A fascinating piece of research on Sarah Palin just came out in this month’s “Communication Currents” (a website that distills some of the best new research in the field of communication into bite-sized writings), helping us deal with questions like: Why has she been so popular among so many? In what ways has she been framed differently than other women leaders like Hillary Clinton? And what might we infer from this in the lead up to the election? (see www.communicationcurrents.com/print.asp?issuepage=117)
The authors argue that there are deeply gendered, metaphorical identity frames of the rugged “Pioneer” (an “independent think[er]” and a “symbolic token of women’s achievements”) and authentic “Beauty Queen” (who “knows how to adhere to society’s rules for appearance”) that have been recast for Palin in such as a way as to make her fit into “the Frontier” narrative that has its roots in Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. More importantly, the metaphor of “The Unruly Woman” which many in the media used against Hillary Clinton has been rhetorically refashioned for Palin, who can “revel in unruliness” because of the ways her other conservative credentials protect her from attacks as a “feminazi.”
I should add into this discussion that, the pioneer and frontier metaphors would appear to have a track record in beating out “intellectual” frames (perhaps a subset of the “unruly”?) in American politics. In prior elections, George W. Bush was continually using the frontier myth (e.g. rugged cowboy, Crawford ranch, use of posters such as “Wanted: Dead or Alive” of Osama bin Laden [West and Carey]) to power over his intellectual deficits. It may be the case that history is repeating itself here unfortunately, and if so, Palin may not have as much to worry about over the next month as this last week may suggest.
Furthermore, despite much of the controversy about Palin’s appearances on television last week and average performance in the vice-presidential debates, she still stands a good chance of rising in credibility in the coming weeks due to these frames. There is decades of research on the concept of “credibility” in the field of communication. While we often talk about credibility as something someone “has,” it is a far more dynamic construct than is given credit, more akin to what someone “does” and constantly in flux given moment-to-moment audience perceptions. For example, even over the course of delivering one speech, a speaker can start with high credibility, lose credibility, and regain it by the end (say, all within 10 minutes!). If anyone, the career of Bill Clinton—whose credibility has gone up and down continually over the years, should teach us much about this. Given the time left until the election, I think we’ll see that Palin’s credibility will continue to wax and wane with these ongoing metaphorical campaigns, and the degree to which they are undermined or advanced by each side.