Palin: if she didn’t exist, they’d have to invent her

It is the Democrats’ deep-seated disdain for the masses and the Republicans’ continued state of disarray that allows Sarah Palin to thrive.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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She’s back! Sarah Palin stormed back into the headlines this past week. She wowed the Tea Party national convention, leading to chants of ‘Run, Sarah, Run’. The next morning she appeared on Fox News to say she was indeed open to running for president in 2012.

Many assumed that her 15 minutes of fame were up. She was a figure of derision during the presidential election, and many stayed tuned in the hope of witnessing a screw-up. As Mark Halperin and John Heilemann put it in their book Game Change, she was ‘a hick on a high wire’. Then last summer she unexpectedly quit her job as governor of Alaska. Many thought abandoning an elected office would be the final nail in the coffin for her political career.

In reality, however, Palin never left the political scene. She has published a best-selling memoir, Going Rogue, which has earned her $10million-plus, and she has been hired as a commentator for Fox News, another lucrative venture. And since the election she has retained a knack for influencing discussion and becoming the centre of attention. Over the summer she stirred up the healthcare reform debate when she posted about ‘death panels’ on Facebook. More recently, she set off a national fuss when she chided Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for using the word ‘retarded’. (Emanuel was referring to liberal activists, and Palin, who has a child with Down’s syndrome, accused him of using a derogatory term. Emanuel dutifully apologised to disability groups.)

The re-emergence of Palin – and especially her announcement that she might run for president – has got liberals freaking out. A common reaction is that the prospect of President Palin is becoming very real, and it’s very scary. ‘She’s frightening… Nothing is more frightening than an empty vessel in power’, says MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews. Writing about the ‘dangers’ of Palin, Matthew Rothschild in the Progressive says: ‘She may very well be the Republican nominee in 2012, and if the economy hasn’t recovered by then, there’s an outside chance she could win the White House.’

Liberals fear that Palin is teflon, and that no matter what they expose about her, it doesn’t stick. She has made one gaffe after another: the embarrassing Katie Couric interviews in which she couldn’t answer basic questions; the $150,000 spent on her wardrobe during the campaign; the Troopergate scandal; quitting as governor. And yet Palin goes on, seemingly unaffected.

But liberals really need to get a grip. They certainly overstate her support. A CNN poll last October found that 71 per cent of Americans think Palin is not qualified to be president. A more recent poll, by CBS News in mid-January, also found that 71 per cent of Americans – and 58 per cent of conservatives – do not want her to run for president. Of course, you can never say never in politics, but she is a true long-shot right now. And, let’s not forget, they are obsessing about an election that is three years away.

Palin’s gaffes have certainly had an impact on the high percentage who think she is unqualified, and her capacity to blunder seems to be undiminished. In her Fox interview, when asked if she was more knowledgeable than during the campaign, she replied: ‘I sure as heck better be more astute on these current events, national issues.’ And yet she continues to put her foot in her mouth, like when she raised the possibility of Obama declaring war on Iran, something even the most hawkish conservatives do not propose. Her recent attack on Emanuel for his ‘retarded’ comment led in turn to criticisms of Palin from conservatives for adopting political correctness, and she had to scramble when she learned that conservative radio talkshow king Rush Limbaugh uses the word ‘retard’ frequently. (Palin then said Limbaugh’s use was acceptable because it was satire, leading to accusations of applying a double standard.)

The rapturous applause that greeted Palin at the Tea Party conference was taken as proof that she is now the queen of that movement. But the reality is more complicated. For a start, it is very questionable how much of a ‘movement’ the Tea Party is – it only managed to get 600 people to its convention and most of them appeared to be over 50. But to the extent that the partiers are a movement, Palin has had to work hard to try to stay ahead of them. They are an amorphous bunch, united only in a vague opposition to Washington, and their only common policy seems to be opposing government spending and taxation. At the convention, Palin tried to lead them back towards traditional conservative positions on national security and religion (‘divine intervention’ was one of her three priorities), but it remains unclear whether they will be swayed in her direction.

What really underlies the liberal panic about Palin is not the woman herself, but rather the masses they fear will support her. The Democratic establishment are distant from the working class, do not know what they are thinking, and lack confidence in them. The Democrats’ disdain for ‘middle Americans’ has been a longstanding theme. Obama’s infamous ‘cling to guns and religion’ remark during the campaign resonated because it was not the first expression of condescension. After Obama was elected, liberals were relieved, thinking that finally the majority of Americans were enlightened and willing to embrace multiculturalism. But now, only about a year later, they’ve swung back to believing that the masses are not really onside, and that all it takes is high unemployment to turn them back into a backward mob that is ready and willing to march in step with an alleged ‘proto-fascist’ like Palin.

Indeed, in recent weeks a number of liberal writers have blamed the American people for Obama’s lack of success in office. In a Slate article entitled ‘Down with the people’, Jacob Weisberg writes that the ‘biggest culprit’ for the current political paralysis is ‘the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large’. And, in New York magazine, Kurt Andersen writes of his dislike for today’s populism, arguing that ‘American democracy has gotten way too democratic’, and ‘the walls [the founding fathers] erected to contain the mob may no longer hold’. It is all reminiscent of Berthold Brecht’s wry advice to the East German Stalinists in the 1950s ‘to dissolve the people and elect another’.

