In the fusillade of accusations that has been flung at Sarah Palin since McCain chose her as VP-nominee, there is one thread in common; that Palin is an extreme right-winger. There are several possible reasons for an accuser to take this position, but it occurred to me yesterday that the most important one may be accusers who are honestly confused about where the American center actually is.
Of course, the political map is not neatly describable as a one-dimensional spectrum. I myself, as an anarcho-capitalist radical quite willing to dump on both Left and Right, am an existence proof of that. Nevertheless, we actually have a lot of psephological information on where the “center” falls, in the sense that if you choose polar “Left” and “Right” stands on particular issues, polling can locate the position between them held by the median number of Americans.
One can then at least ask the question “Where is Palin with respect to that median?” I’m in an interesting position to address that question, because on pretty much all of the hot-button “culture wars” issues I have radical positions opposed to Palin’s but nevertheless believe on good evidence that her position is closer to the median than mine.
Let’s start with the blob of accusations around religion and creationism. I’ll make my position on these clear: I think conventional faith-based religions (including Christianity and Islam) are forms of contagious insanity more damaging than any ideology except socialism. Creationism is not just a doctrine for blithering idiots, it cannot be maintained against evidence without an active and perverse desire to remain a blithering idiot.
So when I tell you that I think Sarah Palin’s religious position is pretty near dead center in the American spectrum, you can be pretty sure I’m not fudging to make that position look good. Let’s see… raised Catholic until her family took up one of the Pentecostal denominations, left that because it was too weird, and now attends an independent church where, according to the not-exactly-Right-leaning magazine Newsweek, “The sermons of its ministers steer clear of politics and hot-button social issues and dwell instead on scripture”.
Now, if you have anything like my violent loathing for the type, the name Wasilla Bible Church and that stuff about dwelling on scripture will raise the not-unreasonable suspicion that the outfit is Biblical-literalist — you know, the kind of wackjobs who think π must actually be three because otherwise that passage in 1 Kings would be wrong. Bzzzt! False alarm. Pastor Kroon says “the task of believers [includes] scrutiny, he said, for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent.”
OK. During 50 years of contemplating a religious landscape containing Inerrantists, Dominionists, Christian Identity yahoos, and Pat Robertson, this Wiccan has felt more than a few moments of Christians-wanna-burn-me fear. But my paranoia-meter isn’t even twitching off the peg here. This is normal. This is mainstream-Protestant. This is boring. Yes, I’d be happier if Palin were a Unitarian or a Quaker, but anyone who thinks her church affilations are “extreme right” or evidence of religious mania is suffering from a serious lack of perspective and really needs to get out more.
But the really good news is Palin’s statement that she does not allow her religious convictions to dictate her political positions. Observers in Alaska (including one I know personally) agree that she lived up to this one as Mayor and governor, showing no appetite for hitting any of the religious-conservative hot-button issues. That is what definitely puts her in the American center, separating her from both right-wing Dominionism and left-wing liberation theology.
Now let’s talk about Creationism. If Palin had ever proclaimed her support for it, I’d have to consider her either a liar trolling for the yahoo vote or among the aforementioned blithering idiots. In fact, however, the entire “Palin is a creationist” meme seems to be spun out of one ambiguous sentence in a 1996 debate, which she later backed away from. The sentence was “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”
I’ll start by noting that this quote smells to me awfully like a deft avoidance maneuver preferable from an ass-covering perspective to saying something more honest, like “Bletch. Creationists are a bunch of ignorant pinheads but I need their votes.” Palin is a politician. But since I can’t actually read her mind to verify this interpretation, let’s take her at her word for the rest of the discussion.
I disagree with the stated position. I don’t think the schools ought to give Creationism any more respect than they give Flat-Earth theory. But, again, extreme-right this is not. The extreme-right position is that evolutionary theory is an evil plot to contaminate our vital bodily fluids and shouldn’t be taught in schools. And Sarah Palin has, dammit, uttered a compromise formula that is probably much closer to the median or mean U.S. position than I am.
Abortion. Again, I’m on the other side from Palin on this one. I’m pro-choice. I think the notion that “life begins at conception” is absurd; the fertilized gamete doesn’t have anywhere near the informational complexity required to be considered human. While I’m not a big fan of killing fetuses in the third trimester, I oppose abortion restrictions for the same practical reason I’m opposed to so-called “reasonable” gun controls; because I don’t trust the agenda or the intentions of the groups pushing either, and think they are both pursuing salami-slicing strategies that threaten fundamental liberties.
