Hating Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin is a divisive figure. It’s true. Nobody knows that much about her—but everybody has strong feelings one way or another. Her appeal to the conservative base is easy to understand, but why does she draw more ire from the left than Biden or even Obama draw from the right?

Some are saying the left is reacting out of fear. Others think the left is employing some vast and concerted smear campaign. Some say this is just latent sexism rearing its ugly head. While all these explanations may have some truth, they miss the biggest factor: Palin brought the left’s rage upon herself when she deliberately mocked and dismissed both its values and its hopes. The left hates Sarah Palin because she is mean.

Why does the right love Sarah Palin?

The positive feelings from the Republican base are easy to understand. She symbolizes a delightfully mythologized image of America where the small-town good people with their hard work and moral fiber are contrasted with the bad guys and their atheism and/or transcendent evil and the flaky cosmopolitan liberals who want to blur the line between the two.

The view is as attractive as it is simplistic—and Sarah Palin promises living proof that the dream is alive and maybe even achievable if we all hope hard enough.

I know, I’m simplifying things for the sake of rhetorical clout. But that’s exactly the appeal of Sarah Palin. She offers a story about small-town values and common sense—and those who don’t appreciate it’s simplicity or its rhetoric can atleast appreciate its clout.

What is Palin facing?

To start with, there are the rumors. Obama faced a similar set of rumors—but they did not appear as quickly nor were they believed so widely.

To some extent, the rumors are inevitable. Palin is suddenly in the spotlight and hasn’t been available to the press to dispell or explain some of the spottier moments in her short record. Unlike the Obama rumors, the Palin rumors seem to have roots in the truth. Palin did not actually ban books—but she certainly asked whether she could ban books. Palin may not have cut funding for whatever she allegedly cut funding for—but she did veto funding increases for some causes that were important to a lot of people. And the blogosphere abhoreth a vacuum, so the information Palin has been reluctant to provide has been replaced by rumors.

But it goes beyond a willingness to believe rumors. The left has practically lost its ability to engage McCain on his policy proposals (or lack thereof) because it is blinded by dislike for Palin. The McCain campaign may be correct about the quantity of attacks on Palin—but it is wrong on their origin. I think the willingness to lable Palin as everything from a crazy fundamentalist (which may or may not be true—but is neither proven nor out of the main stream of conservative politics) to a duplicitous loyalty freak (which similarly may or may not be true—but surely she’s no worse than the Bush administration) are all efforts to rationalize a gut dislike. Where does it come from?

Why the vitriol from the left?

Popularity for Palin on the right could explain suspicion of Palin on the left. There are knee-jerk reactions in politics—and some of the dislike could be attributed to this. But comparing the right’s distrust of Obama to the left’s outrage at Palin. There are a few possible explanations.

The explanation offered by the McCain campaign is that this is some sort of vast left-wing conspiracy orchestrated by the Obama campaign to malign Palin. This is ridiculous. The statements coming from the actual Obama campaign are mostly positive to neutral toward Palin. The best evidence McCain and crew can marshall is that Obama used the idiom “if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.” It’s a thoroughly neutral phrase—and one McCain used to criticize a Clinton proposal—but that’s the best McCain could find. If there’s a vast smear campaign, it’s not organized by Obama.

Some have suggested that the left has just been looking for an excuse to be mean. Maybe the Republicans with their small-town values are just kinder people in their less reflexive reactions to Obama and Biden? I think this too is a red herring. First, human nature does not significantly differ based upon party affiliation. The left’s reaction to Sarah Palin is not terribly different than the right’s reaction to Hillary Clinton. In both cases the dislike seems to transcend rational disagreement.

Perhaps this is sexism, then? But in that case, we would expect similar dislike for other prominent women in politics or government. Condaleeza Rice doesn’t get this anger. Oprah got little worse than grumbles when she endorsed Obama. In fairness, Geraldine Ferraro was essentially asked to go away quietly when she started talking this election cycle—but that had more to do with what she was saying. Some of the attacks can be explained by sexism—but I think there is a better explanation.

Palin’s convention speech was petty and mean

Between the lack of record and the lack of media availability, there is very little to actually know about Sarah Palin. Her introduction to the country was sudden and carefully scripted. Most people know only what she said in her speech to the Republican National Convention. But that one speech was enough to earn the wrath of the left. It fired up the base—but it alienated and angered the rest of the country. In one short speech, she managed an incredible number of attacks—all of them incredibly dismissive of those who disagreed with her. By purporting to speak from and for common-sense, and “good people,” she insinuated that those who disagreed with her were either dumb or bad—and people reasonably took it personally.

She suggested that habeas corpus and other constiutionally protected liberties were stupidly coddling people who wanted to attack the country.

By extolling the virtues and toughness of small towns and their values, she attacked the virtues and values of those who choose not to live in small towns.

She derided community organizers as people without “actual responsibility.” It’s unclear what aspect of community organizing she didn’t consider a “responsibility” but the flippant dismissal of those who dedicate years of their lives trying to alleviate crushing poverty helped Obama raise $10 million overnight.

She mocked Michelle Obama’s statement of newly discovered pride in her country.

She mocked Harry Reid by saying Reid’s dislike of McCain was enough of a reason to vote for McCain. I’m not a big Harry Reid fan, but come on, the guy isn’t even in this election.

She mocked the set at Obama’s convention speech. Okay, fine, you don’t have to appreciate Obama’s set—but is that really what you want to dwell on? Maybe this sort of thing is important to people—but its’ just an aesthetic. It’s like going after a candidate’s tie. It’s just petty.

She mocked Obama’s supporters, alluding to the McCain campaigns increasingly aggressive suggestion that those who support his opponent are brainwashed or vacuous or otherwise beneath rational thought. Apparently, they’re not the people she’s running for office for.

But much of this is standard convention fare. You don’t have to like it—but it’s politics, what are you going to do? It’s not going to change unless somebody takes a radically different approach to politics, tries to build as large a consensus as possible, and listens to those who disagree, genuinely trying to understand and respect their perspectives. Sure, that sort of candidate might suddenly make politics appealing to people who’d been turned away or disillusioned, but with the Presidency at stake, who would want to try something unconventionaly like that, except, perhaps… Barack Obama.

That’s where Palin went too far. She didn’t limit her criticism to Obama’s policies. She made it personal—and millions of Obama’s supporters were watching, wondering what this new heroine of the GOP was like. For those of us attracted to Obama’s supreme efforts to avoid pettiness and nastiness, this unexpected and acerbic mockery hit too close to home. And to make it worse, Obama won’t hit back. Sure, he’ll call her out when she skews the truth or accuse her of playing divisive political games, and strongly disagree with her views, whatever they turn out to be. But Obama won’t attack her personally. He will remain respectful. Repeatedly attacking somebody who she knows will not respond in kind makes Palin look vicious, nasty, and unpleasant.

Palin is not making enemies because of her policy or her background. A McCain advisor recently said that this election is about personalities. Palin’s personality is, in a word, mean.