In the wake of John McCain picking Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, it will be very difficult for Democrats -- and impossible for the media -- to avoid falling for the framing trap in this choice.
What is the trap? Whoever is talking about "John McCain and women" in response to the VP pick is now in the GOP framing trap. Gov. Palin's gender is a biological fact, but it is not the political issue germane to her nomination. The real issue in Gov. Palin's nomination is her outspoken support for various forms of political cruelty -- both in the media and in her policy positions.
McCain's Cynical PR Strategy
By focusing on her gender, the media has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the PR campaign pushed by McCain.
Although Gov. Palin is clearly a bad choice for women, the McCain campaign is using her as part of a larger framing push to say the opposite. Nobody is more complicit in this propaganda than Carly Fiorina.
In a blatant attempt to use the media to undercut the Democratic National Convention in Colorado, Fiornia published an op-ed in Friday's Denver Post with the conspicuously propagandist title, "John McCain is the Right Choice for Women." Fiorna's article is a transparent attempt by the McCain campaign to sell their candidate as 'feminist' with an eye towards attracting supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton:
When feminist pioneer and poet Robin Morgan was asked this year if she was supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton just because Clinton was a woman, Morgan replied, "No. I'm supporting her because I am."
I'm reminded of this as I campaign around the country for John McCain and particularly as I've spoken to women. It's especially on my mind today, on the historic occasion of both Hillary Clinton's speech to the Democratic National Convention, and the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage. Women of all political persuasions are taking a serious look at John McCain.
Within hours of Fiorna's article, the McCain campaign announced Palin as their choice--using language almost identical to Fiorina's Op-Ed:
The person I'm about to introduce to you was a union member and is married to a union member, and understands the problems, the hopes and the values of working people; knows what it's like to worry about mortgage payments and health care, the cost of gasoline and groceries. A standout high school point guard; a concerned citizen who became a member of the PTA; then a city council member, and then a mayor; and now a governor who beat the long odds to win a tough election on a message of reform and public integrity. And, I am especially proud to say in the week we celebrate the anniversary of women's suffrage, a devoted wife and a mother of five.
Take a second look at that last line in that paragraph from McCain:
And, I am especially proud to say in the week we celebrate the
anniversary of women's suffrage, a devoted wife and a mother of five.
What we see in this line is a framing strategy from the McCain communications team, whereby the campaign attempts to convince the public that John McCain is good for women's rights by associated his name with the suffragette movement. The first step of that campaign was to roll out a high-profile op-ed from a campaign surrogate (Fiorina) with the false claim that John McCain is the choice of 'feminists' and the symbolic fulfillment of the suffragette movement. The second step is to have the candidate reference the suffragette movement again in reference to his VP choice.
Cynical Campaign Insults Memory of Suffragettes
But wait a minute: McCain said that when he thinks about the suffragettes, he is proud of the fact that Gov. Palin is a devoted wife and mother.
If we just take a second to crack open our American history books and pull up a speech from Susan B. Anthony, perhapas the most famous leader of the American suffragette movement, we quickly see how much McCain's comment would have been rejected -- vehemently -- by the very movement he claims to now represent. In this 1872 speech given after she was arrested for casting an illegal vote in the presidential election, Susan B. Anthony said the following -- hold onto your hat, this is a powerful quote:
It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people -- women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government -- the ballot.
For any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. By it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity.
To them this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. To them this government is not a democracy. It is not a republic. It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor. An oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household - which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.
Does that sound like something John McCain would say? Not even close. Does that sound like something Gov. Palin would say? No way.
Gov. Palin, despite her gender, has demonstrated how complicit she is in the very 'hateful' forces described by Susan B. Anthony almost a century-and-half ago. Gov. Palin has shown herself to be in sync not with the movement to value women's voices, but with the right-wing media movement that seeks to undermine our civil culture.
In January 2007, Gov. Palin participated in an on air interview with right-wing shock jocks "Bob & Mark," during which the hosts repeatedly demeaned Gov. Palin's political opponent, Senate President Lynda Green, using crass epithets. Gov. Palin's response did not embody any political legacy from the suffragette movement. She simply laughed along.
Summing up the incident for the Anchorage Daily News, Dan Fagan observed:
The Daily News opinion page addressed the governor's gaffe. They wrote, "She came off looking immature herself, almost high-schoolish. It was conduct unbecoming a governor."
It was conduct unbecoming a human being, never mind a governor.
The governor's office eventually tried to spin the public relations disaster, releasing a statement reading, "Governor Palin was caught off guard by Bob Lester's reference to Senate President Lyda Green."
I don't buy it. Early on in the conversation before Palin started to crack up, Lester referred to Sen. Green as a jealous woman and a cancer. Palin, who knows full well Lyda Green is a cancer survivor, didn't do what any decent person would do, say, "Bob, that's going too far."
But as the conversation moved on, Lester intensified his attack on Green.
Lester questioned Green's motherhood, asking Palin if the senator cares about her own kids. Palin laughs.
Then Lester clearly sets the stage for what he is about to say by warning his large audience and Palin. He says, "Governor you can't say this but I will, Lyda Green is a cancer and a b----." Palin laughs for the second time.
What were teenage boys thinking when they heard the governor laugh at someone being called a b----? How about the teenage girls who look up to Palin. What did they think when they heard her laugh?
What do young boys think when they hear a governor laugh at a female elected official being described as a "b---h?" They think it is commendable behavior. What do teenage girls think when they hear a female governor laugh at the gendered put downs of another female member of government? They think that that women do not deserve to play active roles in American government--that they should be happy to be 'devoted' wives and mothers, but leave the governing to men.
The conversation America should be having about Gov. Sarah Palin, in other words, is not about women or gender or suffragettes. That is the communications plan the McCain campaign wants us all to follow.
Instead, Americans should use the Gov. Palin nomination as an opportunity to talk about the corrosive impact of right-wing media on our political culture.
If we are truly interested the politics of Gov. Palin, then we must be willing to look past the cynical effort by John McCain to use her gender to brand himself falsely as the inheritor of the women's rights movement. We should take this moment to focus the debate on the policy threats Gov. Palin brings to the table.
Among other concerns Gov. Palin has been described as a pro-life 'zealot' who believes that the victims of rape and incest should be subjugated by law to forced pregnancy and required to give birth to their assailant's child. One would be hard pressed to think of a form of punishment more cruel and inhumane, then a law that would sentence a woman to prison if she refused to give birth to the child of a man who raped her.
Cruelty, not gender. That, America, is Gov. Sarah Palin. And that is the discussion we should demand from our media.