Can Sarah Palin be elected?

Somewhere along the way, I’m pretty sure I’d heard the slander that lies behind the term, “blood libel,” before. I didn’t remember the term itself.

To me this raises some questions about just how this controversy will play with the U.S. public. Because my guess that a lot of other people don’t remember it either finds support in a number of articles appearing that take pains to explain the term. And that might mitigate the controversy’s impact.

For the record,

Blood libel has been a central fable of anti-Semitism in which Jews have been accused of using the blood of gentile children for medicinal purposes or to mix in with matzo, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten at Passover.[1]

That Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head by someone apparently out to kill her, is Jewish[2] makes Palin’s use of the term particularly offensive.

Joan Walsh thinks “Americans won’t forget that while Giffords and other shooting victims were still hospitalized, Palin was tending to her own psychic wounds. So very petty, so hugely unpresidential.”[3] But I’m not buying that this will stop her from being elected president. Walsh also makes a fairly compelling comparison between Palin and Nixon—and the latter was not just elected president in 1968 but re-elected in 1972.[4]

What caught my attention while reading Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics was that Nixon split the New Deal coalition by playing on race while pursuing relatively—and clearly by today’s standards—liberal social policies. In terms of economic policy, we’ve actually moved backwards.[5] And I’m not buying that we are a more sensitive people now than in the 1970s.

Sure we have a black president. But the hysterical racist venom that’s been directed against him and other politicians since his election[6] combines with an anti-immigrant hysteria, an anti-Muslim hysteria, and now—possibly—anti-Semitism (where else could Palin have found the term, blood libel?) to suggest that in terms of race and ethnic relations, we haven’t advanced one iota. Mark Potok, writing for the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded,

Hate groups stayed at record levels — almost 1,000 — despite the total collapse of the second largest neo-Nazi group in America. Furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80%, adding some 136 new groups during 2009. And, most remarkably of all, so-called “Patriot” groups — militias and other organizations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose “one-world government” on liberty-loving Americans — came roaring back after years out of the limelight.[7]

At the very least, a radical right wing is becoming more predominant, not less. Against this, Hacker and Pierson insist,

In theory, the parties could be polarizing because voters are polarizing. Yet, puzzlingly, ideological polarization turns out to be mostly an elite affair. Most Americans, it turns out, are just not that far apart in their views. Yes, voters are better “sorted” than they used to be, with liberals more likely to be Democrats and conservatives more likely to be Republicans. And, yes, activists within the parties have moved further apart. But the ideological polarization of the electorate as a whole—the degree of disagreement on left-right issues overall—is modest and has changed little over time.[8]

The way I make sense of this is that activists within the parties have counted for relatively little as policymaking has evolved in a largely neoconservative and economic elitist direction and that the United States population is largely—on a grossly oversimplistic and tightly limited left-right spectrum that, for example, poorly represents many of the students I taught—center-right in orientation. The understanding of “center-right” has shifted to one that is more strongly individualist on economic issues while underlying racism has changed little.

The election of a president of color brings bigotry to the surface. And while most U.S. residents might deny that they are racist, they exercise very little social restraint on those who espouse subtly racist views. At the very least, racism remains socially acceptable across a substantial portion of the U.S. population.

And to sustain Joan Walsh’s position, we have to assume that a plurality of this population will empathize with Jews—whom Richard Nixon was famously bigoted against. Or even that they have become more tolerant of “others” over time.

But if anything, people in the U.S. have become less empathetic and more individualist.[9] The unpopularity of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to have little to do with people—particularly “others”—dying and much, much more with the fact the U.S. is losing.[10] The ending of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—a homophobic policy that only permitted gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces as long as they kept their mouths shut about it—permits gays and lesbians to join other stigmatized groups.

In broad demographic terms, the Armed Forces continue to be largely representative of the country as a whole – drawing predominantly from America’s working and middle classes. There are disparities when it comes to the racial composition of certain specialties and ranks, especially the most senior officers. But in all, the fears expressed when the all-volunteer force was first instituted – that the only people left willing to serve would be the poorest, the worst educated, the least able to get any other job – simply did not come to pass. As I alluded to earlier, that group would be hard pressed to make it into a force that is, on average, the most educated in history. Where virtually all new enlistees have a high school diploma or equivalent – about 15 percent more than their civilian peers – and nearly all officers have bachelors’ degrees, many have Masters, and a surprising number, like General David Petraeus, have PhDs.[11]

That’s a fine gloss but Defense Secretary Gates’ speech was largely about how

for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally. Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do. In fact, with each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle. According to one study, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18 year olds had a veteran parent. By 2000 the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future.[12]

