distinctions between closed editorial systems (like the newsroom of the New York Times), open systems (like the blogging community DailyKos.com) and political systems, like the Democratic party and its activist wing. Whenever possible mix these up. Conflate constantly. Attack them all. Jump from one to the other without warning or thread. Sow confusion among streams and let that confusion mix with the resentment in a culture war atmosphere.
As more emerges about how the McCain camp made the decision, the appointment looks more and reckless, the decision rushed, the vetting inadequate. This leads to advanced jeering from the left, intense criticism in the press, damaging leaks from within the Republican party, fueling calls from within and without for Sarah Palin to remove herself.
- Strategy: stick with “she was fully vetted” no matter what comes out. People who don’t believe it are trying to bring down Palin’s historic candidacy; or they don’t accept that a conservative woman can be the one to break the glass ceiling. If some establishment Republicans are skeptical or trying to stop her, that’s good for the crisis narrative, and good for two maverick candidates.
Sarah Palin under intense pressure then gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.
- Strategy: bingo, that’s your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.
Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.
- Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite— at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all “access” expectations. Use surrogates and spokesmen, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.
Meanwhile, the investigation of her performance in Alaska puts more and more pressure on the Palin appointment as things come out that would ordinarily disqualify a candidate from consideration or cast doubt on her truthfulness in a grave way.
- Strategy: Comes from Bush, the younger. When realities uncovered are directly in conflict with prior claims, consider the option of keeping the claims and breaking with reality. Done the right way, it’s a demonstration of strength. It dismays and weakens the press. And it can be great theatre.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 3, 2008 12:22 AM
what's amazing is that we now know more minor personal details about Palin than we do about Obama -- the media frenzy to 'dig up dirt' on Palin is pretty pathetic -- and bears a closer resemblance to the media's hounding of Bill Clinton vis a vis Monica Lewinsky than anything close to approaching real journalism. You'd think that the media would be digging into Obama's relationship with Rezko, rather than worrying about why Palin fired the state trooper chief who treated drinking on the job (and death threats) by state troopers to not be disqualifying.
Unsurprisingly, straight-male Jay Rosen completely misses the real story here -- the sexism and ageism on display in both the traditional and non-traditional media. I mean, how many times have reporters asked about whether Barack Obama can be a good father to his two small children while running for (let alone being) President?
To say that Jay's analysis is over-determined is putting it mildly; what this really appears to be is Oborgian ranting dressed up as 'analysis'.
Its not the right, but the left, that is trying to restart the "culture wars" -- (OHMIGAWD!!!! Palin believes in God! She not pro-choice! If the McCain wins, its the end of civilization as we know it!!!!) And its not the right, but the media and the left, that think Palin's daughter's pregnancy is headline-worthy.
Just because Jay didn't know something about Palin doesn't mean she wasn't appropriately vetted. The fact that the media is breathlessly reporting anything (including six-degrees-of-Sarah Palin connections to Abramoff) they can find doesn't mean its significant --- or that Team McCain was not aware of all relevant information about Palin. "Vetting" is about finding out what a candidate needs to know about his/her VP choice. Jay thinks that just because the media might discover some tidbit about Palin that Team McCain was unaware of that its meaningful -- its not.
Finally, Jay acts as if Palin is being kept away from the media for some nefarious purpose. Its rather other that someone who is supposedly an expert on the media doesn't understand "message control" -- and that messages during political conventions are as controlled as possible. It makes perfect sense for Team Obama to not step on their message during the convention --- and to keep Palin "under wraps" to maximize the audience for her speech. (Of course, the mainstream media that Jay thinks should have access to Palin right now will obsess over the same kind of crap that he condemned Gibson and Stephanopolis for.... its the essence of Oborg double standard, wherein Obama's adversaries can be subjected to treatment that is just not appropriate when meted out to Obama).
John McCain picked Sarah Palin for two reasons
1) solidify the "evangelical" base
2) appeal to independents and moderates who find Palin refreshing, because she's the personification of the "citizen politician" rather than a "professional politician"
The Villagers hate the idea of someone who actually respects working-class and small town voters, and doesn't care what Broder thinks. That's where the real culture war has its origins --- and by simply giving us Obot talking points surrounded by big words, Rosen is on the attack in the culture wars.
