The Palin Effect
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Sarah Palin's heavily publicized book tour begins in earnest this Monday, but weeks before, her ghostwritten memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, had already vaulted into the number-one position at Amazon. Warming up for a tour that will take her across Middle America in a bus, Palin tested her lines in a November 7 speech before a crowd of 5,000 anti-abortion activists in Wisconsin. She promptly cited an urban legend as a "disturbing trend," claiming the Treasury Department had moved the phrase "In God We Trust" from presidential dollar coins. (The rumor most likely originated with a 2006 story on the far-right website WorldNetDaily.)
In fact, a suggested alteration in its position on the coin was shot down in 2007 after pressure from Democratic Senator Robert Byrd. Nonetheless, Palin did not hesitate to take up this "controversy," however false, since it conveniently pits a tyrannical, God-destroying, secular big government against humble God-fearing folk. In doing so, of course, she presented herself as this nation's leading defender of the faith.
In a Republican Party hoping to rebound in 2010 on the strength of a newly energized and ideologically aroused conservative grassroots, Palin's influence is now unparalleled. Through her Twitter account, she was the one who pushed the rumor of "death panels" into the national healthcare debate, prompting the White House to issue a series of defensive responses. Unfazed by its absurdity, she repeated the charge in her recent speech in Wisconsin. In a special Congressional election in New York's 23rd Congressional district, Palin's endorsement of Doug Hoffman, an unknown far-right third-party candidate, helped force a popular moderate Republican politician, Dede Scozzafava, from the race. In the end, Palin's ideological purge in upstate New York led to an improbable Democratic victory, the first in that GOP-heavy district in more than 100 years.
Though the ideological purge may have backfired, Palin's participation in it magnified her influence in the party. In a telling sign of this, Congressman Mark Kirk, a pro-choice Republican from the posh suburban North Shore of Chicago, running for the Senate in Illinois, issued an anxious call for Palin's support while she campaigned for Hoffman. According to a Kirk campaign memo, the candidate was terrified that Palin would be asked about his candidacy during her scheduled appearance on the Chicago-based Oprah Winfrey Show later this month--the kick-off for her book tour--and would not react enthusiastically. With $2.3 million in campaign cash and no viable primary challengers, Kirk was still desperate to avoid Palin-backed attacks from his right flank, however hypothetical they might be.
"She's gangbusters!" a leading conservative radio host exclaimed to me. "There is nobody in the Republican Party who can raise money like her or top her name recognition."
During the 2008 presidential race, some Republican Party elders warned of Palin's destructive influence. They insisted she was a polarizing figure whose extremism would accelerate the Party's slide toward the political and cultural margins. New York Times columnist David Brooks, a card-carrying neocon who had written glowingly of Senator McCain, claimed Palin represented "a fatal cancer to the Republican Party." Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, blasted Palin as "a dope and unqualified from the start." Last June, Steve Schmidt, the former McCain campaign chief of staff, warned that Palin's nomination as the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee would be "catastrophic."
New polling data appears to support such doomsday prophecies. According to an October 19 Gallup poll, the former governor of Alaska has become one of the most polarizing and unpopular politicians in the country. Since she quit the governorship to pursue her lucrative book deal, a move that upset many in Alaska's Republican leadership and cost the state's taxpayers almost $200,000, her unfavorability rating has spiked to 50 percent while her favorability has sunk to 40 percent, again according to Gallup's figures. (The only nationally known politician who is less popular right now, according to the poll, is John Edwards, the former two-term senator who fathered a child out of wedlock and paid his mistress hush money while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination on a social justice platform.)
If Palin is indeed a cancer on the GOP, why can't the Republican establishment retire her to a quiet life of moose hunting in the political wilderness? Why has her appeal only increased in the wake of her catastrophic political expeditions? Why won't she listen to, or abide by, conventional political wisdom?
The answer lies beyond the realm of polls and punditry in the political psychology of the movement that animates and, to a great degree, controls, the Republican grassroots--a uniquely evangelical subculture defined by the personal crises of its believers and their perceived persecution at the hands of cosmopolitan elites.
By emphasizing her own crises and her victimization by the "liberal media," Palin has established an invisible, indissoluble bond with adherents of that subculture--so visceral it transcends any rational political analysis. As a result, her career has become a vehicle through which the right-wing evangelical movement feels it can express its deepest identity in opposition both to secular society and to its representatives in the Obama White House. Palin is perceived by its leaders--and followers--not as another cynical politician or even as a self-promoting celebrity but as a kind of magical helper, the God-fearing glamor girl who parachuted into their backwater towns to lift them from the drudgery of everyday life, assuring them that they represented the "Real America."
If McCain had taken his preferred choice for a running mate in 2008, he would have chosen Joseph Lieberman, the turncoat Democrat and his best friend in the Senate. But with the base of the Republican Party subsumed by a Christian right that detested the senator, his advisers urged him to choose the untested, virtually unknown Alaskan governor to bring the faithful back to him. Their gamble paid off--at least in the short-term. When Palin was revealed as the vice presidential nominee at an off-the-record gathering of the Council for National Policy, a secretive cabal of the conservative movement's top financiers and activists, Tom Minnery of the Christian right outfit Focus on the Family recalled, "People were on their seats applauding cheering, yelling.... that room was electrified."
Before her nomination, the provincial Palin had traveled outside the country only once and demonstrated little, if any, intellectual curiosity. During the campaign, she was flummoxed when CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric simply asked what magazines she read. Yet the fact that she had such a limited understanding of the world actually recommended her to the Republican base.