In short, people in the U.S. military are “others.” Tim Kane’s article for the Heritage Foundation glosses over the issue in a similar way, reporting that

on average, 1999 recruits were more highly educated than the equiv­alent general population, more rural and less urban in origin, and of similar income status. We did not find evidence of minority racial exploitation (by race or by race-weighted ZIP code areas). We did find evidence of a “Southern military tradition” in that some states, notably in the South and West, provide a much higher proportion of enlisted troops by population.[13]

Kane says that recruits are largely middle class, but his graphs show a bulge in recruitment centered on a household income of $30,000 to $35,000, a value he considers reasonable because the median income—not the mean (a more representative statistical measure of the center) income—for U.S. households is around $42,000. He claims that nearly all (98 percent) recruits have a high school education or higher,[14] but this is meaningless because a high school diploma or equivalent is virtually a requirement for recruitment.[15] In fact, very few have more than a high school diploma.[16] And Gates’ claim that “nearly all officers have bachelors’ degrees”[17] is again consistent with generally required qualifications.[18] Recruits also appear to come disproportionately from places with higher housing costs and lower home ownership rates. On race, Kane’s analysis is inconsistent, claiming that the proportion of whites in the military is similar to the proportion of the population overall, even though recruiting focuses on black areas.[19]

So the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in fact says very little about majority attitudes towards gays—historically, the most stigmatized group—and is, if anything, consistent with continuing resistance among the population to same sex marriage. And while the proportion opposed to recognition to these marriages has declined since 1996,[20] it is a mistake to infer that this means there has been any shift in opinion whatsoever amongst those who remain opposed. Which suggests that acceptance of people with “other” sexual preferences for military service is entirely consistent with acceptance of “others” as cannon fodder.

And in fact the various ways in which “others” continue to face severe discrimination is the subject of Ishmael’s collection of essays, Multi-America.[21] Walsh’s assumption, therefore, that Sarah Palin’s lack of empathy, her intolerance, and in fact her gross insensitivity might disqualify her in voters’ minds for the presidency rests on very shaky ground.

If Sarah Palin is sufficiently able to mimic Barack Obama’s performance in fund-raising for a candidacy in 2012, it might all too easily prove the case that a plurality of the U.S. population is mean enough to elect her.[22]

  1. [1]Rick Rojas, “‘Blood libel’ has particular, painful meaning to Jewish people,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2011,,0,3315967.story
  2. [2]Sam Dolnick, “At Giffords’s Synagogue, Prayers for Recovery,” New York Times, January 9, 2011,
  3. [3]Joan Walsh, “Sarah Palin will never be president,” Salon, January 12, 2011,
  4. [4]Walsh, “Sarah Palin will never be president.”
  5. [5]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
  6. [6]Sam Stein, “Tea Party Protests: ‘Ni**er,’ ‘Fa**ot’ Shouted At Members Of Congress,” Huffington Post, March 20, 2010,; Democracy Now! “Rage on the Right: Christian Militia Raided in Michigan; Tennessee Skinhead Pleads Guilty to Obama Assassination Plot,”; Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated,” New York Times, April 14, 2010,; Eugene Robinson, “The Tea Party must purge racism from its ranks,” Washington Post, July 20, 2010,; David Neiwert, “‘We Are at War’: How Militias, Racists and Anti-Semites Found a Home in the Tea Party,” Alternet, November 21, 2010, “,_racists_and_anti-semites_found_a_home_in_the_tea_party_
  7. [7]Mark Potok, “Rage on the Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2010,
  8. [8]Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, 159.
  9. [9]Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self [DVD], BigD Productions.
  10. [10] Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans Oppose Renewing U.S. Combat Operations in Iraq,” Gallup, August 26, 2010,; Jeffrey M. Jones, “In U.S., New High of 43% Call Afghanistan War a ‘Mistake’,” Gallup, August 3, 2010,
  11. [11]Robert Gates, “Lecture at Duke University (All-Volunteer Force)” [speech], Department of Defense, September 29, 2010,
  12. [12]Gates, “Lecture at Duke University.”
  13. [13]Tim Kane, “Who Bears the Burden? Demographic Characteristics of U.S. Military Recruits Before and After 9/11,” Heritage Foundation, November 7, 2005,
  14. [14]Kane, “Who Bears the Burden?”
  15. [15]Today’s Military, “Entrance Requirement FAQs,” 2010,
  16. [16]Kane, “Who Bears the Burden?”
  17. [17]Gates, “Lecture at Duke University.”
  18. [18]Go Army, “Careers and Jobs: Become an Officer,”; Navy, “Frequently Asked Questions,”
  19. [19]Kane, “Who Bears the Burden?”
  20. [20]Gallup, “Americans’ Opposition to Gay Marriage Eases Slightly,” May 24, 2010,
  21. [21]Ishmael Reed, ed., Multi-America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (New York: Penguin, 1998).
  22. [22]Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics.

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