John McCain’s convention gambit is now a culture war strategy. It depends for its execution on conflict with journalists, and with bloggers (the “angry left,” Bush called them last night) along with confusion between and among the press, the blogosphere, and the Democratic party. It revives cultural memory: the resentment narrative after Chicago ’68 but with the angry left more distributed. It dispenses with issues and seeks a trial of personalities. It bets big time on backlash.
At the center of the strategy is the flashpoint candidacy of Sarah Palin, a charismatic figure around whom the war can be brought to scale, as it were. In fact the Politico is reporting just that: Palin reignites culture wars.
I have no idea if the ignition system will work; nor do I claim that “this is what they were thinking” when they made the decision to nominate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Other interpretations may turn out to be truer than mine. This post is my look at the bets McCain and company seem to be placing. I am not recommending the strategy. I am not predicting it will succeed. I think it was improvised, like my description here….
The storm around Sarah Pailn overtakes the story of the Republican convention and merges with it, like a smaller but stronger company taking over a larger but troubled enterprise. Behind the storm a “wave narrative” builds as her appointment generates headlines on multiple fronts. The irresistible force of fact-fed controversy meets the immovable enthusiasm for Palin as cultural object: charismatic everywoman straight from the imagination of conservative America.
• The basic strategy is: don’t fight the “crisis” narrative. Rather, do things that bring it on; and in that crisis re-divide the electorate hoping to grab the bigger half.
The evangelical wing, and other social conservatives are strongly moved by her candidacy. More and more of their commitment to McCain is vested in him through her. As Andrew Sullivan writes: “The emotions involved — especially among the Christianist base who have immediately bonded on purely religious and cultural terms with Palin — are epic.”
• The strategy: sell the epic version of her candidacy. Allow her to become bigger than McCain in narrative terms. And let the two mavericks together overawe the Republican party, a damaged brand.
Continued bad news on the investigation front adds further drama, new fact streams and more protagonists to the Sarah Palin story. As more comes out about the decision to name Sarah Palin to the ticket, it’s harder to see how anyone on the inside thought it McCain’s best choice for president-in-waiting.
• Strategy: Give no ground, pile on the praise for her performance in Alaska, pump up her governor’s experience to death-defying extremes, hope for theatrical confrontation with characters in the mainstream media who can star as the cosmopolitan elites in the sudden politics of resentment the convention has been driven to.
Bloggers and open platforms continue to publish riskier — and risque — material, some of it unfit for family consumption, some of it false, salacious and reckless, some of it true, relevant and damaging, a portion of which is picked up by the traditional press.
• Strategy: confound and collapse all distinctions between closed editorial systems (like the newsroom of the New York Times), open systems (like the blogging community DailyKos.com) and political systems, like the Democratic party and its activist wing. Whenever possible mix these up. Conflate constantly. Attack them all. Jump from one to the other without warning or thread. Sow confusion among streams and let that confusion mix with the resentment in a culture war atmosphere.
As more emerges about how the McCain camp made the decision, the appointment looks more and reckless, the decision rushed, the vetting inadequate. This leads to advanced jeering from the left, intense criticism in the press, damaging leaks from within the Republican party, fueling calls from within and without for Sarah Palin to remove herself.
• Strategy: stick with “she was fully vetted” no matter what comes out. People who don’t believe it are trying to bring down Palin’s historic candidacy; or they don’t accept that a conservative women can be the one to break the glass ceiling. If some establishment Republicans are skeptical or trying to stop her, that’s good for the crisis narrative, and good for two maverick candidates.
Sarah Palin under intense pressure then gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.
• Strategy: bingo, that’s your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.
Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.
• Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite — at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all “access” expectations. Use surrogates and spokesman, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.
Meanwhile, the investigation of her performance in Alaska puts more and more pressure on the Palin appointment as things come out that would ordinarily disqualify a candidate from consideration or cast doubt on her truthfulness in a grave way.
• Strategy: Comes from Bush, the younger. When realities uncovered are directly in conflict with prior claims, consider the option of keeping the claims and breaking with reality. Done the right way, it’s a demonstration of strength. It dismays and weakens the press. And it can be great theatre.
Jay Rosen teaches Journalism at New York University, where has been on the faculty since 1986. From 1999 to 2005 he served as chair of the Department. He lives in New York City.
Rosen is the author of PressThink, a weblog about journalism and its ordeals (www.pressthink.org), which he introduced in September 2003. In June 2005, PressThink won the Reporters Without Borders 2005 Freedom Blog award for outstanding defense of free expression. In July 2006 he announced the debut NewAssignment.Net, his experimental site for pro-am, open source reporting projects. The first one was called Assignment Zero, a collaboration with Wired.com. A second project is OfftheBus.Net with the Huffington Post. He serves as co-publisher of OffTheBus with Arianna Huffington. A third was introduced in November 2007: beatblogging.org (“Follow along as 13 reporters build social networks into their beats.”)
This commentary originally appeared at The Huffington Post.