C’mon Lukasiak, let’s calm down a bit…
what's amazing is that we now know more minor personal details about Palin than we do about Obama -- the media frenzy to 'dig up dirt' on Palin is pretty pathetic…
If you remember back to last Friday, the welter of personal anecdotes about Governor Palin was initiated by the McCain campaign not by the news media. It was the McCain campaign’s biography that offrered up most of her defining minor personal details -- the Down syndrome baby, the former Miss Wasilla beauty queen, the Sarah the Barracuda point guard, the huntin’, shootin’ & fishin’ and all that. McCain wanted the news media to focus on Palin’s personal life.
And its not the right, but the media and the left, that think Palin's daughter's pregnancy is headline-worthy.
Please! It is everybody that thinks the girl’s pregnancy is newsworthy. What is especially newsworthy is the peculiar fact that the juicy “grandmother-to-be” and “future son-in-law who is doing the right thing” was not rolled out by McCain at the same time as all the other personal facts. Why on earth would they not want to control the timing and framing of Bristol’s forthcoming happy event? It happens that a plausible answer was that Palin might have overlooked informing McCain’s vettors of that little detail -- and was therefore Exhibit A in a schedule of evidence that raised the question that McCain’s judgment was impetuous, even frivolous, when he selected Palin.
Asking whether McCain’s decision-making was thorough and well-considered is neither ageist nor sexist. You ask: “How many times have reporters asked about whether Barack Obama can be a good father to his two small children while running for (let alone being) President?” The equivalent question about Palin has really not been the dominant one inspiring the serious coverage of her selection (apart from frivolous Mommy Wars lifestyle features).
On the contrary, the serious coverage has followed the line: what was McCain thinking? To that question, your answers seem quite satisfactory: 1) the born-again base of his party had a veto over the likes of Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge; 2) he needed to bolster his maverick, non-professional politician image. A decision that may seem reckless to his political opponents and to the Gang of 500 may, to McCain, seem unconventional and defiant -- positive attributes.
Having said all that, your characterization of the motives behind McCain’s pick are not as much at odds with Professor Rosen’s Culture Wars thesis as you assert. If you see Jay’s Culture Wars Option as kicking in after the announcement, then McCain could easily have made the selection for the reasons you assert and then handed over to Karl Rove’s protégé Steve Schmidt for the purposes of mobilizing the base in its aftermath. Schmidt appears to be using the tactics Rosen delineated. Check out the Rovian message discipline of GOP delegates in rehearsing their talking points on Palin’s behalf.
You nailed it. Exactly right.
What's hilarious is that Rosen can't see what's going on here. McCain's a pilot. He understands OODA-loops. With the Palin nomination, he got inside the press's OODA-loop. Palin was an effective nomination (only a complete idiot could deny, based on the latest polling, that it was an effective pick, but yet, some idiots have, like Andrew Sullivan and Jeralyn Merritt) in part because they KNEW that the liberal media, both closed and open, would practice culture war to the hilt.
With every desperate smear, every baseless or undersourced attack, and every slime of the Palin children in the media, any negative effect for Palin/McCain is balanced and possibly trumped by the second order effects: the inflammation of the GOP conservative base, number one, and the alienation of women, especially Hillary Dems who are not too pleased with Obama to begin with.
Now, this would not be possible had McCain not been confident that the established media and the left (but I repeat myself) would reflexively launch into full-on culture war mode.
I mean, even I can look up from clinging to my religion and guns long enough to figure that out.
Further, with this pick, McCain tears the guts out of Bob Barr's threat as a spoiler from the libertarian side. I thought he might play the role of Nader 00 or Perot 92. Not anymore.
I couldn't be more thrilled by the Palin pick.
She pisses off all the right people.
van Steenwyk --
In the professor's defense, when you called it "hilarious" that Rosen cannot see what is going on, you pointed out to him that John McCain "KNEW that the liberal media, both closed and open, would practice culture war to the hilt" in response to the Palin nomination.