It is this liberal response that sustains Palin and her followers. Her aim is to be seen to represent the disparaged masses, and many liberals seem happy unwittingly to help her. Palin’s name is becoming a codeword for uncool hicks who supposedly stand in the way of progress. She is positioning herself so that any attack on her is seen as an attack on ‘middle America’. Many support Palin simply because they know she is the liberals’ nightmare. Saying you’re behind Palin is the way to send a big F-U.

Liberals’ obsession with Palin is backfiring on them. Take the latest incident – the revelation that Palin referred to notes scribbled on her hand at the Tea Party event. This has been taken as yet more evidence that she is not up to the job. But while this minor episode sucks up nearly all of the political media’s oxygen, what’s missed is that she has become the centre of attention once again. When Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs then mocks her (by writing notes on his own hand), it shows that now even the White House is concerned. So rather than dismissing and ignoring Palin as a fringe figure who has no business being considered a player in American political life, Gibbs’ reference means that she is effectively taken seriously at the highest levels – and she thus becomes legitimised. That’s a victory for her.

At the same time, Democrats’ fascination with, and animosity towards, Palin is not the only reason why she remains influential. Equally important – and less commented on – is how she is the result of Republican Party disarray. Palin would have never been heard of if not for McCain’s rash decision to select her as his running mate. And it is the lack of any coherent Republican leadership today that creates a vacuum that Palin gladly fills.

Palin is, in many respects, problematic for the Republicans. For one thing, she hardly displays loyalty to the party, so growth in her support is not necessarily to the Republicans’ benefit generally. Like Obama, she is primarily a solo artist. At the Tea Party convention she noted with pride that her husband did not vote Republican (thus re-raising earlier accusations that he was a member of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party). Palin also encouraged the partiers to stay independent and be an influence on both parties, and it appears some of them would prefer to set up a third party than fall behind the Republicans.

At its root, the problem facing establishment Republicans is that they have no ideas and cannot enthuse the traditional base of their party. Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest appears to confirm a swing in national support towards the party, but polls show that only 24 per cent of people identify themselves as Republican, a level that has remained fairly constant since Obama’s election. Votes for Brown and others are more of a protest vote and the Republicans gain only by default because they are not the current incumbents.

Palin may not have ideas either, but unlike the standard-bearing Republicans, she can excite the activists. While some Republican commentators spoke out against her during the election – most notably Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and David Frum – most elected officials and pundits have been at least accommodating, if not fully supportive, of her. They will do whatever they can to hold on to the base of the party, even if it means riding the Palin tiger. Some may cringe when Palin opens her mouth to speak, but in the end they pander to her. Some cynically believe she can be their puppet, but she remains a loose cannon. Most of all, there is a fear that if they alienate Palin, they will lose the last connection they have to the base. Consequently, she gets a lot of leeway to call the shots.

Recent electoral success has concealed the party’s shortcomings, which are likely to become more evident in the near future. Obama has dominated them in two recent public events. First, in the State of the Union address, Obama taunted his opponents, saying: ‘If you have a better idea, show it to me.’ Second, Obama made a rare visit to the House Republicans retreat, where, as recorded before the television cameras for all to see, he took them to school, exposing them for their lack of alternatives.

And so, with respect to Palin, the Republicans are caught in a dilemma. On one hand, pinning their hopes on her candidacy is not a feasible strategy given her serious weaknesses. Feeding off liberal condescension is not enough for any conservative politician, never mind one with the baggage she brings. On the other hand, Republicans fear offending her. More viable national spokespersons could emerge, but so far none have the balls to take her on. Until that happens, she can continue to dictate the agenda.

Political analysts try to discover what makes Palin tick, and why people are drawn to back her. Jonathan Raban, in the New York Review of Books, cites her ‘exceptionally canny political instinct for connecting with her own kind’. With her comeback this past week, there’s bound to be more Palin-ology to follow. But the support she garners has little to do with Palin herself – there’s really nothing there. It has much more to do with the state of politics surrounding her, which has propelled this nobody to such a position of importance.

Palin is the product of both Democrat condescension and Republican disarray. As the saying goes, if she didn’t exist, you’d have to invent her. The more that she is the focus of attention, and the more she is attacked (especially in personal terms), then the more prominent will she become. And the more that the real problems in Washington are not dealt with, the more influential will she become. Palin is a political force created jointly by the Democrats and Republicans, a Frankenstein monster that neither party seems able to control.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild called Sarah Palin a gift from God for East Coast comics. Wendy Kaminer argued that Palin’s vice-presidential campaign was built on female chauvinism. Frank Furedi felt Palin had been turned into a twentieth-century witch. Helen searls discerned the rise of tribal politics in the ascendancy of Palin. Or read more at spiked issue USA.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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