Media tycoon and liberal activist Arianna Huffington described the situation perfectly when she said: “the most important political ad of 2010 so far did not play on television, and came from someone not currently running for any office.”
She was, of course, referring to the now famous “Mama Grizzlies” viral advert for Sarah Palin. The video depicts women of various ages at a range of different Tea Party events and Palin rallies. All the while, the images are accompanied with the sound of applause interspersed with choice sound bytes from a speech made by Palin. The speech waxes lyrical about the power of women to change the country for the better in the name of their children, “because Moms kinda just know when something’s wrong”. The general gist of the advert is summed up at the very end with the following lines:
“I always think of the mama grizzly bears that rise up on their hind legs when somebody is coming to attack their cubs… You thought pit bulls were tough? Well, you don’t wanna mess with the mama grizzlies!”
As many of her detractors were quick to point out, the video itself is completely free of policy. This is very typical of Palin’s political rhetoric, but such exclamations from her critics rather miss the point.
American politics is at a critical juncture. Obama’s government has had a great victory in its healthcare reform bill of March 2010. However, the backlash has been heavy, with the Tea Party movement snow-balling at an unprecedented rate – and the exemplary victory of the Conservative Scott Brown in the fight to become Senator of the previously ‘true blue’ liberal state of Massachusetts. All the while, the war in Afghanistan continues to deliver heavy casualties, drain money and worst of all, show no end in sight.
While many on this side of the Atlantic may still be simply relieved that the Conservative era of Dubya Bush has passed, in the States, the liberal government faces a very tough fight in the upcoming mid-terms. And the above video is merely a snapshot of the kind of muscle the opposition is flexing.
If the Democratic party is to have any chance of beating the Conservative onslaught, it needs to understanding the key to Palin’s popularity. Why does this woman, so light on policy and so apparently uneducated as to think ‘refudiate‘ is a word, manage nonetheless to garner such impressive political force?
This is, in fact, not so much a political question as one of pop psychology and snazzy advertising. It is not her political message that people respond to (because, so far, there hasn’t really been much on that front), but her use of clear symbols. Palin’s evocation of the momma grizzly selflessly guarding her cubs from danger is one that will resonate with any mother. It is also a subtle, but flattering, comparison to the conservative women America listening to her. Any mother would like to think that she would do anything to ensure the safety of her children.
Palin is not the first Conservative politician to have used the symbol of the bear to such great effect. In an article published on the 1st of this month, Huffington points to an ad used to great success by Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presdiential race which later became known as “there’s a bear in the woods”.
This ad, aiming to make Reagan’s adversary’s stances on national security look weak, depicts a bear (the Russian Bear being a personification of Russia) stalking through woods. The voiceover suggests that, though nobody can be sure if there is a bear lurking in the forest, or that it is dangerous, it would still be wise to be strong and prepared.
Reagan won by a landslide. In fact, it was the worst defeat suffered by a Democratic candidate in American history.
The lesson here is clear. In a time of national crisis such as this one, emotional messages of solidarity, which encourage the uncertain audience to think of the good of their fellow man, are very persuasive. Dangerously so, in fact. As America has shown already this century, when its people feel threatened, there is no telling how extreme their reactions will be. Or how irrational. This is, after all, what people do when they are scared.
The liberal left of America would do well to learn the ways of its opponents now rather than at a later, more uncertain date. For all that the punditocracy may enjoy ridiculing her lack of policy or indeed, her talent for inventing words, Sarah Palin is not going anywhere. Nor are the millions of disgruntled Americans behind her.