Literary Criticism & Political Commentary
Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Sarah Palin Effect

Copyright © 2008 by Diana E. Sheets

Given the current fiscal crisis that has undermined our financial institutions, threatened the solvency of many Americans, and shaken global markets, the Obama/Biden ticket appears poised for victory.  Readers may dismiss the significance of Palin’s bid for the Vice Presidency.  They couldn’t be more mistaken.  Her selection will impact party politics for years to come.

Voters mistakenly assume that the Democratic Party, with its “Nurturant Parent” policies founded on “fairness” and remedial social justice, would be more likely to select the first women as president. They are wrong.  Hypocritical Democrats give lip service to having a woman on the presidential ticket.  Ironically, their men vying for power are increasingly feminized while the two women who have been serious contenders for Democratic Vice President and President thus far—respectively, Geraldine Ferraro (1984) and Hillary Clinton (2008)—exhibit the manly attributes lacking in their male colleagues (  For this reason the party and its voters were reluctant to support them.  By contrast, Republicans, searching for the means and the leadership necessary to attract voters to the Conservative cause are inherently more receptive to a female candidate provided she represents manly virtues while possessing the feminine magnetism necessary to attract the support of party faithful, as well as the enthusiasm of independents—e.g. Sarah Palin.  Thus, the Democratic Party, that bastion of reform, is acting regressively while the Republican Party, noted for their resistance to change, is potentially more likely to select a woman as President if she excites its core conservative constituency.

This essay will demonstrate by means of two examples from British history why the Republican Party is more likely than the Democratic Party to elect the first woman as President.  The essay will then discuss the Palin narrative and its significance for 21st century American politics.

The British electoral reforms of 1832, 1867, and 1884 extended voting rights to men:  respectively, to those of the prosperous middle class, urban workers who met property qualifications, and subsequently to rural labors who also met comparable financial stipulations. Not until 1918 was universal suffrage effectively granted to adult men and, more restrictively, to married women over thirty who met property qualifications.  Only in 1928 were women granted voting rights comparable to men.

Nevertheless, the impact of the expanding electorate when combined with the passage of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act (1883), which imposed limits on campaign expenditures and undue influence of voters, brought change.  As did the Redistribution of Seats Act (1885), which realigned electoral districts to reflect the changing character of voter constituencies, thereby eroding longstanding social networks based on deference.  Consequently, these reforms prompted Lord Salisbury, who became Prime Minister in 1885, to ally the Conservative Party with the Primrose League.  It quickly grew in numbers to become the most important extra-parliamentary organization in Britain in the years prior to World War I (consult my Ph.D. thesis, British Conservatism and the Primrose League: The Changing Character of Popular Politics, 1883-1901,

The official membership of the Primrose League soared from a relatively modest figure of 11,366 in 1885 to 565,861 two years later.  By 1891 it claimed over a million members on its rolls and by 1910 this figure had doubled.  However, the Primrose League made no effort to distinguish between active dues-paying members and former participants.  Consequently, the figure provided for 1888—672,606—is more indicative of active membership during its heyday in late Victorian Britain than official tallies in later years (3, 127-8, 153-5, 157-60, 311-14). 

With an array of titled nobility and gentry represented as leaders and a broad-based participation at its base, the Primrose League was the Conservative Party’s response to the threat of mass democracy.  Its effectiveness was largely due to the support of women within its ranks who nurtured a vibrant political subculture that provided entertainment, pageantry, canvassing of prospective voters, and a willingness to escort members to the polls on Election Day by means of horse-drawn carriages.  It was through these means that the Conservative Party sought to elicit popular support while skirting the prohibitions imposed by the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act (3, 88-9, 93, 95-104, 126-36, 211-26, 240, 243-5, 247-8 252-4, 263-5).

The influence of women in the Primrose League was significant.  By the 1890’s, 17.4% of the offices in its Divisional Councils were female.  Women constituted 25% of the senior offices of the Habitations, and nearly 30% of their Honorary Secretaries.  At the base of the organization, female Wardens and canvassers predominated (126-7, 133-8).

