Today's episode of the Sarah Palin chronicles comes via Matt Yglesias who asks:
I continue to be baffled as to how moose hunting, which surely almost nobody in the United States does given what a small portion of the country is within moose range, has been construed as an all-American hobby.
I assume Matt is being arch here, since really this is not something that should baffle him or anyone else. Hint: the moose is not the heart of the matter. It's the hunting that counts and, of course, the unapologetic, natural way Palin talks about hunting and outdoor life. It's not a ploy or a fatuous attempt to curry political favour (cf. Mitt Romney's "varmint" hunting or John Kerry's trying-too-hard shooting trip days before the 2004 election), it's just something she does. It's part of who she is.
Other politicians talk about respecting gun-owners and hunters, she is a gun-owner and hunter. There's a considerable, obvious difference. And you don't have to be from the west or Texas to appreciate this. Nor do you need to be a Republican. There are an awful lot of liberal hunters out there who might well disagree with Palin on eight out of ten issues, but for whom her hunting persona is a major mark in her favour. Sufficiently important in fact for them to be comfortable with her, regardless of other disagreements. As I've argued before, her appeal to blue-collar men and Reagan Democrats in places such as central Pennsylvania, south-western Ohio and southern Michigan ought not to be discounted.
Sure, you might buy the Thomas Frank thesis and argue that these voters are being sold a (seal) pup, but they may not see it that way. There are plenty of people in Pennsylvania for whom the start of the deer shooting season is just about the most important day of the year.
One reason, I think, that cultural issues resonate to such a seemingly disproportionate extent is that, however much they grumble and whatever they might tell the pollsters, many, perhaps even most voters know there's only so much the government can do for them in terms of jobs or other immediate economic issues. They might wish it could do more but they have a hard time reconciling that with the fact that, deep down, they do kind of suspect that the old times really are gone forever.
In other words, economic populism can get the blood pumping, but once the speeches are done and the rally's over outrage gives way to wistfulness and a recognition that there's no going back to those happy, simpler days of yore. (I know it's only TV, but check out the second series of The Wire, set in the port of Baltimore, for an example of what I mean.)
Cultural issues, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether. They're not subject to irrevocable changes in the global economy. Voters still feel - still know in fact - that politicians can legislate in these areas, can indeed take away your rights or undermine (in your eyes) cultural institutions that you hold precious, can in fact have an immediate - and immediately apparent - impact on your life. Is it a surprise that voters would, therefore, consider these issues important? Perhaps even or apparently disproportionately so?
In other words, the "Culture Wars" aren't just a Republican confidence trick. They're a logical response to politicians' diminished ability to make the economic weather (or, to put it another way, politicians' increased if still imperfect willingness to recognise their relative impotence in today's global economy). Cultural issues have perforce, then, taken up some of the slack.
This is, I think(!), broadly true even on a day when a major Wall St investment bank declares bankruptcy. Unless, that is, you think a President Obama or a President McCain could have prevented this. In which case, I have a number of bridges in Alaska I'd be interested in selling to you...