Palin is “pro-life”. This is not an extreme position; most Americans see far more merit in the “pro-life” argument than I do, if only because conservative propagandists have done a masterful job of confusing the categories life-like-bacteria and life-like-sapient-human. Again, Palin is (regrettably) closer to the median than I am.
Palin refuses to make an exception for rape or incest. This is, in fact, the only position of hers I’ve discovered that puts her a significant distance from the U.S. median. The rape-or-incest exception has very wide support even among those who self-describe as “pro-life”.
While I disagree with Palin on the general issue, I actually consider her stance against the exception is an indication of sounder moral reasoning than most pro-lifers employ. I’ve written before that I think the exception reveals a nasty, fundamental disconnection between what pro-lifers want and what they say they want; if you’re going to be “pro-life” at all, Palin’s is the honest and consistent place to come down. So, personally, I have to actually give her points for integrity here.
On other sex-related issues Palin has governed as a moderate. She supports comprehensive sex education in schools and supports birth control use. I agree with her support for comprehensive sex education, and note that it may actually put her somewhat to the left of dead center (though not as much as her position on the rape-or-incest exception pulls right).
Palin’s record on gay marriage is mixed; she is on record both as opposing it and as blocking a prohibition on gay benefits. On this one the median American belief seems to be an unhappy muddle of opposition to formal government-sanctioned recognition of gay marriage with a refusal to condemn gays for coming out and desiring it. Palin is right on top of that position, making her far more mainstream than my libertarian proposal that we kick the government out of the business of recognizing marriage altogether and let people form whatever communes they want.
Does this picture add up to a frothing theocrat or hot-eyed right-wing culture warrior? Um…no. Not at all. On issue after issue (with the single exception of the rape-and-incest exception), what I discover about Palin seems to put her right smack in the broad middle. Far closer to it than me, usually, even with respect to issues we’re on opposite sides of.
Furthermore, the sense I get from her speech and presentation is that she really is like that; she doesn’t display the kinds of equivocation you see in a politician who is constantly trimming sail to the electoral wind and delays making a in issue commitment until he’s backed into a corner. Though I suspect the “Teach both” quote is that kind of waffle, I could well be wrong, and have yet to encounter a more definite example in her public statements.
And a note to all you anti-Palin left-liberals: on every major issue I’ve discussed, I hold what you’d consider the left or extreme-left position and have described Palin as closer to center despite the fact that this tends to legitimize a position further right than you (or I) would prefer. This is what a lawyer would call “an admission against interest”, like Bill Clinton ‘fessing up that left-wing anti-gun measures lose elections for Democrats, or the Anglican Church announcing earlier today that it owes Darwin an apology.
Accordingly, you should treat my estimates of where the center is as a best case from a Left point of view; if I’ve been engaging in wishful thinking, it’s likely that the results are worse news for the Left rather than better. And you should pay careful attention to my finale about preference falsification, because otherwise you may be in for a very rude shock.
Finally: the attempt to paint Palin as a hard-right nutjob says much more about the prejudices of her accusers than it does about her. It could say that they’re cynically promulgating a smear they know to be untrue. But the degree of nutty shrillness I’m hearing doesn’t sound like cynical calculation. That makes it seem more likely to me that the Democratic left genuinely doesn’t know where the medians of opinion in the U.S. are and genuinely doesn’t grasp how squarely Palin is sitting on them.
This isn’t a new idea; I’ve read some studies suggesting with evidence that left-wing ideological control of the mainstream media and universities has led to a gigantic case of preference falsification under which not only the Left itself but the entire population (including most conservatives!) believes the medians on many issues are fairly far left of their actual locations. (Thus, for example, both pro-and anti-Second-Amendment Americans tend to seriously overestimate the actual level of support for gun control.)
To the extent this is true, Sarah Barracuda Palin is a larger threat — and a larger promise — than anyone has figured out yet. She may be uniquely positioned to pop the preference-falsification bubble. If that happens, the distribution of political opinion might not change much, but popular perception of that distribution would shift dramatically rightward, and democratic legitimacy with it.
My opposition to Palin on the key issues I’ve described above means this would change the political environment in many ways I don’t like. But if her national political career is anything more than a flash in the pan, brace yourself, because there may be serious changes coming.