Manufacturing Sympathy: Sarah Palin, Special Needs and Identity Politics


As the older brother of someone with Down Syndrome, I’ve been intrigued by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s use of her son Trig during the campaign. It’s strange to listen to her speak so tenderly about the “special love” that special needs children bring into the world on the heels of Republican rallies resembling lynch mobs, often incited by her characteristic vitriol. On Friday, Palin gave her first policy speech, which was-not surprisingly-dedicated to issues confronting special needs families. Watching it live on FOX News, I couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with my television as she proceeded to announce how profoundly being the parent of a child with Down Syndrome has touched her life. It was the perfect advertisement for compassionate conservatism. Who could criticize this dedicated mother of a special needs baby?

It’s tough. In her emotional speech, not only did Palin announce that she supports fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Act, she also stressed that she would fund more school services to meet the demands of special needs students, strengthen the National Institute of Health so that every family has a place to go for support and guidance, and modernize the Vocational Rehabilitation Act so that special needs adults can live independently if they are able and choose to do so. It sounds like the dream of every special needs family.

So what’s the problem?

First of all, if elected, Sarah Palin will report to a powerful boss in the White House who has repeatedly called for a government-spending freeze during what is shaping up to be a long economic crisis. During the last presidential debate, Senator John McCain praised Palin’s dedication to the special needs cause and commended what she has accomplished for the community as governor of Alaska. Senator Barack Obama also applaud Palin for increasing spending to special needs programs, but quickly pointed out that he doesn’t understand how McCain would pay for doing the same thing across the nation if elected President-a contradiction worth exploring further.

It seems to me that with Palin we’re seeing a new type of identity politics in which the Republicans are exploiting her image as a special needs advocate in order to win the votes of special needs families and appear like caring, compassionate conservatives-while avoiding the actual phrase Bush made popular during his 2000 campaign. It is easy to understand the appeal of this tactic within a special needs community that has been repeatedly letdown by both Republican and Democratic administrations. With Palin, at least, comes something crucial to identity politics: visibility.

However, Obama’s question remains. How will a McCain administration pay for greater special needs programs if McCain declares a spending freeze? Furthermore, in the same debate, Obama pointed out the massive expense of the war in Iraq, stating that the U.S. government needs that money to improve such domestic programs. So while the McCain camp attempts to manufacture sympathy for Palin’s teary-eyed speeches about special needs, in which she rightly claims that “the truest measure of a society is how it treats it’s most vulnerable,” all the evidence seems to indicate that sympathy-not federal dollars, which would smell too much like the stinky socialism that both Palin and McCain have been busy denouncing-is all that special needs families can expect from President McCain.

So while it is all well and good to talk about supporting special needs families and to grant visibility to an overlooked population, it doesn’t much matter if in the end it’s all a campaign strategy to counter dominant images of a hostile, racist and militaristic ticket. Such politics is insulting to the very families that Palin seeks to speak for. The attempt to manipulate special needs families into a means to achieve dark objectives-just as Palin’s poor baby Trig is being exploited by Republican spin doctors-is demeaning and yet another form of dirty politics being practiced by a desperate McCain campaign.

Yet as a member of a special needs family, the thing that bothers me the most is that while Palin herself claimed in Friday’s speech that she and her family will learn far more from Trig then he will from them, it was obvious to me that she hasn’t learned much so far. During 28 years of contact with the special needs world, the values I’ve seen demonstrated by people with Down Syndrome are radically different from the values I’ve seen on display on the Republican Party campaign trail this year. Hate, deceit and fear mongering is not something I associate with my brother and his special needs friends.

Based upon his experience as the Director of Psychosocial services at the Adult Down Syndrome Center in Park Ridge, Illinois, McGuire believes that if people with Down Syndrome were in charge, “People would be refreshingly honest and genuine,” and “anger would only be allowed in special sound proof rooms.” And to the big question, “If people with Down syndrome ran the world, would there be wars or murders?” McGuire answers with an unequivocal, “We don’t think so!”

Sounds like a far cry from Palin’s usual campaign speeches, as well as McCain’s bloody agenda. Perhaps Palin should stop flaunting her son on the campaign trail, and actually take the time to learn the lessons she insinuates she’s already learned from him.

From a mother of a special needs teenager, thank you for putting into words what many of us feel!

8 thoughts on “Manufacturing Sympathy: Sarah Palin, Special Needs and Identity Politics

  1. She’s pandering. She’s using that baby as a prop. It’s disgusting.

    She WILL learn from that child as he grows, as long as she is around him enough, as long as she is a part of each new discovery and triumph, actually being the one to care for him.. Then she’ll learn. She won’t learn much if someone else is providing that baby’s care.

  2. Plus McCain and Palin are both huge proponents of vouchers so parents can send their children to the private school of their choice. That means a school with people just like them doesn’t it. And most private schools are going to spend the money for special needs children to get extra care so they’re not going to accept them. As it is they don’t accept children with learning problems or behavior problems or language problems. Private schools are a way to ensure that the public schools don’t get the funding they need and to separate the neediest kids from the kids with more advantages. Special needs kids would either end up in the worst public schools or in schools with only special needs kids and some parents would prefer their children are mainstreamed and would suffer.

  3. Actually muse she hasn’t seemed to learn much about parenting from her first 4 children so I’d doubt she’s going to learn much from number 5. If she had learned anything she’d probably know how important the first couple of years are for an infant’s development.

  4. I have known many famalies with special need’s children in the past and none were like her in action’s or speech..She is a disgrace as a parent in all way’s as far as I am concerned…First off parading her unwed daughter around the country along with the girl’s boy friend…Second passing the baby around like a sack of potatoe’s to appear for vote’s is the worst..

    Pukie palin and mcwhacko are a perfect pair of total disfunction and misfit’s not to be like..One had an affair, more than once my guess and then dumped the wife for a rich mistress along with building a career based on lie’s.

    The second has taught her children so well they are setting out as drop out’s to parade before the public as though they had accomplished some great thing by being pregnant and not married…If she planned to use this to show her family is just like the average family she has missed the mark by a lot….No one I know that has had the same problem’s buy’s 150,000 in clothe’s, bling flag pin’s, wreck’s havick on wildlife and is a cheer leader in public,,The one’s I knew were busy at home tending their children and fixing the error’s in judgment….Sorry for the rant….Blessings

  5. Really #1. Most woman with her family situation would have say no thank you not right now. Apparently she is so used to lying and getting away with it she thought it would never end.

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