I HATE Sarah Palin. There, I said it. I hate her in a way that I’ve rarely hated a politician, although George W. Bush came close. When I hear the ex-governor of Alaska speak I suppress bile. Here she is when Katie Couric asked what other Supreme Court decision upset her besides Roe v. Wade: “Well, let’s see. There’s, of course, in the great history of America there have been rulings, that’s never going to be absolute consensus by every American.”
But as liberals, we need to push beyond this reaction. We need to know why this ex-governor draws crowds who wait in the cold to have her sign a book—Going Rogue–that she most certainly didn’t author in its entirety. We need to know why her favorability rating holds steady at about 42 percent. And we need to know why she still has a remarkable hold on the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Of course, the obvious matters here: Part of Palin’s popularity is her astute cultivation of celebrity. She has boosted her book’s sales by going on Oprah’s show (which is to go off the air) and soon after announcing her abdication of her governorship. But it also goes beyond her deft sense of opportunity. The ex-governor has deep roots in the American right. She is not an aberration. She combines the paranoid tradition and anti-intellectualism that are at the heart of the conservative movement. She has become the psyche, if not the intellect, of the right at a moment when the movement is pouring its emotions out in tea parties and Congressional die-ins rather than constructing alternative public policies or compromises with the Democratic majority.
But Palin might also have staying power; for her rise is fueled by her claims to authenticity. In Going Rogue, Palin wears her Red State credentials on her sleeve. She goes hunting and fishing. She’s the mom and the small-town girl who really, really likes her husband. Authenticity is everything. “We believe,” she said at a 2008 fundraiser in North Carolina, “that the best of America is in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hardworking, very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” Her autobiography is an argument for a Sinclair-Lewis-in-reverse philosophy as she quotes her acceptance speech at the RNC convention in it, “We grow good people in our small towns.”
Coupled with this insistence on her small-town authenticity is Palin’s stance as maverick and rebel. This might sound strange, this admixture of rebellion and small-town normality. But it shouldn’t to anyone who follows the contemporary right. Conservatives today aren’t just populist and traditionalist; they’re risqué and wild. They love the style of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh–loud-mouthed, jarring, and confrontational.
Consider simply the title of Palin’s book. Or consider this typical passage within: “I didn’t have time to waste embracing the status quo and never had it in me to play the party’s game.” This is Going Rogue‘s leitmotif: Palin is the maverick, except when victimized by the bad boys in John McCain’s campaign (the ever-present, creepy, bald-headed Steve Schmidt and his ilk) and the pernicious media (the ever-present Katie Couric). The evil forces—no matter the maverick’s best intentions—win, and the rebel quickly becomes a victim. This is the standard story of American conservatism today: populism, rebellion, and victimhood all at once.
Those who wonder about her prospects as a future president and the level of her appeal should take note of this. Palin is, to a certain extent, trapping herself. Her authenticity and maverick status will not make it easy for those who want to coach her (and lord does she need coaching) to run a successful campaign for the presidency. Indeed, coaching and professional campaigning would threaten precisely what makes her appealing to so many. Though her favorability numbers are only slightly below Obama’s right now, she’s never done terribly well when people are asked point blank if they think she’s ready for the presidency. Her appeal—honesty, straight-shooting, flippant self-promotion—does not translate well into a presidential campaign: she is better as a movement star and celebrity.
PALIN’S STYLE of attack politics also has deep roots in the American right. Consider the cranky and pithy Barry Goldwater–the forerunner to Palin’s own hero, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater shot his mouth off constantly; he was his own man rather than an “establishment” candidate. There was also Joe: not Joe the Plumber, but Joe the Senator from Wisconsin who used scattershot techniques to hunt out communists and promote himself at the height of the cold war. (McCarthy’s track record was minimal before he announced his discovery of communists in the State Department in 1950).
