Between Palin and Palinism


Sarah Palin is not going away; she may or may not run for office -- for the Senate or the presidency -- but in any case she's going to be a part of the political conversation and, like Ross Perot, may play a major role in shaping candidacies and voter preferences. So what exactly is the nature of the Palin phenomenon?  What are the issues she puts on the table? Let me suggest that there are two.

The first is Palin herself: her skills, her persona, her knowledge, her capacity for learning. There are many for whom this matter is settled: she's a boob or she's shrewd. She has real-world insights or suffers from a form of provincial paranoia. In each case, the conclusions are definitive: she is what she is and she is adored or reviled.

It is far from clear, however, that the electorate as a whole has come to a consensus on the essence of Sarah Palin. As a minor member of the chattering class, and thus reckoned free from the constraints of proof, I offer observation and opinion instead. I have come to no real conclusion myself as to Governor Palin's limits. This is partly because, while I, too, was befuddled by her apparent befuddlement on more than one occasion -- I am quite willing to at least consider any proferred excuse that lays the blame on the hapless presidential campaign that drafted her and sent her forth.

Recommended Reading

She says it was the campaign that decided to run up mind-boggling bills to outfit her for the national convention and subsequent public appearances; that the decision was not hers. She says that campaign managers told her what to confess, what to deny, and what to stonewall in her public appearances. She says, in effect, that the person we saw last Fall was a puppet whose strings were being pulled by people who were dummies themselves and were running John McCain's campaign for the White House. 

I have no way of knowing how much of this to believe -- McCain insiders deny it all -- but in a long career of watching, and being part of, political campaigns, including those of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, I have never seen another as inept as the one assembled by John McCain. At times the McCain campaign resembled a poorly-run race for sixth-grade class president. This predisposes me to believe any accusation of stupidity within that dingy and brain-dead quarter. 

This does not excuse Ms. Palin nor prove the accuracy of her explanations, but it certainly places them within the realm of possibility. Not all of them, to be sure. There were certainly a sufficient number of eye-rolling statements coming from Palin's mouth to make it plausible to raise questions about her intellect and to render her at least semi-culpable in the formation of the unfavorable opinion that dogged her days on the campaign trail. What's more -- sorry, Sarah -- if one professes to be strong enough to hold high office, how do we square that with a self-portrayal as a poor helpless victim of mindless string-pullers? What, you couldn't say no? 

But questions about Palin are not the same as questions about Palinism. And if Palinism extends beyond Sarah Palin, herself, as I suspect it may, it is Palinism that will matter most in the elections of 2010 and 2012. 

What is Palinism? It is the suggestion that there is in Middle America a bubbling resentment against what is perceived as elitist snobbery against those who go to community college, shop at Walmart, view non-pet animals as food-in-waiting, read John Grisham novels and go to church on Sunday. It is not (or so I perceive it) a rebellion against affluence or superior education, but against what many in fly-over-land view as condescension and dismissiveness.

I'm not unaware of the tension, having received my own education in the heartland (journalism at the University of Oklahoma, law at Oklahoma City University) but having then taught at Harvard and Princeton for the past sixteen years, I have cheered rodeos as well as applauded in Symphony Hall. One can move in both circles, but Oklahoma and Cambridge are indeed distinct.

This may be disconcerting to some, but my guess is that by actual count (I'm not a statistician), more people shop at Walmart than at Bergdorf-Goodman (although some who don't shop at Walmart are voicing an ethical concern, not looking down their noses at discount goods) and more watch NASCAR than ski at Aspen. Clearly the two worlds can co-exist and political candidates can appeal equally to both (there are similar issues - involving jobs, health care, war - in both Americas) but they co-exist most readily where there is a mutual respect.

Palinism is an in-your-face complaint that one side disrespects the other. It is an assertion that "you betcha" is as valid an assent as "indeed". Barack Obama may have said there is not a liberal America and a conservative America but a single United States of America, but Palinites aren't so sure about that. 
Does Palinism extend beyond Palin? Of course, but how far? Majorities in many of the constituencies Palin was thought to represent, instead voted for Barack Obama last November and sent Democrats to Congress. There is no doubt that the grassroots anger at elitism and government activism is real. But is it the anger of a majority or a disgruntled and vocal minority?

Is Sarah Palin the next Ross Perot or the next Ralph Nader? That is the question she places before us. It is not about Sarah Palin but about her charge that we are not one America but two, and that it is the elites who have chosen to make it that way. Whether she is the voice for an angry minority or simply a rogue (as she describes herself, unaware that rogues do not run in packs), we'll find out next year.

(Photo: Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)