News & Politics

5 Reasons Michele Bachmann Is the New Sarah Palin

Is Bachmann the new Palin? Or is sexism the reason similarities between 2008’s GOP VP candidate and 2012's contender keep popping up?

Move over, Sarah Palin: there’s a new extreme conservative, ideology-spouting, history-mangling bogeywoman in town. Yes, that Michele Bachmann character is stealing your thunder--and possibly your votes. She’s got the GOP base riled up in Iowa, she has the “liberal elite” frightened as hell, and she’s got the “lamestream media” ensnared with fascination, revulsion and excitement. And that very same media has been tripping over itself suggesting all sorts of head-to-head matchups between you two conservative ladies; a classy Fox News host joked about a Jell-o-wrestling event that would pit you against each other, for instance. 

These are the kinds of ideas that pundits would never, ever imagine suggesting for a pair of male candidates with a few similarities, would they? Of course not. Just as Bachmann is getting the same kind of political support Palin got, so is she getting the same kind of misogynistic treatment from the media.

Is Michele Bachmann really the new Sarah Palin? Or does sexism explain why comparisons between 2008’s GOP VP candidate/reality TV show star and 2012's contender keep popping up in our minds and in our culture?

As tempting as it is to hold them up against each other, then, should we be avoiding a gendered focus by widening our lens to the entire field of Republican candidates and would-be candidates? Is it wrong to look at these two women as inevitable rivals when there are so many GOP potentials who share the characteristics that invite comparison: rigid social conservatism and distrust of government, a disregard of logic, an avid courting of the Tea Party, and a glassy-eyed refusal to contend with facts? 

The answer is complex. The two are indeed both members of a select group of GOP candidates counting on the far-right votes to win--but sexism is also at play in many of the pairings. Someone like Rick Perry, for instance, really ought to be in the mix when pundits discuss the kind of threat these charismatic Tea Party candidates pose. His flirtation with throwing his hat in the ring has certainly been of the same level as Palin’s.

Then again, sometimes the comparisons come from the candidates themselves. In June, Ben Smith of Politico wrote an article about Bachmann’s camp strategically gunning for a confrontation:

 The coming confrontation is being driven by a belief in Bachmann’s camp that the same grassroots, conservative primary voters and caucus-goers may have to choose between the two women—and that they will choose Bachmann if she presents herself as a more seasoned, reliable, and serious conservative than her high-profile rival. The apparent effort to draw distinctions broke into the open Tuesday when her new top strategist, Ed Rollins, dismissed Palin as “not serious” in a radio interview. 

So Bachmann's camp is trying to market her (and the media is generally buying her) as Palin with gravitas--which certainly eliminates the biggest problem with perceptions of Palin, that she’s a pop culture figure masquerading as politician.

Still, the perception that there's only room for one is as problematic as it is politically inevitable. Culturally, it’s certainly true that Bachmann has begun to occupy the very same space as Palin did (laced with misogyny as that space may be)--down to the manner and cadence of her online impersonators. Like Palin before her, Bachmann has hasbecome a visible symbol for all that we hate and ridicule about the right wing. And it’s probably largely due to the fact that in a sexist climate her gender makes her an object of fascination and a target that Rick Perry or Rick Santorum--whose beliefs are every bit as zealous as Bachmann's--simply are not.

Perhaps the biggest similarity that Bachmann shares with Palin, beyond the media space as the representative of the loony fringe of the right wing? Her choice to pursue power seems to contradict a belief system regressive toward women. This is both a struggle she has to undergo personally and a lightning rod for criticism, both earned and unearned--just as it was for Palin.

Here are five of the ways it may be appropriate to compare Bachmann to Palin.

1. They both espouse dangerous right-wing beliefs, including extreme opposition to abortion, almost all government social spending, and a militaristic, imperialist view of foreign policy--and they both play fast and loose with the facts that support their worldview. In fact, they’ve both been caught red-handed messing with American history recently--specifically, the kind of revolution-era history the Tea Party loves. Sarah Palin butchered the Paul Revere story while Michele Bachmann declared that the dawn of the American revolution was in New Hampshire, rather than Massachusetts.

2. They have both been targeted with smears: for Palin, there was the ugly Trig-birtherism episode. For Bachmann, it’s migraine-gate, complete with a NY Times “woman on the street” featurette delving into the link between migraines and high heels.

3. They both have to reconcile an appearance of “wifely submission” with obvious ambition. While Palin has never explicitly embraced a “complementarian” or submissive role as a wife, the patriarchal delineation of power within the household is an important one for the evangelical voting bloc. In a piece on, what else? Palin vs. Bachmann, Slate’s Libby Copeland wrote an intelligent analysis of the gauntlet that must be run by conservative women craving political power, and the occasional swerving and circumlocution involved in gaining it:

For non-evangelical Christians, this sounds ludicrous: How can a woman who believes in submitting to her husband's will aspire to be president of the United States? Is she going to have to ask Marcus' permission every time she wants to throw a state dinner?

This apparent contradiction—how you can be leader of the free world and yet subordinate to some guy —has proved no less confusing to the nation's conservative evangelicals.

With both candidates, conservative church leaders have had to balance their approval of policy with concern about what kind of message a female candidate sends (will women start asking for leadership in the church?). And both candidates have had to balance the appearance of toughness needed to hold office with appealing to traditional gender roles.

Of course, that deep inherent hypocrisy, or tightrope-walking if you want to be more generous, is catnip to the public. It’s human nature to zero in on such contradictions. Female candidates who endorse so many anti-feminist, anti-woman laws and policies will naturally be an object of fascination, and perhaps of ridicule. As long as that ridicule isn’t sexist--talk about tightrope walking.

4. Their hypocrisy and outsize personas means they are easy targets for comedians and imitators--providing meat for women comedians eager to join in the political impersonating game. While I cringe at Bill Maher’s offensive jokes, I can’t help put look forward to Kristen Wiig's interpretation of Michele Bachmann being a major presence on SNL this fall. Watch the video below to see how Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression has influenced online Bachmann personas already.

5. Their public visibility may mask much deeper threats coming from within their own party. Sure, Bachmann is polling well in Iowa and Palin remains popular with her fans. But Rick Perry has the good looks and Texas drawl that launched George W. Bush to the presidency, combined with beliefs that make his predecessor look like a friendly centrist, while the other more “mainstream” GOP candidates have started seeing the light of out-there social conservatism just in time for the caucuses.

So maybe the next article should be “Five Reasons Rick Perry is the New George W. Bush--But Worse.” Certainly in that case, unfair attacks would not be one of the similarities.

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Fox News host suggests mud-wresting competition:

Marcus and Michelle Bachmann parody video recalling Tina Fey's Palin impression:

 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.