Sunday, August 31, 2008

Identity Politics

(On the offchance that anybody was wondering: no, I'm not dead. It was simply a case of growing a little disillusioned with the people and topics that prompted me to start writing here in the first place. That, and the evil addictiveness of the Great Satan that is Facebook. However, in the last few months I've realised that I really miss writing, writing for myself and not for work, in my own time and space. So here goes.)

Like many, I've been closely following the run-up to the presidential elections over in America, and the circus of the past week's official party nominations has made for some pretty compulsive viewing. History may have been made when Barack Obama became the first-ever black man to accept a nomination to run for US president, but for me, the biggest surprise of the week came on Friday, when John McCain revealed his choice of vice presidential candidate: Sarah Palin, the current governor of Alaska.

It didn't take long for critics to point out a host of flaws in McCain's choice. Until two years ago, Palin's experience of political administration was limited to being the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska; a town with a population of fewer than 7,000 (or fewer than 9,000, depending on which source you believe). She has ventured out of the US twice in her entire life, and has virtually no track record of any positions on foreign policy. She is a staunch advocate of the Alaska natural gas pipeline - an energy project to which both environmentalists and John McCain are opposed. She has few connections on the mainland federal political scene, and had only met McCain twice before accepting his invitation to run for VP, raising questions over the likely success of their potential partnership in administration. On the plus side, her time as mayor and as governor showed a consistent determination to unmask and root out corruption in office, although something tells me she wouldn't find this quite as straightforward a task in DC as in Anchorage.

It seems clear to me that Palin's nomination as Republican VP candidate is wrapped up in identity politics or, to put it more bluntly, tokenism. The level of tit-for-tat between the two party teams is too cute to be true: each has one older "experienced" candidate, counter-balanced by a younger and more dynamic running-mate. Each boasts a "non-traditional" candidate, representing a minority in American federal politics and making it difficult for opponents to criticise them without running the risk of appearing bigoted.

Of the two presidential candidates, McCain seems to have been the cruder in his tokenism while choosing a VP. While Obama's selection of Joe Biden was clearly made to add an experienced voice to support his campaign and the development of his policies, what will Sarah Palin bring to the table for McCain beyond being (a) young and (b) a woman? Cynics might say that these two things are more than enough, and indeed are exactly the qualities that the Republican campaign was lacking until now. But much will depend on how much of a united front McCain and Palin will display in the weeks leading up to November 5th. If McCain goes out on the campaign trail to meet voters mostly alone, and makes his speeches as a standalone figure, it will do him no favours. But while his advisors have surely told him that Palin is his most valuable asset right now, I wonder how much leeway in policy-making he would give her if the Republicans re-take the White House come election day.