Palin's identity politics

 

Everyone expected Sarah Palin's speech last night to be long on biography and short on concrete policy proposals. Focusing on herself and her story -- with occasional jabs at Obama -- was what she had to do to keep from being defined by that gosh-darn liberal commentariat, which doesn't think she's qualified to be VP. But what I realized last night was that focusing on her personal story -- to the complete exclusion of anything substantive -- was not just a defensive move but brilliant political offense.

That's because this year's Republican strategy is not about policy, not by a long shot. Voters know that George Bush has made a hash of governing the country, and they're becoming more and more concerned about the issues -- climate change, economic instability, the availability of health care -- on which Democrats have a clear policy edge. So instead of talking policy, the Republicans are offering us conservative politics as the new identity politics.

One of the standard attacks on the traditionally liberal voting blocs -- blacks, Latinos, environmentalists, whatever -- is that they vote not for the candidate who has the best policy proposals but the candidate who is one of their own. But identity voting is a behavior that cuts across the political spectrum. And last night it came to its logical -- and absurd -- conclusion, not among Democrats but on the main stage at the Republican National Convention.

Behind Palin's utter lack of a message, there was in fact a very strong message -- one directed at the white small-town voters who make up an important swing constituency, especially in the West. That message: I'm one of you. Never mind that you know almost nothing about my policy positions. You can trust me because my husband's a blue-collar working stiff and I'm a PTA mom. 

Implicit in this feel-good message to those of us who live in the rural stretches of the country is a second message that's a lot more sinister: Obama is not one of us. He's got a funny name and a Harvard Law degree. Most of all, he's black.

Will identity politics work in the West this year? I'd like to think not. I'd like to think we still have a touch of that independent frontier spirit that allows us to judge people on their merits, not the sound of their names or the color of their skin. But the truth is that we won't know until November 5th.