Native critics of Australia’s alleged foreign policy subservience to America, as well as of the prevalence and popularity of American popular culture, often refer to Australia in contempt and exasperation as the 51st state. That’s not quite accurate; should Australia join the United States (of Oceania? if you excuse the Orwellian undertone), she would add six new states to the Great Republic. Throw in Puerto Rico, and Obama would actually get his 57 states.
There’s no prospect of that (though I can’t speak for Puerto Rico). Australians are happy how and where they are, equal but separate: conflicted friends, allies and trading partners. I would hope that an average Australian knows more about America than an average Brit (though I can’t guarantee that he or she would necessarily better like what they know). Certainly a lot of Australians, particularly the globe-trotting Generation Xs and Ys, have “done” the East and West Coasts and had their pictures taken with the Statue of Liberty or the Hollywood sign in the background. However, many parts of the U.S. still remain off the beaten track and off the mental map for us here Down Under.
Australians don’t know much about Alaska, except that it’s cold. Those with memories of the early 90s TV show will recall it as the location of an icy exile for promising young Jewish doctors. Now, thanks to Governor Palin, we have a fuller picture that involves moose and snow machines, hunting and drilling, and yes, hot middle-aged mamas and pregnant teenagers (though, in all honesty, we don’t know to what extent the last two are truly representative of the great state of Alaska — hopefully the former more than the latter). As for the left, the map of the evil right-wing empire has suddenly acquired a new province. The Land of the Midnight Sun is now seen as yet another bastion of the Wild West redneckdom, a piece of the Deep South in the Deep North. It’s the result of what happens when a red state hell freezes over.
The Australian media’s treatment of Palin would be quite familiar to Americans: condescension and caricatures on the left, curiosity and admiration on the right (with a tinge of longing for “our own Palin,” heightened by the fact that the center-right Liberal Party is currently out of power both federally and in all states and territories). The print and electronic media is as pro-Obama as the American one, though arguably not as hysterically so as, say, the European one.
Aside from the fact that the Republican brand is not very popular at the moment, it’s difficult to gauge what an average Australian man and woman in the street, sparse consumers of international news as they are, genuinely think about Palin. To conduct a vox pop among my friends and acquaintances would produce a rather biased sample.
A friend of mine who’s quite apolitical (by instinct right-of-center, but hates Bush; a remarkably common combination in Australia, particularly among women, and I suspect in many other parts of the world) described Palin to me as “real.” It resonated, because for about a week I had been struggling to come up with one key word to describe Madam Governor, and at the same time encapsulate the reason why she drives the left and the elites absolutely crazy. Finally, and a day before having coffee with my friend, I came up with “authentic.” Palin is Middle America with all its sensibilities, attitudes, pastimes, everyday triumphs and everyday struggles: middle class, a melange of blue and white collar, family-oriented, outdoorsy and sports-mad, often blessed with a good life, but very human in facing its many challenges (a Down Syndrome baby, pregnant teenage daughter, taser-happy brother-in-law).
Barack Obama might have a fascinating story to tell (fascinating enough for two autobiographies at the ripe old age of 46, as has been noted by Palin herself), but how many Americans can look at a Harvard-educated African-American community organizer turned career politician and truly identify with him and see themselves in him, as opposed to merely sharing his ideas and ideals (whatever they are) or being inspired by his soaring rhetoric?
This makes Palin potentially quite formidable. Love them or hate them, we tend to see politicians as another species altogether. When we acknowledge that they are human it is usually in order to contextualize their failings, not to claim them as one of us. The once oft-heard tag of “a man of the people” (for it is still usually a man) nowadays meets with a cynical sneer.
Palin is different. Sure, she is a political animal, a natural, and her personae and story have been given a polish, as all political personaes and stories invariably do. But inside, there is a sufficient core of what my friend called “authenticity” to make her stand out from the usual crowd of suits wanting to have your baby and kiss your vote (or maybe the other way around, but who would notice?). Quite apart from her ability to energize the conservative base, and hopefully broaden the ticket’s appeal to women, she could well prove to have a special appeal that reaches well beyond what has been the traditional Republican catchment area. Only time will tell, but come the November election, we could see the emergence of a small but electorally significant number of Palin Democrats: small town and suburban, often blue-collar and unionized, socially conservative and patriotic, family oriented men and women who see in her their wife, mother, sister or a best friend.
At the same time as we enjoy the current bounce, we have to be wary not to beatify and idealize Palin. She is as imperfect and fallible as the next person, perhaps more so (or at least more publicly so) since she’s engaged in this ultimate game of imperfection and fallibility: politics. She will make mistakes, she will disappoint some, she might even implode sometime over the next two months.
It’s understandable that after the eight Bush years and a lackluster and disappointing primary season the base has been desperate for a messiah. Unlike the Democrat’s black liberation theology where God is black, the Republicans turned feminist — he is really she. But to treat Palin as a superstar at this early stage is as dangerous as to mock and underestimate her.
This is one lesson that conservatives could with great benefit learn from the Democrats this electoral season.