For 40 years, an abstract impressionist painting by Vance Kirkland, local Denver artist of some repute in the mid-twentieth-century, has hung on my living room wall. I have rotated it 90 degrees clockwise from the orientation which he intended; I think of my re-orientation as an act of participatory art. As I have looked at it over the years, I have tried to see some pattern emerging from its whirls and blotches. I have failed, but my failure pleases me. It teaches me to look without seeing when there is nothing to see.
Likewise, when I look at Sarah Palin live on television or still in photographs, I do not “see” anything, at least nothing certain. She is obviously attractive and vivacious, smart (in a small-minded, mean-spirited way), uninformed (in a large-scale way), and smooth in most situations and getting smoother. I have heard her speak, I have read and heard about her, and I know most of the criticisms about her. She gives evidence of narcissism and paranoia, both reflected in vindictive score-settling for the slightest slights. She has been platitudinous on domestic social and economic policies, ignorant of foreign affairs, and, most unusual of all, unwilling to learn more about the issues and to become more nuanced in her thinking. But I can make nothing of the woman. Who is she? What are her motives? Her principles? Her values? I still cannot answer my questions.
However, I can almost say, good for her. I believe that she is everything which her critics in both parties say that she is. But I also believe that their criticism does not matter: the more they say it, the more they strengthen her. The more they pan her electronic twittering, her media appearances, and her platform speeches, the more her fans admire whatever it is that she represents for them. I have a grudging admiration that she has buffaloed—or should I say “moosed”?—her critics on both left and right.
They had better shape up or she will ship them out. Palin is different from the usual spokesperson from the populist fringe which emerges when times are tough. She does not advocate economic reform, financial assistance to the unemployed or needy, or job creation by public works programs; she does not deplore the abuses which have caused misery to many; she does not even sympathize with those who have lost homes, jobs, health insurance, or education. Yet she seems to have greatest appeal to those who are suffering most. So what is it?
My guess is that her appeal is the populism of a new kind of identity politics. We have long had the identity politics of race, gender, and cultural issues. Palin builds on that politics, speaks its code words to play to it, but goes beyond it to exploit the identity politics of the educational and intellectual underclass. For them, knowledge and nuance are anathema, and Palin has the smarts of her instincts to know as much; she knows that they cannot get it. She knows that “you betcha,” a wink, and a sense of grievance work—and work better than policy wonkishness and program promises—because her fans can understand them without knowledge or nuance. So she is going to up-stage conventional politicians who think that criticism of her lack of knowledge or nuance matters to them.
I have two suggestions for those who want to minimize her appeal. One, let Palin be Palin. Her allure may fade after her allotted minutes of celebrity fame because she cannot change; what is static becomes stale, so her shtick will eventually fail to suit the craving for stimulation by the National Enquirer crowd. Two, meanwhile, play rope-a-dope (to a dope). When the opportunity presents itself, just agree with her, and let her have to fill in the silence which you leave her. If you ask her questions which require answers translating platitudes into specifics, you are inviting an aggressive but aggrieved retreat, which will revive the sympathy of her followers, who also feel put upon when challenged. Still, I have less confidence in the first than the second suggestion, but not much in either.
For the present, Palin will be the perfect storm of American anti-intellectualism and an anti-intellectual who understands that this educational and intellectual underclass can be culled and led to the polls. Right now, she gets only 30 percent of the vote—perhaps, if she does not fade from view, enough to set her up for a run in her mid 50s or her 60s, or to sustain her influence to pick a disciple. In the future, say 20 years from now, she or a candidate like her will have an excellent chance of winning. By then, we shall be dumb enough to feel a bond with someone equally dumb except for knowing how dumb we are.