For more than a year, Sarah Palin has been a national Rorschach test. The views expressed about her reveal the distinctions and conflicting perceptions of often antagonistic groups of Americans—the religious and the secular, the conservative and the liberal, the urban and the small town, the elitist and the populist. And now, with the publication of her autobiography, Going Rogue, and Matthew Continetti’s The Persecution of Sarah Palin, the Rorschach tests are being administered anew, and with increasing fervor. For her conservative admirers, she continues to exemplify independence, moxie, common sense, the superiority of the common American over the nation’s elites, and the embodiment of modern womanhood and Christian faith. For her detractors, both conservative and liberal, she is uncouth, unschooled, a hick, anti-science and anti-intellectual, an upstart, and a religious fanatic. There is no group so firmly in the latter camp as American Jews. And there is much to learn in their reaction to Palin, both about her and about the sociological makeup of American Jewry today.
While Palin enjoys support from some prominent Jewish conservatives, it is not an exaggeration to say that, more so than any other major political figure in recent memory (with the possible exception of Patrick J. Buchanan), she rubs Jews the wrong way. In a September 2008 poll by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Jews disapproved of Palin as the pick for McCain’s vice-presidential running mate by a 54 to 37 percent margin. (By contrast, 73 percent approved of the selection of Joseph Biden as Obama’s.) Ask an average American Jew about Palin and you are likely to get a nonverbal response—a shiver, a shudder, a roll of the eyes, or a guffaw. Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer, sputtered that Palin was the “FrankenBarbie of the Rove-Cheney cabal,” articulating the mixture of contempt and fear that seemed to grip many Jewish women. The disdain is palpable and largely emotional. While 78 percent of American Jews voted for the Obama-Biden ticket, it is fair to say that most did not harbor animosity toward or contempt for Senator John McCain; the same cannot be said of their view of Palin. Prominent Jews like Reagan-era arms-control official Kenneth Adelman, who expressed great admiration for McCain, proclaimed that the selection of Palin was beyond reason: “Not only is Sarah Palin not close to being acceptable in high office, I would not have hired her for even a mid-level post in the arms-control agency.”
What is it about Palin that so grates on American Jews? It is more than that she is a conservative and that the vast majority of Jews are not, although this cannot be ignored. As recent polling by Gallup amply demonstrates, Jews remain the most Democratic of any religious group (66 percent of Jews say they are Democrats or lean Democratic, compared with only 47 percent of Catholics, 43 percent of Protestants, and 20 percent of Mormons) and the most supportive of President Obama. Only African-Americans demonstrated a higher percentage of support (95 percent) for Obama’s candidacy and have remained comparably loyal. While there is a range of opinion within the Jewish community, as revealed by an AJC 2009 poll—which showed that majorities of Conservative and Reform Jews approved of the Obama administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, while only 14 percent of Orthodox Jews did—only 16 percent of Jews now identify themselves as Republican.
It follows, then, that Palin’s vocal and unabashed conservatism on social and economic issues does not sit well with most American Jews. But it is not impossible for a conservative to capture at least some measure of support from the American Jewish community. George W. Bush scored about a quarter of American Jewish votes in 2004. It is doubtful that Palin would receive a fraction of that. (Bush’s father set the low bar, 11 percent, in 1992.) Rarely does one hear an American Jew reply, “I don’t like her position on health care” or “I’m pro–gay marriage and she isn’t.” This is not just about differences over issues or party labels. There is something more fundamental at play.
On one level, part of the explanation lies in misunderstanding and media-induced panic. As Continetti documents in his telling book,* the media frenzy that surrounded Palin upon her surprise selection by McCain at the end of August 2008 led to distortions and outright falsehoods that had particular toxicity in the Jewish community. The most inflammatory of these was her alleged support for Patrick J. Buchanan. As Continetti writes,
The notion quickly took hold over the press corps that Palin was a supporter of paleoconservative writer and commentator Patrick Buchanan.?.?.?.?Buchanan’s positions on World War II, Israel, the Iraq war, social mores and trade are outside the Republican mainstream. Support for Buchanan would have been a major liability for Palin.
Such support would have been considered an acute liability, of course, by American Jews, who know and properly loathe Buchanan for his anti-Semitism.