The scope and impact of the Primrose League were without parallel.  Herbert Gladstone, youngest son to Prime Minister William Gladstone, expressed the frustrations of Liberals when he suggested, “The League is a curious compound of duchesses and maids of all work . . . .  All the unscrupulous women of England are members of the Primrose League.  In the country districts they threaten; in the towns they cajole; in both town and country their armouries are overflowing with thousands of yards of flannel and countless sacks of coal (126, quotation cited from The Primrose, February 1, 1887, published in Bournemouth).

Even as late as 1905 when the League’s influence was waning, George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara highlighted the role of the Primrose League in converting workers to ranks of the Conservative Party.

Not by words and dreams; but by thirtyeight [sic] shillings a week, a sound house in a handsome street, and a permanent job.  In three weeks he will have a fancy waistcoat; in three months a tall hat and a chapel sitting; before the end of the year he will shake hands with a duchess at the Primrose League meeting, and join the Conservative Party. (311)

While the Conservative Party gave only nominal support to women’s suffrage, nevertheless, Salisbury and his nephew A.J. Balfour, Conservative leader in the House of Commons, both realized the gains that could be won by enfranchising property-holding women.  Consequently, they were receptive to granting the vote to women of means.  Thus, Balfour argued in the House of Commons in 1892 in favor of extending the franchise to women over the objections of Liberal member Asquith and Liberal Unionist representative Henry James.  Lord Salisbury advocated extending the vote to women in 1896 at the Primrose League’s annual Grand Habitation while acknowledging his party’s divisions with respect to suffrage. The prominence of the League within Conservative Party circles was in decided contrast to the Women’s Liberal Federation (1887), which was created as a response to the Primrose League, but never played a significant role either with respect to its male counterpart, the National Liberal Federation, or the Liberal party leadership as a whole (145-8, 151-3).

Thus, a strong case could be made that conservative women were viewed by their fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, sons, and nephews, as well as the party leadership overall as indispensable allies in resisting popular democracy.  By contrast, the Liberals saw their women—mothers, aunts, sisters, wives, daughters, and nieces—as potential bluestocking rivals who might challenge male leadership and, by implication, the stature, prominence, and future direction of the party and the men who shaped these policies.

The Conservative Party, on the other hand, was ambivalent.  The Grand Council, the governing body of the Primrose League, reflecting the views of the party, issued a Precept in 1889 prohibiting its local associations, Habitations, from publicly supporting the franchise. However, there were frequently violations, which caused the Council to issue repeatedly its prohibition.  While the Ladies’ executive opposed granting women the vote, the League as a whole remained officially neutral.  Rank-and-file members were sharply divided, prompting individuals to endorse or decry women’s suffrage at the local level (145-8, 151-3).

Fast forward to the late twentieth century.  Margaret Thatcher governed as Prime Minister (1979-1990) for longer than any leader in Britain since Lord Salisbury.  She served continuously in office longer than any Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool (1812-27, Under Edward Heath’s rule, Thatcher was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science, a relatively minor cabinet post.  Following the ministry’s defeat in 1974, she challenged his leadership, thereby rising to become Conservative Party leader who allied herself with America and its President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).  Their stewardship fostered the development of neo-capitalist policies directed toward the dismantling of the welfare state.

