I write this on 3 November, the eve of a presidential election that, we are assured, is historic, following what one can only hope will prove to have been the longest campaign of our lifetimes. As I write, Obama looks poised to become our next president, though McCain has been making a late charge, and some of today’s online chatter revolved around scenarios in which McCain wins the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. With any luck, however, the election will have been decided by the time you read this.
It has been a campaign full of interesting twists and turns. But who would have predicted a few months ago that by its end Barack Obama would be only its second-most interesting figure? A female vice-presidential candidate, but not Hillary Clinton; a little-known, first-term governor rocketing to political celebrity status; a self-described pit bull with lipstick. Sarah Palin is the most intriguing story of this campaign. Or, at least, she could be. If McCain goes down to a smashing defeat, he might well take Palin’s political future along with him. That would be unfortunate, however, for Palin’s example holds out the promise of a rapprochement between two political forces that are otherwise poles apart in the American culture wars: feminism and cultural conservatism.
At first glance, one might have expected Palin’s nomination to have been greeted with some skepticism by rank-and-file Republicans. Not for the usual reason cited by her critics, inexperience, but for a different one altogether: motherhood. Conservative defenders of the family are not known for praising mothers of five who work full-time jobs outside the home. And Palin, of course, holds not just any job but one carrying tremendous responsibilities, long hours, and potentially limitless duties—precisely the sort of job that a mother of young children should not hold (or so one might have expected cultural conservatives to argue). One can readily understand that a state governor might feel obligated to return quickly to work after a medical absence—perhaps even a mere three days after giving birth. But one might have been surprised to see conservatives embrace her—with wild enthusiasm, no less—as one of their own. Their embrace was made easier, of course, by the shameful barrage of highly personal vitriol heaped upon Palin by the mainstream media. Nevertheless, the ease with which family values advocates made their peace with this working mother should prompt more reflection than it has. For in a campaign that has teased us with various potential realignments—the South and Mountain West again in play for Democrats? cracks in the rightwing evangelical coalition? prosperous, upscale latte liberals shifting Democratic, while blue-collar, beer-drinking Reagan Democrats solidifying as Wal-Mart Republicans?—Palin could signify a shift of tremendous long-term significance: the transformation of feminism from a fixation of the radical left to a feature of traditionalist, family-oriented conservatism.
It is difficult to overstate the seeming implausibility of such a transformation, for there has been no more pointed opposition within American politics than that between feminism and cultural conservatism. We have as yet only a dim appreciation of the far-reaching changes, for good and ill, that feminism has wrought in American society. But it is intimately connected to practically every major front in the culture wars. Its signature cause has been the defense of abortion rights, which has colonized enormous political territory with the language of personal autonomy (a connection made most dramatically by the Court’s infamous plurality opinion in the Casey decision). The socially corrosive argument from autonomy—autonomy in the deep and literal sense of being a law to one’s self—has seeped from the abortion debates into a vast range of other issues: divorce and family breakdown, drug use, same-sex marriage, pornography and rights of expression, euthanasia and end-of-life questions, and the complex web of biomedical issues from in vitro fertilization to genetic engineering to cloning.
And while the concept of personal autonomy has been the most important vehicle by which feminism has determined the battle lines of much political debate, it is by no means the only one. The simple notion of an equal right to work—far less explosive (and far more philosophically defensible) than accounts of autonomy—has posed equally dramatic challenges to a range of social institutions: the structure of the family, of child-rearing, of the workplace, of education. Feminism has thus been the linchpin around which a broad range of radical changes cohere. The feminist movement’s success, I predict, ultimately will come to be seen as the most fundamental social and political transformation of postwar American politics, and we will be tracing its consequences for decades to come.
