Call it Sarah Palin’s paradox.
General wisdom holds that the Alaska governor — who takes on Joe Biden in tonight’s highly anticipated vice presidential debate — needs to prove she is competent to become president of the United States should her GOP running mate, Sen. John McCain, die in office.
But Palin’s considerable appeal springs from her image as a hockey mom, beauty queen and parent struggling with a Down syndrome baby. In other words, her strength is her every-mom appeal. She and Republican strategists have played it skillfully.
Here’s the paradox. Psychological studies suggest that Palin can’t have it both ways. The more she shows executive tough-mindedness, political shrewdness and other traits that could qualify her for a job that only men have held, the more she risks her every-mom image and her popularity.
The tradeoff confronting Palin is one piece of the subtle, often subliminal, psychological baggage that voters will bring to the polls this year in a historic election when the Republicans have nominated their first woman vice presidential candidate and Democrats chose the first African American to lead a major party’s ticket, Sen. Barack Obama.
Indeed, Obama wrestles with his own paradox. White voters, according to several studies, expect blacks to be violent and angry. Obama, to the contrary, is a study in cool self-control. Because he doesn’t fit the stereotype, many voters complain they can’t figure out who he really is. But if he did fit it, he would lose their votes.
At age 72, McCain faces his own measure of bias. But he can confront it and argue that he is not too old to be president.
Race and gender bias is more hidden. Voters may not own up to it or even recognize it in themselves. Psychological research shows, though, that it is a deeply relevant factor in American politics.
That is not to say Obama and Palin face precisely the same problem. Hidden bias is different for each of them.
This year’s campaign coverage is replete with quotes from voters who are bluntly negative about the prospect of a black leader in the White House.
Many of those voters prefer the prospect of a woman president or vice president. But they don’t like certain leadership traits in women and they don’t know exactly why. Women are supposed to be soft, warm and likeable. Political leaders are typically ambitious, shrewd and assertive. It is very difficult for a woman to be accepted as both.
Those views about the proper nature of women are deeply, almost unconsciously held, and psychologists say they have been more inflexible over time than attitudes about race.
“The research makes it pretty clear that the harshest judgments are reserved for those women who violate the expectation that they behave like women,” said Eugene Borgida, a professor of psychology and law at the University of Minnesota.
The best recent example was the candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Borgida, who has written extensively about sex discrimination in the workplace and in politics.
For reasons they couldn’t articulate, many men and women alike felt an aversion to Clinton. A good share of their discomfort, psychologists say, was due to her image as a tough cookie who could play hardball politics with men.
“Women leaders have to be very careful,” Borgida said. “A woman has to be tough and decisive, but at the same time she cannot be seen as abandoning the more relational, softer qualities that are perceived as feminine. They have to be willing to deal with both of these styles … insofar as they are one more than the other they are less successful.”
Palin burst onto the political scene showing a softer, more feminine side. To be sure, she reportedly can field-dress a moose. But that image fits snuggly with the American myth of the pioneer woman who could grab a rifle and save her family by shooting a wolf at the log cabin’s door.
Because voters knew nothing about Palin, there was nothing to contradict her every-mom image initially. As time goes by and journalists report more about Palin’s confrontations and political maneuvers in Alaska, the picture becomes more complex, and voters become more ambivalent. As she seems to over-reach in trying to demonstrate mastery of foreign policy, voters see more of the calculating politician in her.
Borgida predicts, though, that the initial impression may buy Palin some time: “People have formed this feeling about her, and it’s hard to let it go — just as many of them had formed a feeling, albeit negative, about Clinton …. In both cases people have a hard time absorbing subsequent information once the initial impression is formed.”
Of course, there are powerful reasons to question Palin’s qualifications regardless of her gender.
“Competence does matter,” Borgida said. “A person who is willing to make decisions but is not competent to make them is scary.”
The findings of a recent AP-Yahoo News poll probably came as no surprise to Obama: widespread racial bias could cost him the election.
Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.
More than a third of white Democrats and independents who were polled agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks. Many called blacks lazy, violent and irresponsible.
“There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s only a few bigots,” Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman who helped analyze the in-depth survey, told the AP.
The survey broke ground by incorporating images of black and white faces to measure implicit racial attitudes, or prejudices that are so deeply rooted that people may not realize they have them, AP said. That test suggested the incidence of racial prejudice is even higher, with more than half of whites revealing more negative feelings toward blacks than whites.
Joshua Correll, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, also uses images to measure bias as it relates to impressions that a person is dangerous. He asks participants in his studies to play a video game in which they must make split-second decisions on whether to shoot men on the screen, based on whether they thought each man was holding a gun.
You can take one version of the test yourself here (Confession: I learned that I’d make a lousy cop because I can’t shoot anybody fast enough.)
Correll found that most white subjects were more likely to shoot the black guys than the whites. After probing the reasons, he reached the conclusion that American culture — television, movies, news reports, etc. — has conditioned whites to associate black people with threat and danger.
Now comes Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer who is both praised and criticized because he is so temperamentally cool, unflustered and non-threatening.
“Many people don’t know how to classify him, how to think about him,” Correll said. “It may be harder to make sense of him.”
Thus you hear the complaint again and again that voters don’t really know who Obama is. One reason for their discomfort is that Obama fails to fit the expectations people hold for African Americans and therefore it requires more work to figure him out.
In that context, the fact that Obama doesn’t show much passion feeds the almost unconscious discomfort and sets up the paradox: If Obama were to unleash anger, he could be quickly seen as conforming to a stereotype. In avoiding that, he has to miss out on a range of emotional reactions, Correll said, and he sometimes seems too distant, too cool.
But Obama, like Palin, deserves critical scrutiny that has nothing to do with bias. In the AP-Yahoo News poll doubts about Obama’s experience and competency loomed larger than race with Democrats and independents. More than a quarter of the Democrats doubted that Obama can bring about the change that he has promised and they want.
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.