Now consider the 2008 Presidential Election and the significance of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.  First, her narrative.  Sarah was born in Idaho in 1964, the third of four children.  Her mother was a school secretary, her father, a teacher.  Shortly after Sarah’s birth, the family moved to Alaska.  She was raised a devout Christian.  She earned the moniker “Sarah Barracuda” while playing basketball at Wasilla High School.  She contributed to her team’s championship victory in her senior year by successfully completing a free throw at the conclusion of the game, despite a stress fracture (Kaylene Johnson, Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down, published originally by Epicenter Press in 2008 and later reissued by Tyndale House Publishers).  Sarah attended five colleges, graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987.  During these years, she competed and won the Miss Wasilla Pageant before going on to finish third in 1984 in the Miss Alaska contest.  Sarah née Heath married her high school sweetheart, Todd Palin, in 1988.  The “First Dude” of Alaska is of Yup’ik ancestry and a card-carrying union member.   He has worked for eighteen years for British Petroleum in Alaska in the North Slope.  He is also a commercial fisherman and a world-class snowmobile racer (  Sarah and Todd have five children.  Their eldest, Track, enlisted in the United States Army and was recently deployed to Iraq.  Seventeen-year-old Bristol is pregnant and plans to marry the child’s father, Levi Johnston.  The youngest child, Trig, has Downs Syndrome.  In short, Sarah Palin is a real-life Mom encountering real-world challenges.

Sarah Palin served on the city council in Wasilla, Alaska for four years.  She defeated three-term incumbent John Stein in 1996 to become mayor of Wasilla, a town of approximately 6,300 residents.  She campaigned on a platform advocating reduced spending and lower taxes while promoting gun rights, supporting term limits, and opposing abortion.  As mayor, she replaced individuals, including the police chief and public works director, who she felt would not support her.  Palin initially prohibited administrative heads from speaking to reporters without her approval.  She hired a city administrator.  Palin reduced her salary before it was later reinstated by the city council.  Thanks to a 2% sales tax enacted while she served on the council, Palin was able to cut property taxes by 75% while eliminating taxes on personal property and business inventory (

While in her second term, Palin introduced a ballot referendum proposing the construction of a sports complex to be financed by a .5% sales tax increase.  The $14.7 million facility, although completed on time and within budget, cost an additional $1.3 million due to legal expenditures required to defeat an eminent domain lawsuit.  Because of the costs associated with the construction of the sports complex, as well as street and water improvements, the city’s debt rose to $25 million.  Nevertheless, through a lobbying agency, Palin secured almost $8 million in earmarks and another $19 million for the greater Wasilla valley (Wikipedia, Sarah Palin).

  Palin served two terms as mayor before running unsuccessfully in 2002 for lieutenant governor of Alaska.  She chaired the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission between 2003 and 2004 before resigning because of a “lack of ethics” amongst fellow Republican members.  In 2006 she defeated incumbent Republican Governor Frank Murkowski in the primary to become Alaska’s next Republican Governor. In May of 2007 she had a 93% approval rating.  In 2008 she challenged the Republican establishment by urging Senator Ted Stevens to admit his illegal financial dealings.  Palin has advocated oil and natural gas development in Alaska.  As governor she withdrew her initial support for the Gravina Island Bridge, “the Bridge to Nowhere” project.  The proposed Federal earmark was rescinded, although $442 million in federal funds were allocated toward unspecified transportation projects.  She approved a record-breaking $6.6 billion budget in June, 2007 while vetoing construction projects that would have cost an additional $237 million.  Palin had vetoed an additional $286 million in capital projects for 2009.  She sold the former governor’s jet and dismissed his chief.  She has told the Alaskan people that that their economy must reduce its dependency on federal earmarks, although the state continues to receive the largest per-capita share in the United States (Wikipedia, Sarah Palin). 

Thus far, Governor Palin’s major accomplishment is the $26 billion gas pipeline to be constructed by TransCanada Pipelines.  It will extend from the North Slope through Canada into the continental United States.  Already $500 million in seed money has been allocated (Wikipedia, Sarah Palin).

What are the parallels between Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin?  In Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008), they suggest that the possibility of continued success of the party rests, in the words of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, in transforming from the “party of the country club” to the “party of Sam’s Club” (2).  The authors make a compelling case that electoral victory for Republicans rests on “Reagan-style Democrats,” voters who have swung back and forth between the two parties while, nonetheless, embracing many conservative values.  This constituency is predominantly male.  Its members typically have high school degrees, although they rarely graduate from college.  They uphold traditional values.  They embrace an ownership society and the right to bear arms.  Many are Christian and oppose abortion.  They want minimum government intervention and maximum personal freedom (2-3, 6-7, 10-2).  Sarah and Todd Palin fit this “Sam’s Club” profile, although their assets are greater than those of most Sam’s Club voters.

