What's Sarah Palin's Appeal?

Personal conflict, "visceral power," and a uniquely American strain of populism, for starters

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Sarah Palin's high-profile media tour in support of her memoir, Going Rogue, has demonstrated that a year after her failed campaign with Senator John McCain, she still plays big among conservatives. And she still winds up pundits of all stripes. Whether Palin is a misunderstood disaster or the future of the GOP, she's not going anywhere. Why does she continue to draw crowds?

  • Her World of Conflict Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi thinks Palin's penchant for focusing on petty personal drama over complex policy issues resonates with Americans and with the media.
Sarah Palin is the Empress-Queen of the screaming-for-screaming's sake generation. The people who dismiss her book Going Rogue as the petty, vindictive meanderings of a preening paranoiac with the IQ of a celery stalk completely miss the book's significance, because in some ways it's really a revolutionary and innovative piece of literature. [...]
Rush [Limbaugh] is no Einstein, but the man does research. It may be fallacious and completely dishonest research, but he does it all the same. His battlefield is world politics and most of the time the relevant action is taking place in Washington. As good as he is at what he does, he still has to travel to the action; he himself isn't the action. Sarah Palin's battlefield, on the other hand, is whatever is happening five feet in front of her face. She is building a political career around the little interpersonal wars in the immediate airspace surrounding her sawdust-filled head. And in the process she connects with pissed-off, frightened, put-upon America on a plane that's far more elemental than the mega-ditto schtick. [...]
Palin's extraordinary ability to inspire major national controversies around these injustices done to her immediate person is going to guarantee her some kind of major role in American politics for the next dozen years. In this regard she is going to have a willing ally in her supposed keen enemy, the mainstream media, which likewise loves nothing more than a political narrative that has nothing to do with politics.
There is something about the structure of American democracy that encourages periodic upsurges in popular opinion directed at nogood-niks on the East Coast. [...] For the last quarter century, right-wing populism, often infused with social conservatism, has been the most demonized force in American politics--and also the most interesting and dynamic.
In this country, whenever the public concludes that elite behavior is opaque and self-interested, a popular reaction ensues. In part, Barack Obama was elected president because of widespread discontent with the way Washington had managed its basic roles of fighting wars and maintaining the financial system. But Obama, who had the common touch during the campaign, has governed as an elitist. [...] But the elites continue to mess things up. Confidence in American institutions continues to erode. Faith in the American future continues to decline.
The truth is that no one knows when this conservative populist energy attenuates; we don't know who creates the structures to harness and exploit it. We don't know what happens if Mike Huckabee decides not to run -- we assume he will, but we don't know. President Sarah Palin. That's an ankle-snapping stretch. But to be the GOP nominee? That's merely a strain. I think she can make a comeback. [...]
She's still the Panglossian archangel of the anti-intellectual strain in conservatism? She blows off evolution and asserts that humans can eat meat because animals are made of meat. Evolution might reply that if Sarah Palin didn't exist, God would have had to invent her. The conviction that she's the talisman for a vital center in American politics? Check. The ability to capture the patronizing -- and yet pornographically attentive -- focus of the establishment media? Check. The preternatural skill at making the other side feel good about making the other other side feel bad? All there.
  • 'Visceral Power' The New York Times's Maureen Dowd insists, "Democrats would be foolish to write off her visceral power."

Palin can be stupefyingly simplistic, but she seems dynamic. Obama is impressively complex but he seems static. She nurtures her grass roots while he neglects his. He struggles to transcend identity politics while she wallows in them. As he builds an emotional moat around himself, she exuberantly pushes whatever she has, warts and all -- the good looks, the tabloid-perfect family, the Alaska quirkiness, the kids with the weird names. Just like the disastrous and anti-intellectual W., this Visceral One never doubts herself. The Cerebral One welcomes doubt.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.