Palin’s paradox: Be tough…but not too tough

Gov. Sarah Palin at a campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Can she keep her every-mom image?
REUTERS/Stephen Mally
Gov. Sarah Palin at a campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Can she keep her every-mom image?

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.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by B Maginnis on 10/02/2008 - 02:03 pm.

    Uh, “struggling with” a down syndrome baby?

    What are you referring to here, Sharon?

    There is no “struggle” that anyone is aware of.

    You should have struggled harder to hide your prejudicial attitude towards Palin and giving birth.

    And speaking of race, how about you give us some “fact checking” on Obama’s racist screeds in his book?

    Fair and balanced, please.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/02/2008 - 01:00 pm.

    Obama can bring about the changes he (and we) want if he has the support of Congress. This year lots of Republicans are in trouble and may not win re-election, which could help immensely.

    Obama’s being cool does not mean he is emotionally cold. It means that, unlike McCain, he will sit down with leaders of other countries and discuss finding solutions to common problems instead. No bullying. No “America first” or American exceptionalism. Wise plans to address global warming, alternative forms of energy, and job formation. AND a return to respect for the Constitution and the rights we are losing under Bush.

    McCain has temper tantrums and Palin is clearly unqualified (and not very nice, according to stories about her record as mayor and governor). Neither of them understands economics beyond right-wing ideology.

    Together they could/would finish the Bush et al. war against every government program that actually helps people, continue the unlimited spending on Empire and tax breaks for those who do NOT use them to create jobs. And, course, get us into a couple of new wars besides.

  3. Submitted by ben merton on 10/02/2008 - 04:09 pm.

    I don’t see the “every mom” image at all. From the beginning in her extremely partisan and condescending convention speech, she claimed to speak for all small town folk, belittled people trying to make their communities better, and suggested she is holier than thou. That attitude comes across every time I see her vapid smile and hear her almost-laugh as she tries to score political points. And she says the Left is elitist!!???
    In her bumbling over-confidence, she reminds of the general in Pirates of Penzance…

    I am the very model of a modern VP candidate
    I know the holy plan–to nominate me head of state
    I know the doctrines scriptural I can quote the laws–if biblical
    From stem-cells, gays to pro-life, guns, in order evangelical.

    I am very well acquainted with policies political
    I understand affairs, both domestic and the spiritual
    When it comes to banning books, I’m teaming with a lot of news
    With many cheerful facts that I cannot share with you.

    I am very well acquainted with creationist biology
    We should supplement its teaching with biological mythology
    In short, I know the holy plan–to nominate me head of state
    I am the very model of a modern VP candidate.

    I know where baby’s come from and how to lobby on the Hill
    Though when it comes to teenage sex, I’m still against the godless pill.
    I agree with Bush’s Doctrine, though not sure just what it’s for
    And talked with Russia from my house with binoculars and semaphore.

    I can build a bridge of funds from Washington to East Fork,
    And know how to say “no thanks” but please set aside our rack of pork.
    I can lift myself by bootstraps—be they John’s or Hillary’s
    Then stand on shattered glass with shoes that are way too big for me.

    In short, I know the holy plan–to nominate me head of state
    I am the very model of a modern VP candidate.

  4. Submitted by Tom Poe on 10/06/2008 - 03:55 pm.

    Psychological studies? What do your psychological studies say about McCain’s dedication to make sure he has voted NO on almost every veterans’ issues bill that has crossed his desk since he entered Congress in 1987? How do they explain his determination to cause as much harm and suffering for veterans as he possibly can with his “No” votes? I’ll ask you, Sharon, to type the keywords, mccain non-support, into your favorite search engine and read Brandon Friedman’s compilation of this man’s obscene record of supporting our troops.

    Go ahead, vote for him, and show the world what kind of person you are. What? I attacked your integrity? What about Palin’s integrity? How much integrity does she have to not only support McCain’s evilness, but to embrace and emulate it?

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