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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 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 3, 2008 12:22 AM