“Palin Is Like Obama”

December 20, 2009 at 12:51 am (By Amba) (, )

Phrased like an Althouse tag (though I don’t know if she’s ever made it a tag), a meme I picked up on before Sam Tanenhaus of the New Yorker:

The fascination with Palin owes something to the way that her cultish aura mirrors, or refracts, the aura that surrounds Barack Obama, the other political figure who comfortably inhabits the nexus of politics and celebrity. It has become fashionable to ridicule Palin as a tabloid creature, but it was not so long ago that Obama was being depicted as the chum of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Even now, the nimbus of celebrity clings to him, often with deflationary effect—for instance, during his recent visit to China, when at times he seemed less the leader of a major diplomatic mission than an attractive student ambassador, genially exporting good will and posing for photographs. When CNN intercut its evening coverage of Obama’s trip with Palin’s first bookstore appearance, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the two mise en scènes seemed eerily equivalent.

For the moment, Obama and Palin divide the electorate, and are bound by a strange symmetry [my point exactly]: born in the nineteen-sixties, the only candidates from outside the Lower 48 ever to grace national tickets, and the beneficiaries of powerful social movements that they were too young to have participated in (civil rights in Obama’s case, women’s liberation in Palin’s). Just as Obama, with his “post-racial” affect and his Ivy League pedigree, made an older African-American political figure like Jesse Jackson seem the relic of a vanished era, so Palin—with her lustrous mane and form-fitting skirts, her coddling of her infant son in the full glare of TV cameras—presented a new model of the spontaneous woman politician, free of the overmanaged self-discipline that constrains Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Enthusiasts of either one who disagreed or criticized me for comparing them were focusing on content; I was focusing on form.  They are similar and symmetrical containers for antithetical contents:  avatars of the two poles of a riven America.


  1. El Pollo Real said,

    Enthusiasts of either one who disagreed or criticized me for comparing them were focusing on content; I was focusing on form.

    I haven’t really changed my opinion on this since you wrote about it last summer. There is really nothing in Obama that represents me or speaks to me, while so much does about Palin. Someone recently made the comparison of Sarah Palin to Andrew Jackson on Althouse; I think there’s something to that.

    They are similar and symmetrical containers for antithetical contents: avatars of the two poles of a riven America.

    Oh well, at least I know I’m from the North Pole and not the South Pole. In this age of Twitter, perhaps it’ll be the one with the most followers who wins. That’s still democracy, isn’t it?

  2. amba said,

    You’re still talking about content. She represents you; you identify with her. She carries your content/values; he doesn’t. The fact remains that for those who identify with him, he is what she is to you: an uncannily perfect embodiment of their values. And this is (perforce) seeing them both as media figures, icons, not up-close, actual human beings. They are both in reality surely more complicated than the opposed ideals they symbolize. Their images seem “real” to their admirers precisely because they’re not — because they’re simpler, bolder, brighter avatars than any “real” person could be.

    In fact, by giving up her real job, Palin has moved into the realm of pure avatar, while by getting the job he campaigned for, Obama is becoming all too real. That’s one reason why her popularity is rising and his is falling.

    My detachment from both of them may seem creepy, but that’s where I am.

  3. El Pollo Real said,

    But what major political figure isn’t like Palin or Obama? Did people who identified with JFK actually know the real man? Were they in any way like him?
    I think it has been a very long since any elected official at the top was elected because people had a genuine or “real” connection with people.

    As a caveat, I’ll add that last month I took a day off from work (it was Veteran’s Day-which was school holiday here in Oceanside). A local city councilman was walking the neighborhood, looking for support in a recall election that he faced. We chatted a bit about the issues and he convinced me to be sure and vote in the special election this month. He won (the recall failed).

    Twitter has also been enabling for political connection. I follow my congressman Darrell Issa. On at least one occasion, I’ve tweeted a response to something he’s posted, and he responded. The context made it clear that he wasn’t delegating tweets. Talk about contact with constituents. Of course, these political types lose the ability to maintain such contact as they climb the ladder-the sheer number of people vying for their attention sees to that.

  4. amba12 said,

    My dad said years ago, long before the media were so overwhelming, that you can’t really accurately evaluate a politician — a candidate, I think was the context — unless you know him (or her) personally. Which, of course, few can or do. (After someone has been in office you can evaluate their actions, but then it’s usually too late! Not too late NOT to reelect them, of course.)

    So why does the avatar-hood of these two in particular seem so strange and outstanding to me? Probably because a) the media has uncannily perfected the art of converting person into persona, and certain politicians are uncannily gifted at playing into that; and b) the opposed symmetry between the two of them is particularly striking; like the two sides of a Rorschach blot.

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