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Sarah Palin and the Politics of Distraction

Ted Morgan

There are signs that the media's Palin-mania is beginning to subside a little, opening up greater room for public scrutiny of the candidate's stunning lack of qualification for national office. 

However, as part of this public discourse, progressives need to make an explicit issue of what the Palin phenomenon represents, for it is only the latest chapter in a manipulative process that has distorted American politics for the past forty years.   

We know that as the ship of state flounders the political ads will keep the distortions coming. 

A recent Pew Research Center study noted that Sarah Palin dominated the media spotlight during the week following her selection at the Convention.  While not exactly surprising, we need to take a closer look at how the process transpired. 

At the outset, the Republicans and the nominee herself went to great lengths to promote a Palin persona revolving around her family and her personal lifestyle. 

During her convention speech, TV cameras cooperated by repeatedly playing on the key members of the Palin cast, and the news media went to work feverishly to discover all they could about Palin.  As CNN's Campbell Brown put it, "You know, this is a presidential campaign.  Nothing is private.  The world is watching." 

Almost immediately the Right followed by counter-attacking the "liberal media" for making an issue of Palin's family. As the Pew study reported, after a "day or so of intense coverage," the media's behavior became a big story, beginning with charges from Fox News correspondent Jim Angle. 

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "Here we go again." 

It remains to be seen if the "bold" McCain selection will pay off with a November victory.  But, what is the strategy designed to do? 

The Palin nomination aims at energizing the Republican Party's fervent right-wing/religious base, providing a dramatic appeal to white working class and rural Americans, and, as a bonus, drawing some women voters away from the Democrats. 

It clearly succeeded with the first target.  If the remaining strategies succeed, they reason (probably correctly), they win. 

None of these strategies, however, actually addresses the deteriorating American economy, pressing ecological crises, and the decline of U.S. standing in the world.  On these fronts, except for occasional rhetorical flourish, we get more of the same. 


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Once again, serious political questions are being converted into an emotional battle over symbols by an intentional strategy of distraction. 

This same strategy enabled a well-funded Right to take control of the Republican party 28 years ago.  Behind-the-scenes operatives like Michael Deaver and Richard Wirthlin (Ronald Reagan), Lee Atwater (George H.W.  Bush), and Karl Rove (George W. Bush) have used the politics of distraction brilliantly to dominate American politics ever since. 

The strategy has two faces.  First, in real policy terms, it involves eliminating liberal government, turning everything over to a market dominated by large conglomerates, and pursuing an aggressively militaristic foreign policy. 

As progressives know only too well, this agenda is responsible for the mess we're in: an economy that has worked well for investors (and when it doesn't, tax dollars to the rescue) but has been disastrous for working Americans, a health care system that rewards insurance companies while leaving millions without adequate health care, and a foreign policy that alienates much of the world and has us bogged down in two wars. 

The strategy's second face uses potent symbolism to play on the perceptions and emotions of Americans who feel increasingly powerless as the economy turns sour.  An endless media parade of self-indulgent affluence and crass appeals to uninhibited sexuality help the strategy work, as do examples of the Right's favorite scapegoats: inner city criminals and youthful protesters.   

That piece of the strategy goes all the way back to the 1960s.  While the Right and the corporate center sought to use 60s images to turn the nation's political agenda to the right, the commercial media themselves have consistently emptied the same 60s images of their actual political content -turning them into fixation with a generation-

thereby providing the propagandists with a rich storehouse of useful referents. 

Tack on the right's favorite "issues": abortion, "family values," pride in the flag, gun control, and now a snowmobile/hunting lifestyle.  By voting according to these themes, the Right suggests, we can return to a better past, and discontented voters can stick it to those urban liberal elites. 

In fact the conservatives these voters elect don't actually do much to deliver on the symbolic themes -in part, because they can't.  Instead, their real policies make life worse for millions of Americans -including the very people their campaigns appeal to. 

In short, appealing to people who feel left out, they leave them further out.  Running against phantom liberals, they are in fact running against their own record.  It's a brilliant, though cynical strategy.  

As for the "liberal" media, these are corporate media produced by conservatives' pro-market policy of deregulation.  Driven by competition for audience attention, the media constantly seek out instant drama, emotionally potent images, and magazine-cover celebrities.  [Naturally the Right overlooks the fact that they behaved the same way when candidate Barack Obama emerged (remember the Jeremiah Wright fiasco?).]  These are neo-liberal media.

As a nation, we cannot afford to spiral downward any longer.  We can no longer afford to be taken in by the politics of distraction.  In talking to our fellow citizens about policies that might help get us out of this mess, progressives need to help others see how the politics of distraction has worked to the detriment of the very people it appeals to.  

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Ted Morgan is Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is currently writing a book on What Happened to the 1960s and Why It Matters: Media Culture and the Decline of Democracy.

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