Palin has updated McCarthy’s belief in a “conspiracy so immense” for today. Only straight talk will cut through the fog of conspiracy. She honed this during the 2008 campaign. She was the attack dog who made the most of the Obama-Bill Ayers association (and she makes much of it in Going Rogue). There was something here—an irresponsible slip on the part of Obama for not understanding just how despicable Ayers was and is—but Palin’s attack was ignorant. She didn’t know the ins and outs of the American left during the 1960s; she was unaware of what drove certain New Leftists to want to bring the Vietnam War home. She just combined the words “terrorists” and “pals around” for their intended effect and received whooping responses at campaign events.
The emotional kick she got out of it mattered the most. Here is Palin recalling her time on the attack: “You could feel” that “voters were clamoring for us to take the gloves off, yet the B Team was reprimanded for trying to shed light on some of these important questions.” This is the sort of politics Palin likes: perpetual warfare and smear campaigns.
Some might wonder if this is just standard vice-presidential-candidate-as-attack-dog. But her resentments and anger go beyond the 2008 campaign; they are wired into the synapses of both Palin and the right’s psyche. And now that the campaign is over, it’s not Obama’s relationship with Ayers that matters as much as the purported socialism that lies behind his centrist economic policies.
When asked by CNN if Obama is a socialist, Palin responded,
I’m not going to call him a socialist. But as Joe the Plumber has suggested–in fact he came right out and said it–it sounds like socialism to him. And he speaks for so many Americans who are quite concerned now after hearing finally what Barack Obama’s true intentions are with his tax and economic plan.
Here’s the translation necessary for Palin blather: I won’t call him a socialist. But another conservative celebrity did and since my base wants to believe it, Obama’s a socialist. The right is now beyond the world of “truthiness” and into something more postmodern. And yet, it is still riveted on the “conspiracy so immense” that fueled Joseph McCarthy sixty years ago.
PALIN REPEATS this line of reasoning throughout Going Rogue. Writing about her campaign for governor and her “fiscal philosophy,” she observes that “in national politics, some feel that Big Business is always opposed to the Little Guy. Some people seem to think a profit motive is inherently greedy and evil, and that what’s good for business is bad for people. (That’s what Karl Marx thought too.)”
It is probably not surprising that Palin believes that distrust in big business, which is probably more widely shared among Americans than Palin understands, is akin to Marxism. But what is revealing is that she makes this assertion in a parenthetical aside. This is her style: You don’t make the case, you don’t develop the argument, you just wink at your fan base while stating something that’s patently gibberish (the way she famously winked at TV cameras during her debate with Joe Biden).
Numerous critics–including Rick Perlstein on the left and Sam Tanenhaus on the center-right–believe that Palin’s sloppiness as a political thinker reflects a wider death of intellectual conservatism: There are no new William Buckleys, just a crowd of loud-mouthed Limbaughs, Becks, and Hannitys.
But while Palin is no intellectual, we should not forget the intellectual love-fest that helped initiate Palin’s rise in the first place. In fact, as Palin remembers fondly in Going Rogue, it was during a lunch with “Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, Dick Morris, and other journalists who stopped in Juneau,” that the idea was cooked up that this woman who exuded anti-intellectualism from every pore was the future face of the Republican Party.
This infatuation with attack-dog politicians is nothing new on the right. In McCarthy and His Enemies (co-written with Brent Bozell), William Buckley not only celebrated McCarthy’s hunt for communists and his blistering attack on the liberal “intelligentsia” but also overlooked the gruffer and more dangerous elements in McCarthy’s attacks: their irresponsibility, recklessness, and tendency to create instability in American politics.
Buckley loved McCarthy’s style–his way of pissing off the liberals. But the book also captured a crux for the right’s intellectuals: Unable to find sophisticates in their ranks, they have consistently slummed into the darker terrain of American politics to find the carriers of their political views (even if this means befriending an alcoholic demagogue from Wisconsin). Buckley with McCarthy, so Kristol with Palin.
