I think George Lakoff has this right: “Democrats who simply belittle the Palin choice are courting disaster”, he says, because whatever her merits on the issues, she is a strong symbol of conservative values:
Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force. In fundamentalist religion, the Bible is the ultimate authority; hence no gay marriage. Such values are at the heart of radical conservatism. This is how John McCain was raised and how he plans to govern. And it is what he shares with Sarah Palin.
Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins, and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America. It is Reagan’s morning-in-America image. Where Obama thought of capturing the West, she is running for Sweetheart of the West.
And Palin, a member of Feminism For Life, is at the heart of the conservative feminist movement, which Ronee Schreiber has written about in her recent book, Righting Feminism. It is a powerful and growing movement that Democrats have barely paid attention to.
At the same time, Palin is masterful at the Republican game of taking the Democrats’ language and reframing it-putting conservative frames to progressive words: Reform, prosperity, peace. She is also masterful at using the progressive narratives: she’s from the working class, working her way up from hockey mom and the PTA to Mayor, Governor, and VP candidate. Her husband is a union member. She can say to the conservative populists that she is one of them — all the things that Obama and Biden have been saying. Bottom-up, not top-down.
Yes, the McCain-Palin ticket is weak on the major realities. But it is strong on the symbolic dimension of politics that Republicans are so good at marketing. Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths should be enough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response to symbolism cannot be ignored. The initial Democratic response to Palin — the response based on realities alone — indicates that many Democrats have not learned the lessons of the Reagan and Bush years.
Hollywood could not have created a better symbol for “social conservatives” than Palin. The perception that she is being attacked by liberals adds to her symbolic value.