Here is what Rosen said: "John McCain’s convention gambit is a culture war strategy. It depends for its execution on conflict with journalists, and with bloggers...it bets big time on backlash."
Hilarious, no; slightly amusing, yes, that you and Rosen make identical observations yet you mock him for seeing eye to eye with you. You both analyse the purpose underlying the Palin nomination as a desire to spark a culture war; you both assert that a backlash by the news media is a necessary precondition for that culture war to begin.
Speaking in my role as an analyst of the MainStreamMedia, I have, so far, found little evidence of the flaws in coverage you cite -- the desperate smears, the baseless or undersourced attacks, the slimes against Palin's children. The worst characterization of the MSM's response was summarized by Tim earlier in this thread: He called it a "sensationalistic, anonymously sourced, 'fill in the gaps' orgy of newsroom narrative-production in search of a Master Narrative for Palin. It came off as rushed, ill-considered, and tabloid."
Rushed, ill-considered and tabloid is milder criticism than "smears" and "slimes." Sensationalistic and anonymously sourced is milder than "baseless" and "undersourced."
By the way, van Steenwyk, your selection criteria for an admirable Vice-Presidential nominee seem narrow, inappropriate and divisive. Surely you had your tongue in your cheek when you suggested that Palin was best suited for office because:
-- she can provoke the news media into inflaming the GOP conservative base
-- she can function as a wedge to alienate female Rodham Clinton supporters from journalists
-- she would undercut Bob Barr's appeal to would-be Libertarian voters
-- she pisses off people you like to see pissed off
What here makes her an admirable successor for Dick Cheney or Al Gore or Dan Quayle?
Surely one can list the attributes of youthful vivacity, ideological clarity, an outside-the-Beltway mentality and demographic diversity, she brings to the ticket, citing the relevant qualities she adds rather than the irrelevent arguments she starts.
Speaking in my role as an analyst of the MainStreamMedia, I have, so far, found little evidence of the flaws in coverage you cite
Translation: Speaking as a fish, I have, so far, found little evidence of this thing you call "wet."
Translation: Speaking as the Wicked Witch of the West, who will melt at the slightest contact with water, I have such an aversion to the stuff that I prefer to characterize anything that has even the slightest appearance of being wet as "wet" rather than rely on a fish -- who has intimate contact with it -- to tell me whether the wet-looking stuff is in fact the water that I am mortally afraid of.
Tim's list of MaidStreamMedia tropes seems -- "Everyone else was acting out publicly initially on their observation of Palin being picked (shock & disbelief) and then on their orientation to the pick (Eagleton, Quayle, Clarence Thomas, Gender Token, Politically-vindictive Fecund Hockey-Mom Gun-Nut, Conservative Heroine, ...)" -- seems much more accurate than van Steenwyk's imaginary catalogue of desperate smears, baseless or undersourced attacks, slimes against Palin's children.
Some of the qualities Tim discovers turn out to be products of the McCain campaign's presentation of their candidate rather than the MainStreamMedia's coverage of it.
McCain clearly wanted a headlinegrabber, so "shock & disbelief" were desired reactions. The comparisons with Quayle -- older well-established nominee picks next-generation running mate to appeal to his none-too-loyal partisan base -- turn out to be apt. Palin herself made an appeal to women explicit in her acceptance speech so "gender token" is merely a pejorative way of describing that pitch. "Fecund" was certainly emphasized by McCain's team to establish Palin's pro-life bona fides. "Hockey Mom" comes from Palin's own mouth. "Gun Nut" refers to the repeated emphasis on her NRA credentials, no pejorative indicated. "Politically vindictive" seems to be nothing more serious than the flip side of McCain's charcaterization of Palin as a reformer who is not afraid to make enemies, even in her own party. As for "conservative heroine," I agree with the conservative part; heroine is a bit strong, don't you think?
So that leaves "Eagleton" and "Clarence Thomas" as characterizations that I disagree with. I have seen little of either in MSM reporting; much more in blog commentary.
