Jay McInerney: Palin in the land of prejudice

Will Hillary's legions really support a candidate whose views are so diametrically opposed to hers?
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The Independent Online

So far I don't know whether any of my own books were among those that Sarah Palin tried to yank from the shelves of the public library in Wassila, Alaska, when she was mayor of that town, but I like to think, at the very least, that they would have been if she had been aware of their existence or their content.

Palin asked librarian Mary Ellin Baker to remove certain volumes due to objectionable language and when Baker balked, the mayor tried to get the librarian herself removed from her post. The Origin of Species was presumably on the list of offensive tomes, since Palin, a fierce sceptic vis-à-vis "the theory" of evolution, supports the teaching of creationism in the schools.

For those of you who live in a country where the Enlightenment hasn't been repealed, creationism is the pseudo science that attempts to reconcile the fossil record with the biblical account of creation. Also known as "a breath of fresh air". John McCain's choice of a running mate was certainly bold and unexpected, in keeping with his maverick reputation. It was also cynical and sexist, insofar as it was designed to attract disaffected Hillary supporters.

Will Hillary's legions, who strike me as being smarter than the average voter, really support a candidate whose views are diametrically opposed to hers on every important issue? This is a woman who, according to The Washington Post, as Governor performed a line item veto on a shelter for single mothers. It seems more likely that certain men will vote for the ticket just because they think she's cute in a librarianly kind of way.

Whatever else she may be, Sarah Palin is an old-school fundamentalist Christian Republican who makes Mitt Romney look like a left-wing extremist, which is why the Republican right has finally come around to support McCain's candidacy. Whether her hockey-mom shtick can obscure the fact that her beliefs are far to the right of the swing voters McCain needs remains to be seen.

The Republican party has long been successful at exploiting the cultural insecurities of the American middle class, and what may ultimately determine this election is whether the McCain campaign continues to succeed in portraying Obama as an exotic. On a recent trip to Florida I saw the following bumper sticker: "President Barack HUSSEIN Obama? I Don't Fucking Think So."

Obama's quest for the presidency, at first so improbable, had come to seem almost inexorable by the end of his triumphal tour of the Middle East and Europe this past summer. The air of inevitability was only reinforced by McCain's peevish, foot-stamping reaction to Obama's reception overseas, beamed back to our shores by an accompanying American press corps that seemed to outnumber our brigades in Iraq.

After all the Republican sniping about his lack of stature and experience, Obama looked positively presidential as he conferred with Malaki and Sarkozy and Gordon Brown. Even many Republicans could see that Obama's European popularity stood in stark contrast to Bush's dismal image abroad. But there's a difference between foreign policy experience and cosmopolitanism, the latter being suspect in those parts of America where the French are still referred to as "cheese eating surrender monkeys".

In order to win the election Obama needs to convince more than a few provincial xenophobes that he's a real American, which is why the right continues to circulate rumours of Muslim ties. And while we don't always like to talk about it, it can hardly have escaped everyone's attention that Obama is African-American. Anyone who doubts that race will play a huge role in this election should consider the 2006 Senate race of Harold Ford. Ford was a popular five-term African-American congressional representative from Memphis who ran for the Senate in 2006 against Republican Bob Corker. In conservative Tennessee, Ford was a very conservative democrat who opposed abortion and gun control.

A month before the election, with polls giving Ford a three to five point lead in the Senate race, the Republican Party ran a television ad in which a young blond white woman, played by Johanna Goldsmith, talks about meeting Ford, who was unmarried at the time, at "the Playboy party". "Harold, call me," she says provocatively, vamping in front of the camera.

Whether the ad, which even some Republicans denounced as racist, trashed Ford's chances, or whether white voters were overstating their willingness to vote for a black candidate for the benefit of pollsters, Ford lost and Corker became the only Republican senator elected in a year of a Democratic landslide. Interestingly enough, the man who approved and financed the Ford ad, Terry Nelson, served for more than a year as John McCain's campaign manager. Nelson was eventually replaced this summer, reputedly because of sluggish fundraising.

But anyone who hoped McCain's campaign would repudiate the kind of race baiting that has long been a staple of Republican politics had to wonder about the racial subtext of the now infamous "bimbo ad" which the McCain campaign ran after Obama's return from Europe. "He's the biggest celebrity in the world," a voiceover declares, alternating images of Obama being mobbed by fans with similar images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Many felt that the juxtaposition of blond women with black man was entirely intentional.

Obama has energised African-Americans and younger voters, but to win the White House he needs to win over a significant portion of the white working class. The Republicans need to appeal to these same swing voters, and to re-enlist the so-called Reagan democrats, working-class voters for whom issues of religion and patriotism tend to trump economic self-interest. Obama seems to be appealing to their hopes, and McCain, judging from his rhetoric, and his party's recent history, seems to be appealing to their fears. Hopeful as I am, I'm also pretty scared at the prospect that fear and prejudice will prevail.

The writer's novels include 'Bright Lights, Big City', 'Model Behavior', and, most recently, 'The Good Life'