But in the end the intellectuals don’t really matter when it comes to Sarah Palin. The slogans move from the tea parties and the grassroots upwards. For example, in Going Rouge–a set of essays published as a response to Palin–the editors cut Palin some slack by saying that she “does not espouse the entirety of the paranoid right’s propaganda,” because “she does not ask to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate.” But just as Going Rouge hit bookstores, Palin endorsed the birthers movement, adding them to her list of comrades that already included the tea partiers opposed to health care reform. Palin is a movement celebrity that takes her cues from the grassroots.
And this is why Sarah Palin matters: she is a spokesperson for the right’s anxieties. As the editors of Going Rouge put it, “Palin’s ‘death panel’ crusade has already provided a chilling lesson: that a minority armed with conspiracy theories is capable of occupying the national political discourse as long as they have conviction and a mouthpiece.”
SO SHOULD we worry about Palin? Or is she destined to self-marginalization among movement conservatives and the Republican “base”? The answer to this troubling question is twofold. A lot of Palin’s worldview springs from her own brand of Christianity, a providential view of America as a chosen people. But while I think such a view appeals to the base, I’m not certain it has a great deal of reach beyond it.
With that said, though, there are Palin’s conspiratorial rants against Obama-socialism. To readers of Dissent, such charges sound preposterous. But it is also the rhetoric that will carry her the farthest. There is, like it or not, a profound skepticism about the government’s ability to do good, and Palin touches that nerve. Is it any surprise, then, that the Republicans are centering their 2010 midterm election around bashing health care reform? The rather simple anti-government stance that Palin takes up has potency and will, most likely, fuel the Republican Party.
So what should liberals and leftists do about the Palin phenomenon? Not much, except criticize her for her irresponsible incompetence. This would mean dumping one of the dreams of the populist left: the aspiration to retool the resentments of right-wing populism by emphasizing economic populism. But even so the sensible thing to do is to call Palinism for what it is: a classic example of what Richard Hofstadter termed the “paranoid style” and the “anti-intellectualism” of the right. Palin’s rants against government bureaucracy and death panels and the income tax and her support of the tea partiers and the birther movement make quite clear that this is a mind obsessed with conspiracies and that feels so self-assured that it doesn’t even need to make its own case.
If liberals have anything to say in retort, it should be to warn that this style of leadership is what a Palin presidency would look like (God forbid). She would be a profoundly authoritarian and anti-liberal president. You get inklings of this in the first reports about “troopergate,” and you can also find it in Todd Palin’s list of “banned” media, who are not allowed to attend his wife’s book talks. Palin’s distaste for democratic deliberation can also be found in her book. Writing about the renegotiation of a budget, she complains that the process brought her “endless hours of discussion, deliberation, bartering, and whining. Again I was thankful for my training grounds as a mom.”
In the end, Palin is nothing more and nothing less than a good, old-fashioned political foe. We can draw from her posture of both rebellion and small-town authenticity the sense that movement conservatives are looking more and more like a counterculture that performs guerrilla theater (die-ins, tea parties) that make sense only to the self-anointed. Conservatives are trying to purify the Republican Party and cleanse it of any compromised candidates–and that’s a good thing for us.
When Palin remembers, in Going Rogue, the enthusiastic crowds she received on the campaign trail, there are two reactions: One is to worry about her appeal and the appeal of anti-government derision; the other is to sense that the attendees are beyond the pail. Palin is best when singing to the choir. The paranoid develop a constricted circle of cheering crowds and look for ways to reaffirm beliefs rather than engage debates. It’s how the wink and parenthetical comment work. The conservative movement now has Fox, Joe the Plumber, Christian rock concerts, and Palin book-signing events. Let’s hope that keeps them busy enough to limit their damage.
Kevin Mattson’s recent book is “What the Heck are You Up to, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country. Photo: Sarah Palin at a Saxby Chambliss rally in December 2008 (Bruce Tuten / Creative Commons)