The press ran with the story, despite its falsity, that Palin was a Buchananite. She had, in fact, supported the wonkish and pro-Israel Steve Forbes for president in 2000. Her association with Buchanan consisted solely of her attendance at a speech during a 1999 visit to Alaska by the candidate at which she wore a Buchanan button, “out of politeness,” she later explained. Nevertheless, the image took hold and was used to good effect by Obama’s team to frighten Jews. Robert Wexler, a Florida congressman tasked with overcoming Jewish concerns about Obama, unleashed a blast almost immediately upon the announcement of McCain’s choice, declaring:
John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for president in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans. Pat Buchanan is a Nazi sympathizer with a uniquely atrocious record on Israel, even going as far as to denounce bringing former Nazi soldiers to justice and praising Adolf Hitler for his “great courage.” At a time when standing up for Israel’s right to self-defense has never been more critical, John McCain has failed his first test of leadership and judgment by selecting a running mate who has aligned herself with a leading anti-Israel voice in American politics. It is frightening that John McCain would select someone one heartbeat away from the presidency who supported a man who embodies vitriolic anti-Israel sentiments.
An Obama spokesman chimed in the same day, telling a Florida paper that “Palin was a supporter of Pat Buchanan?.?.?.?a Nazi sympathizer.”
The notion was planted that Palin herself was, by association, anti-Israel, and Jews remained convinced of that, despite her unflinching support for the Jewish state, the presence in her gubernatorial office of an Israeli flag, and her eagerness to attend a rally protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the UN in the fall of 2008 (which was canceled at the behest of Obama supporters, no doubt to deprive Palin of that platform).
But this invented affiliation with Buchanan is inadequate to explain the anti-Palin fever gripping American Jews, which can best be understood as the result of her alignment with a series of issues and cultural markers that antagonize a large segment of the American Jewish community. If one were to invent a political leader designed to drive liberal, largely secular, urban, highly educated Jews to distraction, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more effective figure than Palin.
Although she made her way in Alaska politics as a political outsider and governed with a focus on ethics reform and energy policy, Palin came to be far more identified during the presidential campaign with a cluster of highly fractious social issues—abortion, contraception, and church-state separation. In point of fact, as governor she refused to convene a special legislative session on abortion and appointed a Planned Parenthood board member to the state supreme court. No matter. The image that voters received of her was of an extremist on social issues intent on rolling back the long-fought-for gains liberals had achieved. And after all, she was unabashedly pro-life, a woman whose Down-syndrome son literally became the poster child for the Alaska Right to Life organization.
This, to say the least, did not go over well with American Jews. Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice, more so than any other group. (In a 1980 NBC poll, 89 percent of Jews responded that the decision to have an abortion should be the woman’s alone.) And the vast majority of Jewish women, as Norman Podhoretz writes in Why Are Jews Liberals?, “think that the absolute right to an abortion had been inscribed on the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai.” If the media repackaged Palin as an especially strident pro-lifer and social-conservative extremist as part of the effort to marginalize her with mainstream voters, that effort was particularly effective in turning off Jewish voters, for whom these issues are among the most potent.
Likewise, the distortions of Palin’s views on church-state matters played directly into the fears of liberal and largely secularized Jews (stoked since the emergence of the Moral Majority and heightened by the increased political activism of evangelical Christians) that she would seek to impose a specifically Christian agenda on the nation. Again, Palin’s actual record went largely undiscussed. In a radio interview during her tenure as governor, Palin specifically declared that she would not push for a creationist curriculum. During the 2008 race, she told interviewers that local schools should be teaching science and designing their own curricula. However, Jews, like all voters, were bombarded with news reports to the contrary.
In her first national interview, Charles Gibson of ABC News mangled the details of a June 2008 talk she gave at the Assembly of God church she attended in her hometown of Wasilla. “You said recently,” Gibson told her, “in your old church, [that] our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.” Palin had actually said something far different. She had encouraged the assembled to “pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God.” This was an unexceptionable sentiment; Abraham Lincoln made the same point when he famously declared that “I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” In reporting her words falsely, Gibson was building on the very caricature of the Religious Right that works to such devastating effect on American Jews in particular. Indeed, even when it comes to her support for Israel, Palin’s position is rejected by many liberal Jews because of a suspicion that her enthusiastic backing of the settlement movement is based on eschatological expectations that reinforce their own prejudices against Evangelicals.
Certainly, Palin’s status as an unabashed conservative and as exemplar of the Religious Right would have been sufficient to alienate the majority of American Jews. Yet if that were all, and that is plenty, Palin still would not provoke the degree of hostility with which most Jews regard her. Something else bothers them more. That something else is Palin herself.
American Jews are largely urban, clustered in Blue States, culturally sophisticated, with more years of college and postgraduate education than the average American. According to Tom W. Smith’s 2005 Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Study, “Jews attach great importance to seeking knowledge and highly value education and science. Their pursuit of education leads them to higher occupational status, better vocabulary scores, and more vociferous newspaper reading. It also influences many attitudes and values, which, in America, tend to become more liberal with higher education.” It is not surprising, then, that Jews historically have not warmed to politicians who do not project intellectual sophistication. George W. Bush is in fact an avid reader and a possessor of two Ivy League degrees, but his populist persona and avowed contempt for liberal academics were red flags to Jews.
