Culture War: On Like Donkey Kong

The presidential race has taken more of an interesting turn than I could have imagined with John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate. I’m not going to talk about Sarah Palin, but as a confirmed member of the East Coast Liberal Enemy (the Harvard Political Review is pretty much ground zero), I can’t say there’s a single thing about her that appeals to me. Her utter rejection of the value of pluralism, her lack of any curiosity or knowledge of the world outside Alaska, her vapid convention speech and the media praise dumped on it: I think we can all assume that as a Chicago Jew attending Harvard, I’m more or less demographically destined to hate and fear her. And that’s what this post is about.


Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager, recently said that “this campaign is not about issues.” It’s a profoundly revealing quote, and one I think (and hope) Obama and Biden are skilled enough to make McCain’s campaign regret. I’ve recently finished reading Rick Perlstein’s excellent Nixonland, a history of Richard Nixon and the elections of 1964, 1968, and 1972. I won’t dwell on it too long, because I hope to run a review of it in the next issue of HPR, but it chronicles the fracturing of American culture, complex at best, into mutually incompatible worldviews. This very thick book concludes on a truly heartrending note: both conservatives and liberals see each other as the holders of the “authentic” American legacy and the others as threatening to tear it down.

This sounds like I’m about to make a call for Americans to sit down and talk to each other so that we can understand each other, hug, and just all be Americans. The real tragedy is that the worldviews of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama (and most likely John McCain, loath as he is to admit it) actually can’t be resolved by sitting down and talking to each other. When one side is driven by God, and the other by pluralism, compromise (by the pluralists too) becomes a betrayal of everything one holds dear. To make this personal, since I felt personally targeted and insulted in Sarah Palin’s convention speech, Sarah Palin disapproves of me because I don’t share her small-town values. And I disapprove of her because my gut reaction to the phrase “small-town values” is fear; fear that her ideal America is one with no place for non-Christians, Harvard grads, minorities, and dissenters. I somehow doubt there’s a thriving Muslim community in Wasilla, or that anti-war protesters would be allowed to rally.

John McCain is no culture warrior, but the selection of Sarah Palin was the first shot in the culturally-oriented race the McCain campaign sought to begin. And since McCain is running on basically the same platform as a wildly unpopular incumbent president, it was a tactically very savvy move. The polls bear out Davis’s assertion; despite widespread disapproval of McCain’s stated policies, as of today he’s polling ahead of Obama. Partially this might be a result of a nation just beginning to pay attention, and the lack of policy emphasis at the Republican convention meant they wouldn’t get an eyeful of what McCain actually planned to do with the presidency.

The most interesting part of Sarah Palin’s speech was her attack on the press, because it puts them in a very tactically unenviable position. When they finally get a chance to talk to her, she (and McCain) win either way. Either the press tosses her softball questions, and she looks great. Or they do their job, and fuel her fire. This has been a standard Republican tactic since Nixon, and the press response during campaigns has usually been Option 1, which is repaid by the Republicans continuing to heap scorn on them. I think between now and the election, the national press will turn on Obama, for the simple reason they care about political stories and narratives (and about maintaining their audience) more than any liberal sympathies, and will end up despised by both sides. Again, this has happened before.

Obama and Biden will have to be exceptionally skilled in order to counter the McCain campaign’s strategy; after all, no one has touched this strategy since its inception. The two Democratic presidents elected, Carter and Clinton, had the advantage of running against already unpopular incumbents. I have to confess a grudging admiration for the McCain campaign, for the same reason I find it terrifying for the future of our country: the successful elevation of style over substance when electing the most powerful man in the world. The man whose finger is on the nuclear button will be decided on whether Ohio voters think Barack Obama is an elitist. I can’t decide whether that’s the death of democracy, or the ugly truth underneath it. Maybe both. Anyway, sorry for going on so long; it’s just like us East Coast Liberal Elitist Media to hide behind a fog of words.

So here is my prediction: this campaign is going to get ugly, and probably dirty. And it will be driven by the Republicans, not because they are necessarily an uglier and dirtier party, but simply because the fundamentals are so against them that ugly and dirty is likely the only way McCain can win. I genuinely believe John McCain has a lot of personal integrity, and I think right now he’s probably having a difficult time sleeping at night. And to you, my arugula-eating readers (come on, it’s peppery and delicious!), prepare to see everything you believe in slandered and dragged through the mud on national television. Enjoy the show.


-Alex Copulsky, Books & Arts Editor

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