October 1, 2008


Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill (Jonathan Raban, 10/09/08, London Review of Books)

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man. In 1980, Ronald Reagan profitably tapped the movement with his promises of states’ rights, low taxes and a shrunken government in Washington; the ‘Reagan Democrats’ who crossed party lines to vote for him are still the most targeted demographic in the country. In 1992, Ross ‘Clean out the Barn’ Perot and his United We Stand America followers looked for a while as if they were going to up-end the two-party system, with Perot leading George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the midsummer polls. In 1996, Pat Buchanan (‘The peasants are coming with pitchforks’) appealed to the same bloc of voters with a programme that was militantly Christian, white, nativist, provincial, protectionist and anti-Washington. In 2000, Karl Rove cleverly enrolled this quasi-Poujadist faction in his grand alliance of libertarians, born-agains and corporate interests. It’s worth remembering that in 2004 every American city with a population of more than 500,000 voted for Kerry, and that the election was won for Bush in the outer suburbs, exurbia and the countryside – peasants with pitchforks territory. For an organisation so wedded to its big-city corporate clients, the Republican Party has been hugely successful in mopping up the votes of low-income, lightly educated rural and exurban residents.[...]

Until now, the political leaders who’ve used the movement to their electoral advantage have come to it as outsiders. Reagan the Hollywood actor, Perot the data-processing billionaire, Buchanan the DC journalist, and George W. Bush the energy-industry scion and owner of a merely recreational ranch in Crawford, Texas, have had very little in common with their rural and exurban constituents, and their gestures at farmyard, strip-mall or cowboy-boot cred have tended to come across as phoney and embarrassing. Photographed inside J.C. Penney’s or Costco or Safeway, they’ve looked hardly less exotic than poor Michael Dukakis did on board his ill-advised tank. But the moment that Sarah Palin stepped up to the mike at the Republican Convention in St Paul, and began talking in her homely, mezzo-soprano, Far Western twang, she showed herself to be incontestably the real thing. Americans, starved of völkisch authenticity in their national politicians, thrilled to her presence on the stage. Forty million people watched her speech on television. When she said, ‘Difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick!’ even in the liberal redoubt of Seattle I thought I heard a roar of delighted recognition coming from my neighbours on the hill. Palin doesn’t need to say what Poujade used to tell his listeners, ‘Look me in the eye, and you will see yourself,’ and ‘I’m just le petit Poujade, an ordinary Frenchman like you’: all she needed was her trademark blink from behind her librarian glasses, and to turn on her pert, wrinkle-nosed smile, in order to convince a crucial sector of the American electorate, male and female, that it sees in her a looking-glass reflection, suitably flattering in both form and content, of itself. Sarah, c’est moi.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 1, 2008 10:28 PM
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