So it was with Palin, and, if possible, even more so than with Bush. Although she grew up in a household where her mother read poetry aloud, and Palin herself read voraciously as a teenager and initially chose a career in journalism, she, like Bush, soft-pedaled her intellectual interests—and, more important, suggested that her policy views and problem-solving abilities were derived not from what she had learned in books but rather from character and instinct. For those for whom an Ivy League education is the essential calling card for leadership of any sort, an elite-bashing populist with a journalism degree from the University of Idaho who lacks both a mellifluous grasp of policy and a self-consciously erudite vocabulary was always going to be a hard sell. As Continetti observes with savage irony, “The American meritocratic elite places a high priority on verbal felicity and the attitudes, practices and jargon that one picks up during graduate seminars in nonprofit management, government accounting and the semiotics of Percy Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark.’” Given that Jews are overrepresented in these sorts of professions, it is not surprising that they would be among those most put off by Palin.
Jews, who have excelled at intellectual pursuits, understandably are swayed by the notion that the presidency is a knowledge-based position requiring a background in the examination of detailed data and sophisticated analysis. They assume that such knowledge is the special preserve of a certain type of credentialed thinker (the better the university, the more unquestioned the credential) and that possessing this knowledge is the key to a successful presidency. This was not the prevailing conception of the presidency through most of American history; indeed, the very idea of a technocratic president is of recent vintage. The argument that such knowledge might be acquired or accessed when necessary by a person who has demonstrated a more instinctual skill set—the capacity to make decisions and to lead people—does not resonate with those for whom intellectual rigor has been a defining characteristic and a pathway to success.
Palin’s intellectual unfitness in the eyes of Jews was exaggerated during the course of the campaign as they, like other Americans, received an incomplete image of her abilities and talents. In Going Rogue, Palin devotes dozens of pages to eye-glazing particulars about Alaska state budgets, energy deals, and the new methodology her administration devised for calculating Alaska’s share of revenue from resource development. By offering this level of detail in her book, Palin is attempting, she and her boosters hope, to establish her bona fides as a fiscal sharpshooter and cagey negotiator who took her job very seriously and whose skills were cultivated without reliance on an elite university education. But that understanding of Palin’s work as a public servant—as someone who solved difficult problems and did so by working across partisan lines—was obscured during the 2008 campaign by the successful effort to paint her as a know-nothing lightweight with a stunted vocabulary.
That latter image was forged in a disastrous CBS interview with Katie Couric. During the course of it, Palin appeared miffed when asked to name her favorite news publications. Whether this was evidence of her lack of interest in reading and current events or whether it was a display of intellectual modesty (she would later say she refused to answer out of irritation), Jews found such reticence hard to fathom and quickly came to believe it was not reticence but utter ignorance. When rumors circulated that she had “banned books” (she had not), that image became intensified, as pro-Obama media outlets suggested ominously that she was not simply lacking in sophisticated book learning but was literally anti-book.
Her personal life made her even more alien to American Jews. She comes from the wilderness, brags about hunting and eating native animals, and is a proud gun owner. Then there is the matter of the composition of her family. Outside the Orthodox community, where large families are increasingly the norm, having five children, as Palin does, is aberrant to American Jews. According to Smith’s study, Jews “have fewer brothers and sisters than any other ethnic/racial or religious group (2.4 vs. an average of 3.8)” and “the smallest current household size of any ethnic/racial or religious group (2.5 vs. an average of 2.9).”
Palin calls herself a “hockey mom” and brags aloud about the athletic prowess of her children, while Jews are more likely to sport “My child Is an Honor Student” bumper stickers. Palin’s oldest, Track, has joined the military, while many Jews lack a family military tradition. Not for the Palins the quiet pride in good grades and good boards; the family’s esteem is tied up more in Sarah’s husband Todd Palin’s “iron dog” snowmobile racing skills.
And, of course, there is Palin’s youngest. Pro-life Americans saw Palin’s son Trig, born with Down syndrome in April 2008, as an affirmation of Palin’s deeply held beliefs, a rare instance in which a politician did more than mouth platitudes about a “culture of life.” But in affluent communities with large Jewish populations, Down-syndrome children are now largely absent due to the widespread use of diagnostic testing and “genetics counseling.” Trig was not a selling point with many Jewish women who couldn’t imagine making a similar choice—indeed, many have, in fact, made the opposite one.
