Sarah Palin's Legacy: Politics as a Path to Celebrity and Riches

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Lots of losing candidates attain fame. The former Alaska governor showed how to turn that into a fortune.

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Sarah Palin is expected to fade as a player in national politics now that it's confirmed that she won't seek the presidency. But I suspect that, like many trailblazers, her influence will be felt for years.

The former Alaska governor came along after two trends had taken hold on the American scene. The first was a certain kind of celebrity. In America, fame and fortune have long gone together. But the relationship between the two is different than ever before. Suddenly people are seemingly famous for being famous. Guys like Dr. Phil turned appearances on Oprah into a lucrative personal brand. Bethany Frankel from The Real Housewives of New York City leveraged notoriety into a Skinnygirl cocktail line that she reportedly sold for a cool $120 million.

Though the odds are against it, there's the possibility that anyone can build themselves into a "reality show" type figure and leverage the attendant fame into a payday that sets them up for life.

And so people try. 

The other trend is the monetization of ideology. When William F. Buckley created the modern conservative movement, he wasn't doing it to maximize his fortune. Rush Limbaugh started off in radio because he loved the medium, not because he anticipated making hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, movement conservatism is a multibillion-dollar industry that encompasses pundits, talk radio broadcasters, publishing imprints, a cable news channel, and speaking engagements galore. Saying conservative sounding things to conservatives who like to hear their worldview flattered is a well-trod path to wealth, especially if you're blessed with charisma.   

Sarah Palin understood these two trends, and benefited in unprecedented ways from their intersection. Until Palin came along, no one realized that a politician could successfully leverage the celebrity gained in a presidential campaign into a multimillion-dollar fortune, and quickly. Less than a year after Palin resigned the governorship of Alaska, ABC News estimated that she'd earned $12 million. Lots of politicians before Palin had left public service for lucrative spots in private industry. Past presidents excepted, did any make as much out of their notoriety?

It's possible that Palin is a singular figure whose earning success isn't repeatable, but already guys like Mike Huckabee are turning presidential runs into gigs more lucrative or enjoyable than their next best option. Regardless of how Election 2012 turns out, surely Herman Cain can make some money off of the process. (As it happens, he's taking time out for a book tour even now.)

Going forward, a lot of politicians are going to try to replicate some of what Palin did. Already, Tim Pawlenty reportedly sought a Fox News commentary gig after his presidential candidacy stalled. Donald Trump, a shameless publicity hound from way back, perhaps tried to exploit Election 2012 to increase ratings on "The Apprentice." Even more failed pols will try to earn money giving speeches. And as job seekers follow financial incentives, perceived or real, it's possible that the prospect of monetizing political celebrity will change not only the way that candidates campaign, but the sorts of candidates who decide it's worthwhile to seek high office.

In sum, Sarah Palin will have had a significant influence on presidential politics even if she never seeks office again. I'd take a long shot bet that she'll one day explore a Senate run in Arizona, where she recently purchased property. Meanwhile, I'll think of her every time a politician makes the jump from campaigning to Fox News or reality television or any as yet untapped revenue stream.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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