Beyond the Palin effect

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I was rather surprised when someone said to me recently, "You almost have to admire Sarah Palin."

My surprise came from the fact that the person announcing his half admiration for the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the US elections was a longstanding socialist and anti-war activist. He certainly would not approve of Palin's creationist religious beliefs, nor of her recent chant of "Drill, baby, drill" as she urged more oil drilling in Alaska to cut the price of petrol.

Palin's environmental credentials could hardly be worse. She is a champion of oil expansion and shopping mall development in her home state, where she is the governor. Her support for life does not extend to defenceless animals, judging from the number of pictures of her with gun and dead moose.

She has, in short, the usual range of right wing Republican policies about guns, gas and god. So why is there so much interest?

One clue was in placards I saw at a recent political rally for Palin. They showed her face on a picture of Rosie the Riveter, the famous icon of the Second World War woman shipyard worker.

Palin comes across as down to earth, gutsy and hard working, and understanding the problems of ordinary US citizens, especially women. Part of the reason for this is that she identifies herself as a "hockey mom", and has a big family. One of her children is off to Iraq, another is a pregnant 17 year old who is marrying the baby's father and another has Down's syndrome. So she understands the difficulties facing US families.

Or so the story goes. Except that Palin is already a powerful politician in her own right, the governor of a US state, and therefore has interests, concerns, income and status very different from those of most working mothers in the US.

Then there are her politics: her anti-abortion, pro-war, anti-environment policies are none of them in the interests of working people.

She was chosen as John McCain's running mate to make the maximum political capital from Hillary Clinton's failure to win the Democratic Party nomination for president, and from the alleged unpopularity of Barack Obama among white working class women. Clinton is popular among these women but she too is highly privileged, a millionaire and former first lady.

It tells you something about the scarcity of women in the mainstream political field that Palin can create such a stir. It's estimated in Britain that it will take 40 elections before women have equal representation with men in parliament. Women in the US and Britain have had the vote for the best part of a century, but under-representation remains.

I don't think that is the only or even the main reason for the Palin phenomenon. That stems from the greater alienation that voters feel from the political process. Politics is seen firstly as men in suits, so when the occasional women in suits appear they can seem refreshing and new, especially when they seem to talk the language of working mothers struggling to balance family and work. Secondly, politics is seen, quite rightly, as being run by elites who are miles away from the real concerns of most of us. This extends from politicians to lobbyists, media and the whole paraphernalia surrounding government.

Part at least of Palin's appeal is that she is criticised by this establishment, and in return she is highly critical of it even though she is effectively part of this political establishment herself.

So she is an anti-politics politician, and that appeals to people disillusioned with mainstream politics.

When the women's liberation movement began 40 years ago, the fight was for women's equality at every level. I don't remember people calling for women presidents or vice-presidents, maybe because at the time there seemed much bigger social issues to take up. It's a sign of [slow] progress that there now are these candidates, but we're no closer really to women's liberation.

Those women and men who believe Palin would make the lives of women better because she is a woman are searching for something that most politicians have not given them. Unfortunately they won't find it.

The US is hurting at the moment. House repossessions, the effects of the banking crisis, war and militarism are coming on top of the low wages, poverty and lack of free healthcare which have characterised the times of boom. In such a situation people can look to anyone who appears to have answers to their crisis, however false those solutions can be. The US is at a turning point electorally but more widely politically.

US workers can choose an answer to the crisis which makes them pay, or they can follow in the tradition of those who fought in the past against the effects of the Depression. Let's hope they reject the false feminism on offer to them.