Just as Margaret Thatcher came from a family of modest means, so does Sarah Palin.  Just as Thatcher embraced aspirational values based on a market economy, so does Palin.  Just as Thatcher was raised as a devout Methodist and retained her Christian principles, so has Palin relied on her faith for moral sustenance.  Just as Thatcher sought to disassemble the welfare state in favor of a neo-capitalist economy, so has Palin sought greater independence for Alaska through the creation of a trans-national gas pipeline.  Just as Thatcher favored national strength through military intervention in the Falklands, so has Palin supported American troops in the Iraq War.  If Thatcher was determined, Palin is “barracuda” tough.  If Thatcher built her career by being a maverick within her own party, Palin does likewise.  If Thatcher embraced conservative ideals, Palin has also.  If Thatcher represented a new kind of leadership within her party—neither privileged nor wedded to the welfare state—Palin embodies these virtues.  If Thatcher understood the values of ordinary shopkeepers, Palin personifies the virtues of “Sam’s Club.” If Thatcher possessed charm and regal bearing, Palin is feminine grace fused with frontier grit.  Let there be no doubt: Palin’s candidacy is a breath of fresh air for a party that has been searching for the principles that will shape the Republican Party for the 21st century.

Despite the political culture war and the personal nature of the Liberal press’ attacks on Governor Palin, Ross Douthat notes that she has, unlike former conservative supreme-court nominee Robert Bork, bounced back from “the Borking of Sarah Palin” (“Palin Fire,” National Review, September 29, 2008, Vol. LX, No. 18, 38) to become the darling of her party.  “She embodies,” Douthat suggests, “a right-wing archetype of the Real America in much the way that Barack Obama embodies a left-wing archetype of Multicultural Man” (40).  Ralph Reed, the first executive director of the Christian Coalition, has stressed that social conservatives emphatically embraced her candidacy.  “They’re beyond ecstatic.  This is a home run.  She is a reformer governor who is solidly pro-life and a person of deep Christian faith.  And she is really one of the bright shining new stars in the Republican firmament” (Michael Cooper and Elisabeth Bumiller, “McCain chooses Alaska governor as running mate,” International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2008, ).

Michael J Gerson has argued in Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals that American’s new conservative leadership needs some “compassionate conservative” proposals (HarperOne, 2007).  David Frum in Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2008) advocates policies that can prepare the party for the social and demographic changes that have ensued since the post-Reagan era.  William Kristol has celebrated Palin for having “The Right Stuff” in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times following her debate with Joe Biden (October 5, 2008, A29).  Only one question remains: should the McCain/Palin ticket fail to win the 2008 presidential election, will she have staying power?

Historically, conservatives welcome strong leadership and are potentially more receptive than Democrats to path-breaking women who embrace the party’s ideals.  With the Democratic Party poised to become the party of the disenfranchised, the Republicans must embrace women and minorities who are receptive to their values and prepared to build the foundations of a post-Reagan era.  The selection, of course, need not be Sarah Palin.  But she has paved the way and Republicans have been receptive to her leadership potential.  Sarah Palin, despite the “Borking” of the Liberal press, has laid the groundwork for the new party.  Call it what you will.  It need not be “Sam’s Club,” although it must be receptive to those who embrace American exceptionalism and the values engendered by this ideal.  The new party must not be a party of privilege, but a party of opportunity.  It must embrace faith, but not a narrow sectarian faith.  It must look toward the future with both hope and resilience, understanding that the path to opportunity comes to those striving mightily toward the light.  Indeed, the success of Margaret Thatcher should serve as inspiration for Sarah Palin, despite their differences in temperament, in historical circumstances, and in styles of governance.  What both women share, of course, are the values of a common heritage, one that fosters trans-Atlantic alliances while allowing for national and cultural divergences.

- Diana Sheets