Some window of unreality opened at Wednesday night's Republican National Convention festivities when Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, amid a march of women and minority speakers, asserted that "values and ideas take precedence over the politics of demography and identity." But the identity politics on display at the convention had less to do with the GOP's stalled outreach efforts than with the party's base. The Republicans are taking white middle-class identity politics to the next level.
White identity politics have been around for a while, in the form of cracker culture humor, Gretchen Wilson records, and the war on arugula. But these forms tend to have a spiky, in-your-face defiance. The brilliance of vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin's roof-raising speech lay in its supple, open-ended technique.
In Palin's delivery, the ancient battle cry of the American working class—"You think you're better than me?"—was emptied of its narcissism and butch bluntness, reconfigured with qualities we don't ordinarily associate with salt of the earth Americans: dry wit, newsy allusiveness, a confidence that the people you're addressing don't need to have the jokes explained to them. It wasn't surprising that the hockey mom pounded Barack Obama bloody with sallies against his alleged elitism (though whoever put out the pre-speech disinformation that Palin would not be used as an "attack dog" deserves an award at this year's Rovies). It was surprising that she did so while maintaining such a sunny, gracious, genteel demeanor. Through 3,000 words of political aikido, Palin seemed to be doing something the left and right agree working people should never be allowed to do. She seemed to be enjoying herself. To take the most widely discussed passage:
I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening.
We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.
The aw-shucks quality and class warfare elements here are familiar. The indirection, sarcasm, and unembarrassed intelligence are new. It's a measure of how surprising Palin's style was that so many of her detractors could respond only with rage, incomprehension, and irrelevant complaints. In particular, Palin's Democratic counterpart Joseph Biden's predictable-as-Pickett's-Charge objection that the speech lacked substance sets up a very plausible scenario for the vice presidential debate: I'm willing to predict that the hyper-informed Biden will demonstrate his mastery of the facts, leave no doubt about his flair for complex policy questions, get his ass handed to him in the debate, and never understand what went wrong.
Early indications are that that Palin's delivery worked: A Rasmussen poll gave her speech a 52 percent favorable rating, and the speech (with its deft set-up by Rudy Giuliani, whose own skill at articulating middle-class rage seemed old-fangled by comparison) was the first sign of life in what has been a listless, depressed, poorly attended convention.
It's unlikely John McCain's closer tonight will match Palin's fireworks—which may be beside the point. The presidential nominee's rhetorical skills are well-known, and they represent a more foursquare version of the great American style. That style still has tremendous strength: On the long drive from Denver to St. Paul I ran into many people who refer to McCain as "John" and expressed clear admiration for his perceived solidness and integrity. But the country is changing; among other things, Americans are more educated, in all regions and at all levels of economic attainment, than they have ever been before.
That makes the give and take of political culture war more complex. Obama and Biden are both agile enough politicians that they could probably (between bites of brie and sips of pinot grigio) handle the sort of flat-footed regular guy attack George W. Bush used against the ossified Al Gore and John Kerry. John McCain is a different type of opponent, while Sarah Palin is a type they have never seen before.
McCain's choice of Palin now looks less like an attempt to replicate Hillary Clinton than to put in place an anti-Hillary Clinton: soft-edged rather than hard, tough where Clinton was brittle, and familiar enough with trailer park America to speak ordinary people's language without treating them like chumps.
The attempts to paint Obama as a toffish fancypants throughout this year have been mostly absurd. But Palin managed to make them all seem relevant again, and it won't be so easy for the Democrats to change the subject to economic, rather than social, class. Every poor American thinks he's got a rich American inside, fighting to get out. And Americans at all levels have a deep distrust of hipsters. As Obama and Biden begin their autumn of hunting and beer-drinking photo ops, they might want to keep that in mind.