The negative stories about Palin in the MSM have tended to be less ideological, more straightforward factchecking, than the list Tim characterizes. As mayor, did she try to get books banned by her town library? As governor, did she use official channels to orchestrate a family vendetta? In her relations with the federal government, was she truly committed to rejecting porkbarrel spending? There is nothing suspicious or malevolent about such lines of reportage.
Kristen & Brazier --
I stand corrected. When I said Sarah Palin was "on nobody's shortlist" what I should have said was that, in the rush of speculative coverage that preceded her announcement, Palin was noticeably absent. The names being circulated during the week of the Democratic Convention were Pawlenty, Ridge, Lieberman and Romney.
My underlying point still stands. The McCain campaign wanted their selection of Palin to grab headlines, to take the political press corps by surprise. The rollout of the selection and the timing of the announcement were both designed to drown out the buzz that Obama had worked for with his Mile High Stadium speech.
If McCain had not wanted the surprised "shock & disbelief" reaction, he would have made sure, days in advance, that Palin's name was mentioned alongside those four men simply by leaking the fact to reporters, on background, that she was being seriously vetted. He chose not to. He wanted to create a surprise. The price he paid in doing so was having to face the charge that his vetting had not been thorough. It was his trade off: the advantage of surprise vs the disadvantage of seeming impetuous. Do not blame the news media for McCain's decision to make that trade off.
Brazier -- you say that "none of the negative stories about Palin which you mention have proved to be true." Please elaborate. Did that library controversy not happen when she was mayor? Are her dealings with Commissioner Walter Monegon not being investigated? Is her record of opposition to earmarked federal spending not ambiguous?
You seem to be implying that reporters cannot cover controversies about public officials until after allegations against them by opponents have been definitively validated. You seem to claim that coverage of such controversies pre-validation amounts to nothing more than crass sensationalism and malicious gossip. You cannot be serious.
Finally, you say: "Naturally the first day of coverage of Palin after she was picked cribbed from McCain's campaign; the MSM knew nothing about her then, except what McCain and Palin chose to say. That proves nothing but the MSM's lack of savviness." I disagree. It also proves that the MSM's coverage did not display a priori animus against Palin. Since the initial coverage comported with McCain's view of his pick, it demonstrates that any subsequent critical tone did not derive from a prejudiced predisposition to resort to "desperate smears, baseless or undersourced attacks, slimes against Palin's children" as van Steenwyk so colorfully put it.
In my opinion, as I said earlier, most of the negative coverage of the Palin selection in the MainStreamMedia -- as opposed to that coming from partisan activists -- has concerned questions about McCain’s seriousness, diligence and judgment rather than Palin herself. What was she supposed to do? Turn down the job?
here's the best timeline I can come up with...
Palin asked a general question about censorship before she was inaugurated on October 14, 1996.
Around Oct 24, Palin sent Emmons (and four others) letters requesting their resignation -- censorship was not cited as a reason. Emmons kept her job.
On Oct 28, at a town council meeting, there was an discussion about library policy with Emmons -- not just about censorship but about how protests would be handled by the library (Emmons said the ACLU would get involved).
The issue was again raised in December, after she used the "library policy discussion" as an example in an interview on a different subject.
On Jan 30, 1997, Palin sent notice that Emmon would be terminated as of Feb 13, but that termination was rescinded the next day after (take your pick) popular pressure was brought to bear and/or Emmons agreed to a combined budget for the library and the town museum. (I favor the latter choice, given the lack of time for any organized 'pressure' to be put on Emmons.)
To me, this looks like a complete farce -- five resignations of public officials who served at the pleasure of the mayor were requested 10 days after Palin took office -- that sounds to me like it was something along the lines of what happens whenever administrations change. The fact that Emmons reiterated her opposition to 'censorship' at a public meeting suggests that no pressure was ever placed on Emmons, because she was keeping her job.
The Jan 30th termination notice appears to be completely unrelated to 'censorship' issues as well -- having been resolved (according to Palin, and uncontradicted by Emmons) with Emmons acceptance of Palin's proposed merger of the library and museum.
Of interest is that there is already a 'censorship procedure' in place, however its called a "book challenge" policy.