In Defense of Sarah Palin
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on Sarah Palin’s resignation. See his previous OUPblogs here.
People love to hate Sarah Palin. I thought she was trouble on the McCain ticket, trouble for feminism, and trouble for the future of the Republican party, but I am troubled at the feeding frenzy that has continued despite Palin’s express desire and efforts to bow out of the negative politics that has consumed her governorship.
The speculation about what exactly Palin is up to is itself revealing – for it comes attached to one of two possible postulations – neither of which are charitable. Either Palin is up to no good, or she is completely out of her mind. Even in surrender Palin is hounded. Either she is so despicable that post-political-humous hate is both valid and necessary or she is so dangerous that she must be defeated beyond defeat.
Even Governor Mark Sanford got a day or two of sympathy from his political opponents before he admitted to other extra-marital dalliances and referred to his Argentinian belle as his “soul-mate.” Sarah Palin was accorded no such reprieve. Yes, I think gender is entirely relevant here.
Feminist scholars have studied the double-bind of woman political leaders for a while now. Women leaders are faced with a dilemma a still-patriachical political world imposes on them: women must either trade their likeability in return for male respect; or they preserve their likeability but lose men’s respect for them in exchange. When it comes to women in positions of political power in the world that we know, they cannot be both likeable and respected. Unlike men, they cannot have their cake and eat it as well. This is not the world I like, but it is the world I see.
Let me draw an unlikely parallel to make the point. People love to hate another woman that we saw a lot of in 2008 – Hillary Clinton. Like Palin, she was to her detractors the she-devil to whom evil intentions were automatically assigned for every action. But unlike Palin, she was respected and feared – she was everything Sarah Palin was not. What Palin lacked in terms of likeability she possessed in terms of respect (or at least reverent fear). No one underestimated Hillary Clinton, no one doubted her ambition. And of course, as Barack Obama put it in one of their debates, she was only “likeable enough.” Clinton was respected as a force to be reckoned with, but she paid her dues in terms of likeability. Just like the Virgin Queen and the Iron Lady, she could only be respected if she surrendered her congeniality.
Palin stands at the other end of the double-bind. Where Palin was in need of respect she gained in terms of likeability. She was the pretty beauty queen loved and beloved by her base, unapologetically espousing a “lip-stick” feminism (in contrast to a grouchy liberal feminism). But what she enjoyed in terms of likeability she lost in terms of respect. If there was one thing her detractors have done consistently, it has been to mock her. She was the running joke on Saturday Night Life, and now, a laughing stock even amongst some Republicans who see her as a quitter and a thin-skinned political lightweight. Strangely enough, Sarah Palin is Hillary Clinton’s alter-ego. Where Clinton is perceived as strong, Palin is seen as weak; whereas Clinton turns off (a certain sort of) men, Palin titillates them.
If we lived in a post-feminist, gender-neutral world, the two most prominent women in American politics, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, would not so perfectly occupy the antipodal caricatures of women trapped in the double-bind of our patriachical politics. That they each face one cruel end of the double binds tells us that the two women on opposite ends of the political spectrum sit in the same patriachical boat. So the next time liberals mock Sarah Palin, they should remember that they are doing no more service to feminism than when some conservatives made fun of Hillary Clinton’s femininity allegedly subverted by her pant-suits.