With everyone else talking or writing about Sarah Palin, I have to catch up. But I am not going to slog through the personal stuff about her family life or the gulf between her moral pretensions, and her and her family’s performance. Nor am I going to rehearse her alleged ethical or criminal lapses in office. Tabloids and talking heads have done that work in mind-numbing detail. Psycho-social drama is their thing, not mine. Everyone else sees her as a politician, a celebrity, or a political celebrity. I see her differently, as a threat, ironically, to the one thing which she purports to hold most dear: freedom (whatever it means to her).
Saint Ronnie versus Saint Sarah
Someone near and dear to me argues that Palin is a female doppelganger of Ronald Reagan. Palin herself invites the comparison despite her ignorance of the basic facts about the man. For example, speaking at Cal State Stanislaus earlier this year, she extolled Reagan for coming west to California to get his college education in nearby Eureka. Wrong: Reagan got his diploma from Eureka College in Illinois long before relocating. Such ignorance of the icon whom she disses by exploiting keeps her from realizing that the comparison is not flattering to her. For the parallels are few and flimsy. Both come from modest backgrounds, went to college, entered politics, and became governors. But the disparities in the details of these parallels reflect big differences between these iconic figures.
Reagan grew up during the Depression, worked hard, mixed easily with people of all sorts. He majored in economics and sociology, got a job in broadcasting, then became a prominent Hollywood actor in B-grade movies, including “Bedtime for Bozo” and “Knute Rockne, All American.” Raised a New Deal Democrat, he led the Screen Actors Guild; working as a GE spokesman, he became a Republican. He entered politics, became a successful, two-term governor of the state with the largest and most diverse population and economy, and then became a successful, two-term president.
By comparison, Palin knew no economic hardships, never worked hard, and knew or mixed easily with few people different from her. Her college education in communications was haphazard, but she got a job in broadcasting. She entered small-town politics as mayor of a small city and later became governor of state with a small, mainly white, population and with a small economy funded largely by federal money and corporate royalties. She quit after two years with relatively little to show for her tenure.
The big difference: Reagan knew, respected, and liked people (his friendship with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House who opposed much of his legislation, was legendary); had a working knowledge of domestic and foreign issues; and demonstrated geniality, good sense, and self-confidence. Palin is his opposite in these respects. She describes herself as a “pit bull with lipstick”; she remains indifferent to knowledge or nuance about national issues; and her sense of grievance and her resentments motivate her attitude toward, and attacks on, those who question or criticize her or her views.
Reagan is Reagan, and Palin is no Reagan. Reagan was a charismatic political leader who worked with political friends and foes alike; Palin is a charismatic demagogue who uses political power to reward friends and punish enemies. In real life, Reagan was an extrovert, a nice guy; Palin is a narcissist, and nasty.
Palin Is a Unique Populist
Palin is a populist unlike the traditional advocate for the down-and-out who emerges in tough times. In the 2008 economic meltdown, she did not demand economic reform, financial assistance to the needy, or public works programs for the unemployed; she did not deplore the abuses which caused misery to many or sympathize with those who lost, or feared losing, homes, jobs, health insurance, or education. In the 2010 BP-created Gulf disaster, she had no feeling for people affected, livelihoods destroyed, and way of life threatened. Yet she has her greatest appeal to, and support from, whites suffering most.
So what is Palin’s appeal, and how does it work? My guess: it reflects a new kind of populism, in three respects. First, the old populism supported anti-trust, anti-rich rhetoric and government-effected wealth redistribution (Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt). Her populism is capitalistic, even corporatist. Palin fans traditional slogans about lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government, into inflamed loathing of government (“death panels”) and rabid support for environment-damaging corporations (“drill, baby, drill”).
Second, the old populism used traditional anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, with its lexicon of sneers at “Boston Brahmins,” “limousine liberals,” “eggheads,” and “pointy-headed” or “ivory-tower” academics. Her populism is original in discounting, or dispensing with, facts, logic, and truth. Palin knows that “you betcha,” a wink, and an aura of ill-usage work—and work better than policy papers or program details—because her followers can grasp them intuitively.
Third, the old populism attacked economic inequality but asserted personal equality—you’re-as-good-as-they-are stuff. Populism for the past 40 years has played the victim-making identity issues of race, gender, and culture. Her new populism moves in a new direction. Palin makes no use of the old populism to address economic fears and makes modest use of identity issues in code words, notably her repeated phrase about “real Americans.
Rather, she aggravates her followers’ feelings of inferiority and inequality to those who have what they have not. She shares their feelings and knows them to care more that she runs against those whom they begrudge than runs for any issues in particular. She knows that the little required of them to feel an affinity with her and appreciate her as a celebrity is all which her campaign requires of them for her to succeed. So she will continue to ignore and outwit conventional politicians who think that her ignorance or incompetence matters to them and will diminish her appeal. They like her because she seems (and is) like them
Dealing with Palin and Palin Dealing with Decline
Republicans are particularly worried about Palin and her possible candidacy. The Democrats probably want her be Obama’s opposition. (If so, they should think again by recalling the Harry Reid liked the idea of running against Sharron Angle until he had to, and nearly lost. Harry won because he is skilled fighter; Obama may not because he is not.) I have my fair share of concerns about Palin and then some, so I am happy to offer advice to Republicans with their fair, but different, share of concerns.
My advice begins and ends with a strategy mindful of her personality and her propensities: avoid triggering her sense of grievance or her resentments. In any engagement, be respectful, attentive, undemonstrative, unresponsive. Discuss your views; disregard her views. Neither agree nor disagree with her; if necessary, rebut by indirection. Avoid criticism, even its appearance; ask no questions, seek no specifics, dispute no views. If you fail, she will tailor her response to any confrontation, direct or indirect, to elicit the sympathy of her followers and possibly others.
Palin has rallied the chronically disgruntled or resentful members of society, culled and gulled them, and led them to the polls. However, such attitudes and emotions lose potency over time, and I think that they already are losing it. She is discovering, and has more to discover, that, no sooner has she helped Tea and Republican candidates, than those elected are turning, and will continue to turn, on or away from her. When Tea Party representatives fail to fulfill campaign rhetoric and, instead, turn into run-of-the-mill politicians seeking re-election, they may tarnish her reputation and diminish her power. Whether she can retain her celebrity status with its political appeal remains to be seen. Her likely future: increasingly frantic, inane or degrading, futile efforts to restore the glory.
Slighted and scorned, she will turn on those who turn on her and may run for president in spite. If she does run, she is popular enough with her followers to win some primaries, but probably not popular enough with Republicans or Independents to win a nomination or with most Americans to win election. This majority, reasonable and responsible more often than not, elects presidents to work their hardest and do their best for four years, not quit for fun and profit after two.