Palin’s unprecedented success as a working-woman politician—from PTA member to governor in 12 years, even as she raised a family with a Teamster husband living elsewhere for his job six months out of the year—was overlooked or dismissed as Jewish women and others focused obsessively on trivialities. Palin had been a star high-school basketball player in her teens and entered a beauty pageant (to put herself through school), both of which served to transform her, in Wolf’s eyes, into “Sarah ‘Evita’ Palin?.?.?.?Rove and Cheney’s cosmetic rebranding of their fascist putsch” and, for others, into a “bimbo” who was an “insult” to women (in Gloria Steinem’s words). Even worse, Palin was and is more overtly sexual and more athletic than her critics. And she was slammed for it, called a “sexy librarian,” a “slutty flight attendant,” or even more noxiously, in the words of a reporter for Salon.com, “a Republican blow-up doll.”
Popular Jewish and non-Jewish female politicians—from Senator Diane Feinstein to Madeleine Albright to Hillary Clinton—have been modest to the point of frumpiness in appearance and professional in style, and therefore perfectly acceptable to Jewish women who aspired to similar positions of responsibility. Palin was another story, even if the story was in large part fictional. As Continetti documents, Palin had to live through a sex-infused attack. There was Topco’s “This Is Not Sarah Palin Inflatable Love Doll” and a plethora of phony Internet photos displaying Palin in everything from an American-flag bikini to nothing at all. Respectable columnists like Kathleen Parker suggested that Palin had basically seduced McCain to get the vice-presidential nomination (“his judgment may have been clouded”), while reporters described her October 2009 UN visit as “speed dating.”
And there is the matter of social class. As she recounts in Going Rogue, Palin and her husband had labored at jobs most professional and upper-middle-class Jews would never dream of holding—waitressing, picking “strawberries in the mud and mosquitoes?.?.?.?for five cents flat,” sweeping parking lots, and many “messy, obscure seafood jobs, including long shifts on a stinky shore-based crab-processing vessel.” Her populist appeal and identification with working-class voters are rooted in a life experience that is removed by one or two generations from the lives of most American Jews. Her life is what they were expected to rise above.
As Continetti argues, Palin should have represented a success story about upward mobility through hard work, but instead she was on the receiving end of class animosity from elite media and opinion makers who had never before really been asked to accept the notion that someone outside their socio-economic circles could be qualified for the nation’s highest office. Palin is unique among recent presidential candidates in that regard. Democrats John Edwards and Dick Gephardt made a fetish of their families’ modest means, but by the time they achieved prominence, they had firmly ensconced themselves in the upper middle class, as is true of virtually all national politicians these days. Palin was married to a blue-collar worker who labored alternately on a fishing boat and an oil pipeline.
In a real sense, by the way she lives and the style she has adopted, Sarah Palin is the precise reverse image of an American Jewish professional woman. The two are polar opposites. The repulsion is almost magnetic in nature.
It is conceivable that Palin could make inroads in the Jewish community? On the one hand, she doesn’t have anywhere to go but up. Certainly her willingness to speak in favor of the special relationship America has with Israel could mitigate some of the damage done to her reputation, once news of her support for the Jewish state and opposition to the administration’s effort to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel finally gets through to the Jewish community.
And if Palin is determined to convince skeptics that they have her all wrong, she will need to, as many well-meaning conservatives have advised, sharpen her approach to a range of issues beyond energy policy (where she has demonstrated expertise) and refine her vision of what she dubs “commonsense conservatism.” While she is an expostulator of the idea, prominent throughout American political history, that a leader with a commonsense approach to decision-making is best suited to governing the United States, she must accept the obligation to speak with authority and command about pressing public-policy issues. She will have to make voters comfortable with the idea that she is neither ignorant nor lacking in intellectual agility.
Unless she is content to write off significant segments of the electorate (and she may be), Palin cannot simply play to her natural base by castigating elite politicians and opinion makers as indifferent or hostile (which many are) to the values of ordinary Americans; she must also demonstrate that she can go toe-to-toe with them in articulating positions on the issues that all candidates are expected to address. And she must explain why her particular life skills and experience are more reliable indicators of successful leadership than elite credentials. Much of the country may be primed to hear a critique of the shortcomings of Ivy League–educated elites, but voters will expect to hear just how it is that Palin’s background, philosophy, and proposals would mark an improvement over the present.
All that, even if done expertly, may only minimally lessen the animosity toward her. Palin’s anti-elitism and her embrace of social conservatism, which are now integral to her persona, will in all likelihood continue to make her unpopular with the great majority of Jews. She is not about to change her appearance, her stance on abortion, or her disdain for media elites. And Jews are not about to cast aside their preference for those leaders whom they perceive as intellectually worthy—and socially compatible.