Take the Sarah Palin story. Think about it. It’s really quite an amazing tale.
Ambitious beauty queen from Nowhere, Alaska. Lives the typical life we’re all familiar with – shoots game from a helicopter, pulls in fish nets in freezing waters, looks out her kitchen window on moose and bears, becomes Governor of a state. Just another American housewife. Did you ever hear of her before last year? I didn’t. Feel her force as an American leader? Uh uh.
So how come she explodes on the national scene in one shot – POW- a candidate for Vice-President of these United States? And continues to stay so visible, even when she lost? Becomes a TV pundit on politics when she flunked the nationally- broadcast current events quiz in Katie Couric’s class. And needs to use crib notes to remind herself of what she believes in.
How come? What happened? We’ve all heard and seen the ridicule. But she’s still here! Why the staying power? What’s she got that still makes her such a viable commodity?
It’s because she’s come in looking so different from your basic politician. It’s because she has none of the usual qualifications we expect that makes some people think she’s come to save them. No law degree, no years playing the game, running for office, climbing the power ladder, making the right connections. Result?
“Gee, she must be pure! Untouched! A clean slate with good intentions!”
“Listen to her language! She even talks like us! ‘Gotcha!’; ‘ ‘How ya doin’ with that hopey, changey thing?’ ”
She “calls out” whole sections of the population for blame and ridicule– sections the rest of us live in and recognize. How satisfying to those who feel left out, disenfranchised, confused and angered by the current scene. Who aren’t part of the visible circles representing us in Washington. What do they care that she really doesn’t even understand government. She’s on TV, talking loudly, with angry accusatory words, about stuff those outsiders are seething about. “She’s our girl!” they think. “She’s even voicing some basic prejudices we weren’t supposed to say out loud any more. And she’s got a load of kids, even a teenage unwed mother and a special needs kid!! Handling it all the good old fashioned way — just sucking it up, like plain folks. Like us. And she’s pretty! Sure I’ll listen to her. My kinda people…”
So what does this tell us about us and how we’re now choosing our leaders and elected officials? What do we now look for when we decide “this is the one for me?” Since personally experiencing our candidates has radically changed from the live speeches and handshakes of yesteryear to watching them and their ads on television or on line, we get such a well-coiffed, carefully rehearsed, edited version these days. So how do we know what we’re really getting now? What landmarks do we look for as we short- cut the old process of actually experiencing a real person and making our intuitive as well as our cognitive decisions?
A leader needs to make people feel two things: 1. He/she knows and understands our problems, even from personal experience. And 2. This person is strong enough, passionate enough, driven enough to fight for the solutions. But with our sanitized electronic versions, we now rely on shorthand clues — quick symbols we identify with — to tell us that all the above is true. Obama voters saw those not only in his evocative and eloquent language and thusly assumed intelligence. They assumed what else he knew and felt because he grew up black with its attendant hardships and overcame them to achieve so much that he wants to give himself to furthering our future. His speech, like Sarah Palin’s, and his family relationship, like hers, jibed with what those voters believe in, reassuring them about what he knows and cares about, how he thinks and what they should expect.
So it’s no surprise that Sarah’s constituents feel they’ve got enough from just her shorthand signals to forego any analysis of what else they should think about in order to call her leader. “ Do you realize her husband was part of the secessionist movement for Alaska? He saw what a mess our government was in. Never heard her say she was against it. So she’s sure gonna fix and change all that stuff I’m so mad about!”