It’s a horrifying thought: Is Sarah Palin progressives’ fault? Could it be that we brought this on ourselves?
Anna Holmes and Rebecca Traister think so. As they argued in their New York Times op-ed yesterday, "If Sarah Palin and her acolytes successfully redefine what it means to be a groundbreaking political woman, it will be because progressives let it happen." By not doing enough to nurture their own women leaders, Holmes and Traister say, it was Dems who cleared the way for Palin and her raging pack of grizzlies to maul our politics. Progressives "have done nothing to stop an anti-choice, pro-abstinence, socialist-bashing Tea Party enthusiast from becoming the 21st century symbol of American women in politics."
Holmes and Traister have a point: Democrats don’t do enough for women—either as constituents, as we saw with the heartbreaking abortion healthcare compromise, or as candidates. Indeed, the Democrats’ own wobbly commitment to promoting women hampered what should have been a slam-dunk response to the GOP’s bogus "Year of the Woman" hype after the June elections. Yes, Dems could point out that only eight of the Republicans’ 110 Young Guns were female, but when reporters asked for their equivalent stats, they had to mumble apologetically about "not being satisfied" that just three of thirteen members of Red to Blue, the party’s program to support candidates in battleground districts, are women.
But it’s not as if more assiduous Democratic efforts to recruit and support female candidates would have satisfied the same "appetite for female leadership" that Palin does, thereby pre-empting her astonishing ascension. What Palin satisfies, rather, is an appetite for right-wing female leadership.
And actually, notwithstanding their shortcomings, the Democrats can legitimately claim to have a much better record than Republicans in promoting and electing women. In today’s Congress, women hold ninety seats, and of these just twenty-one are Republicans, versus sixty-nine Democrats—including, not insignificantly, the first female Speaker. In a sobering LA Times piece published the same day as Holmes and Traister’s op-ed, Lisa Mascaro reported that the number of women in Washington may decline after this year’s midterms, with as many as ten seats held by women in danger of being washed away by a Republican wave, which would amount to "the first backslide in the uninterrupted march of women to Washington since 1978." In other words, Mama Grizzlies can roar all they want, but years that are good for Republicans tend to be bad for women, and this year is likely to be no different.
Holmes and Traister accuse the Democrats of favoring a "diminutive" model of female political behavior. They cite the reluctance of Democratic women like Nancy Pelosi to mount a "Palin-style girl-power campaign" as evidence. I’m all for girl power, but I’m not sure that would help Nancy Pelosi much right now, given the misogynist venom she has had to face from the right this election season merely for exercising her authority in a no-nonsense manner. (The title of a new right-wing hit book is telling: it’s called She’s the Boss: The Disturbing Truth About Nancy Pelosi. Nice how they spell it out like that: yes, female authority—disturbing!)
The more specific question of whether Democratic sexism in the primary opened the door to Palin in 2008 is an interesting one, which Traister explores in riveting detail in her nuanced feminist account of how that campaign unfolded, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, coming out this September. Though the media obsessed at the time about the largely mythological PUMAs and their supposed readiness to ditch the Democrats, making the Palin pick initially appear to be a stroke of desperate genius by a flailing McCain, in reality the boys running his campaign were only dimly aware that Palin’s gender would be an issue. Their vague hopes of snagging votes from disgruntled Clinton fans did not pan out—women were smarter than they thought.
But, after being sidelined by the male-dominated McCain campaign, vilified by the left and ridiculed by the media, Palin found a warm embrace among conservative women, who were thrilled to see one of their own enjoy a taste of power for a change. "My experience with Palin’s supporters left me alert to the fact that she was building an army of followers—not just scared and angry xenophobes…but women (and men) who felt that their support for this candidate was about an expansion of opportunities for women," Traister writes.
So who’s to blame for Palin? Of course, there’s no simple, single answer. Perhaps we’re all a bit guilty. I’d lay much of the responsibility on the media, for casting her as the Republican starlet and then treating her to a spectacular tabloid meltdown, for celebrating her beauty and earthy charm and then glorying in her every humiliation, and now blasting her every inane tweet into a vast and thought-killing echo chamber. But it’s we media consumers who can’t stop looking and listening.