Because these changes are so very radical—think of the proposals in Plato’s Republic for the organization of family and the education of the sexes suddenly crystallizing as an actual political agenda—conservatives have had great difficulty coming to grips with them or even knowing how to respond. The justice of the basic demand for female equality appears undeniable. But its social implementation has unleashed a kind of revolutionary juggernaut. This dilemma manifests itself in the culture wars. One segment of the population heartily embraces feminism and all of the radical changes that have accompanied it. Another is prepared to dig in its heels and oppose the whole package. In the middle is a large, somewhat amorphous mass motivated less by any clear ideological or philosophical view than by a combination of conflicting instincts (supportive of “family values,” but also sympathetic to arguments for justice and equality) and economic interests (the need, or desire, for two incomes).
For conservatives (and for the Republican Party), this is ultimately a losing situation. In a political culture whose discourse is framed largely in terms of individual rights and equality, the defense of traditional arrangements always will lose out over the long run to claims of egalitarian justice, as progress appears to vanquish outdated and irrational prejudices. And so we give a bit here, a bit there, not entirely understanding why the slippage seems to be always and only in one direction. And traditional institutions are gradually eroded without anyone knowing how the slide might be stopped—or, perhaps better, without anyone feeling quite confident about the justice of stopping it.
Enter Sarah Palin. The tremendous support she elicited from the electorate clearly rested in large part upon ordinary citizens’ ability to identify with her, to see in her a reflection of their own circumstances and values. And this, I take it, included her success in the workplace. Whatever one might have expected, her combination of motherhood with a demanding career turned out not to threaten her acceptance among the conservative rank-and-file. This suggests that at the level of practice, ordinary working families are already groping toward an accommodation of the demands of work and family. Critical to such an accommodation, however, is the severing of the link between a simple demand for equal opportunity and the much more far-reaching demand for full personal autonomy. Family structures can come to terms with the former; the latter explodes them. Palin’s deep commitment to the pro-life cause, and in particular the powerful example of her decision to bear and raise a child with Down Syndrome, symbolized this rejection of personal autonomy as an ultimate value. Special-needs children cannot hope to enjoy full autonomy, and the decision to accept the challenges of caring for one represents a conscious abdication of the demand for autonomy—represents, indeed, an embrace of human interdependency. Palin’s broadly conservative stance on the range of “values” issues further underscored the symbolism of her family situation.
Palin’s example therefore provides an opportunity for conservatives. It raises the possibility of a de-radicalization and mainstreaming of feminism and thus potentially alters the balance of power in the culture wars. More strikingly than any other female American politician, Palin shows that it is possible both to defend opportunity for women and nevertheless to reject antinomian visions of personal liberation. Since working mothers and dual-income households are not going away, this combination is critical to conservatism’s electoral prospects. It also paves the way for a brand of feminism, perhaps the only one, that could truly become mainstream, honoring rather than opposing the familial structures and values according to which most Americans still strive to lead their lives.
A “Palinian” feminism would, finally, hold out some hope for shifting the cultural balance of power. As I noted earlier, the long-term slide in the cultural wars currently seems all in one direction. Halting, to say nothing of reversing, that slide will require adaptation on the part of conservatives. It will require carefully distinguishing between the aspects of our social arrangements that must be preserved and those that can prudently be modified, between core principles that must be defended and their social manifestations, which evolve over time. In particular, the stand against the cluster of autonomy issues—a stand that probably faces long odds regardless—must be free of doubts that it can satisfy demands for just and fair opportunity. But perhaps there is indeed a silent majority prepared to embrace equality of opportunity while rejecting the lures (and corruptions) of autonomy, if they have examples to emulate and leadership to show the way.
This is why Sarah Palin is such an intriguing figure. (And also, incidentally, why the hard left so greatly fears her.) The example she represents will not be an easy one to emulate, for the accommodation in question is genuinely difficult. Palin’s own family has been a reminder that balancing work and family is not easy. And achieving that balance may still require significant changes in the structural landscape of work. But conceivably continued technological developments will make it possible for more and more work to be done from the home, in which case the trend of moving wage-earners outside the home, which began with industrialization, actually would prove to be the historical anomaly. We shall see. In the meantime, we can hope that John McCain’s unexpected running mate will remain on the national scene as a reminder that feminism, rightly understood, need not be permanently in thrall to only one side in the culture wars.
Peter Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.