OPINION

Vote for me—my hobbies are way better!

This isn’t a class war. Priced ATVs recently? Yoga and arugula are frugal by comparison.

ANDREW POTTER September 22 2008
OPINION

Vote for me—my hobbies are way better!

This isn’t a class war. Priced ATVs recently? Yoga and arugula are frugal by comparison.

ANDREW POTTER September 22 2008

Vote for me—my hobbies are way better!

ANDREW POTTER

This isn’t a class war. Priced ATVs recently? Yoga and arugula are frugal by comparison.

For a while there, it was looking as if this would be the first American presidential election in memory that did not revolve around the question of which candidate held the moral high ground over the Vietnam War. But that

was before Sarah Palin arrived on the scene. According to the media consensus, with one dynamite speech the Alaska governor went and launched America right back into the running battle over religion, social values and patriotism that has convulsed the nation’s politics for the past 40 years. But as a fresh skirmish in the culture wars, it’s being fought on some rather odd terrain, with the lines of opposition forming not along traditional issues such as abortion or gay marriage, but over who has the better hobbies.

To put it bluntly: Sarah Palin must be the first candidate for vice-president to stake her claim to the office largely on the fact that in her spare time she enjoys shooting and dismembering large defenceless mammals. She only alluded to the hobby in her actual speech, but before McCain’s address the next day they played a video biography, obviously put together in great haste, that was designed to introduce this complete unknown to the party faithful. What was the thrust of the message? As the cheesy, movie-trailer voiceover intoned at the beginning of the video: “Mother... Moose hunter... Maverick.”

All politics is to some extent personal, but Palin seems determined to outdo both Obama and McCain in making an argument out of her lifestyle. In her speech, she barely talked about any of the usual culture-wars battlefronts like church and state, homosexuality, gun control, abortion. Instead, she talked about herself a lot, then talked about her entire family a lot more. She’s a moose hunter and hockey mom and her husband works in the oil fields and fishes and races snowmobiles on his days off. Son Track is off to kill Iraqis,

while daughter Bristol has gone and done her best Jamie Lynn Spears impression. And that’s how they became the Palin Bunch.

When she finally got around to talking about her Democratic opponent, Barack Obama must have felt a bit like one of those large defenceless mammals caught in her gunsights. With calm precision, she took aim at his reputation as a “community organizer,” at his “high-flown speech-making,” even at the faux-Greek columns that flanked his own acceptance speech.

What Palin did was something the media— and most Republicans, for that matter—had not had the balls to do, and that is refuse to give Obama the deference owed to his status as the first black candidate for president.

Instead of respecting his background, she made fun of it, treating him as just another too-thin, Ivy-League-educated, wine-sipping member of the liberal elite. That he happens to be (half) black was irrelevant. In choosing to pick on Obama’s lifestyle, Palin struck closer to the new realities of the supposed culture war than even she seemed to realize.

In his 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas, the critic Thomas Frank complained that for decades Republicans have been effectively conning the party’s base. They get the supporters all a-boil over things like gay marriage and abortion during campaigns, but once in power quietly put those issues on the back burner, turning their attention to issues that matter to their fiscal conservative backers: cutting taxes, freeing trade, and eviscerating the welfare state. Through this massive electoral bait-and-switch, Frank argues, good-hearted folk from the heartland are bamboozled into voting against their economic self-interest. Always willing to trade economic hope for religious comfort, they serve as cannon fodder in a culture

war the Republican elites have no intention of trying to win.

Frank’s argument is actually just a variation on Obama’s ill-advised remark about “bitterness” causing people to cling to guns and religion. Obama and Frank think the sorts of people who like to thump Bibles and shoot moose and ride snow machines also tend to be economically disadvantaged: that is, they assume that people with working-class values must also have working-class incomes, and that the culture war is actually a disguised class war between well-off social liberals and not-so-well-off social conservatives.

This is an assumption that Palin herself is happy to play off in her attacks on Obama. But if it was true, once upon a time, that you

could tell how much someone earned by how they spend their spare time, it no longer is. Hunting and fishing, RVing, camping and canoeing, dogsled and snow-machine racing— these are now the working-class pursuits of rather well-off people. A canoe trip in the Northwest Territories will set you back six or seven grand, while a week at a salmon lodge on the Restigouche starts at around $10K. And has anyone priced a racing-quality snow machine recently, not to mention a class A motorhome? In comparison, eggwhite omelets and yoga classes—not to mention arugula—look downright frugal.

The candidacy of Sarah Palin doesn’t herald a re-engagement of the culture wars, but their exhaustion. What 40 years of arguing has boiled down to is a disagreement over who has better leisure pursuits. It’s no longer a dispute over fundamental values, a fight to the death for the soul of America. Instead, it’s a dinner-party argument over taste. M

ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Potter, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewpotter