Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Reagan-Palin Connection

Governor Sarah Palin invoked the memory and cited a comment by former President Ronald Reagan during her closing statement at the October 2 vice presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden in St. Louis. That was ironic for several reasons.

First, Palin's vice presidential candidacy is similar to Ronald Reagan's political career. Reagan's political strength lay in his photogenic appeal to white conservative voters (Republicans and Democrats), and to his ability to trigger nostalgic notions of America as an exceptional nation within the world community. Because of those features, white conservatives (led by evangelical Christian fundamentalists such as Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson) supported his presidential aspirations in 1980. Like Reagan was, Palin is photogenic, fond of invoking nostalgic references, and the darling of evangelical Christian fundamentalists. Photogenic and ethnocentric nationalism are time-tested ways of garnering political support, especially when citizens refuse to test a candidate's claims and competence in rigorous ways.

Palin's candidacy also resembles Ronald Reagan's career in the way she is able to avoid responsibility for troubling political statements. Palin's remarks during the October 2 debate regarding vice presidential power and her suggestion that the causes of climate change are either unknown or strongly debated are two clear examples. How can public policy be shaped about climate change if public officials at the highest levels are openly dismissive about how climate change is caused? This "ready, fire, aim" approach to executive decision-making characterized the Reagan presidency, and is most clearly demonstrated by the presidency of George W. Bush.

Finally, Palin's reference to Reagan shows that her political handlers continue to believe that American voters who are politically independent will choose their elected officials based on appeals to mis-information. The remark that Palin quoted Reagan about came from comments he made on behalf of the American Medical Association to oppose Medicare. Palin's handlers are counting on white conservative-minded independent voters not knowing that Reagan opposed Medicare, not wondering whether Palin thinks the same way, and not considering whether opposition to Medicare works against their social and political interests.

The conservative political movement came to power under Ronald Reagan, a photogenic B-movie actor with an affable demeanor. The movement that fought affirmative action and emphasized the notion that American society should be a meritocracy thrust Reagan into power, and now hopes to repeat its feat with Sarah Palin. It remains to be seen whether white conservative-minded independent voters will fall for this ploy.

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