The Magazine

Why They Hate Her

Sarah Palin is a smart missile aimed at the heart of the left.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By JEFFREY BELL
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It was the turbulent 1960s that proved a strategic turning point for the left. The worldwide social and cultural upheavals that culminated in 1968 were felt as a crisis of confidence by institutions in the West. Some institutions (universities, for example) defected to the rebels, while others saw their centuries-long influence on the population greatly weaken or drain away virtually overnight.

In the short run, most political elites weathered the storm. A big reason, the left gradually realized, was that socialist economics had become an albatross. Increasingly, the democratic parties of the left in Western countries downplayed socialism or even decoupled from it, leaving them free to pursue the anti-institutional, relativistic moral crusade that has been in the DNA of the left all along.

This newly revitalized social and cultural agenda made it possible for the left to shrug off the collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago. Even in countries like China where the Communist party retained dictatorial power, socialist economics became a thing of the past. Attempts to suppress religion and limit the autonomy of the family did not.

For the post-1960s, post-socialist left, the single most important breakthrough has been the alliance between modern feminism and the sexual revolution. This was far from inevitable. Up until around 1960, attempts at sexual liberation were resisted by most educated women. In the wake of the success of Playboy and other mass-circulation pornographic magazines in the 1950s, men were depicted as the initiators and main beneficiaries of sexual liberation, women as intolerant of promiscuity as well as potential victims of predatory "liberated" men.

With the introduction of the Pill around 1960, things abruptly began to change. Fears of overpopulation legitimated a contraceptive ethic throughout middle-class society in North America, Europe, Japan, and the Soviet bloc. China, which discouraged contraception and welcomed population gains under Mao Zedong, flipped to the extreme of the One Child policy in 1979, shortly after pro-capitalist reformers took charge and fixed on strict population control as an integral and unquestioned part of the package of Western-style development.

The fact that the Pill was taken only by women gave them a greater feeling of control over their sexual activity and eroded their social and psychological resistance to premarital sex. "No fault" divorce, a term borrowed from the field of auto insurance, in reality amounted to unilateral divorce and began to undermine the idea of marriage as a binding mutual contract oriented toward the procreation and nurturing of children. Contrary to nearly every prediction, the ubiquity of far more reliable methods of contraception and the growing ideological separation of sex from reproduction, coincided with a huge increase in unwed pregnancies.

Though earlier versions of feminism tended to embrace children and elevate motherhood, the more adversarial feminism that gained a mass base in virtually every affluent democracy beginning in the 1970s preached that children and childbearing were the central instrumentality of men's subjugation of women. This more than anything else in the menu of the post-socialist left raised toward cultural consensus a vision in which the monogamous family was what prevented humanity from achieving a Rousseau-like "natural" state of freedom from all laws and all bonds of mutual obligation.

If this analysis is correct, the single most important narrative holding the left together in today's politics and culture is the one offered--often with little or no dissent--by adversarial feminism. The premise of this narrative is that for women to achieve dignity and self-fulfillment in modern society, they must distance themselves, not necessarily from men or marriage or childbearing, but from the kind of marriage in which a mother's temptation to be with and enjoy several children becomes a synonym for holding women back and cheating them out of professional success.