Why Palin-Style Populism Is Doomed to Fail

The former Alaska governor aimed at a narrow audience and adopted rhetoric that needlessly alienated potential converts to the anti-establishment cause

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In "Missing the Populist Moment," Ross Douthat argues that "by rights, this should be the election when conservative populists, frequently thwarted and co-opted by the Republican Party's kingmakers, finally succeed in pushing an insurgent candidate to the top of the presidential ticket." But despite political conditions favorable to their rise and unlovable Mitt Romney as an alternative, "the populists haven't found a standard-bearer capable of taking advantage."

Douthat offers explanations. And I'd like to add one of my own. Populists on the right were ill served by the 2008 rise of Sarah Palin and her subsequent role on the national scene, because she made right-leaning populism seem unappealing to a lot of potential converts. Given her record in Alaska, she could've focused her ire at the corrupt nexus between big business and government, making President Obama's cozy relationship with Wall Street the most common theme of her attacks and skewering him for his broken promises about transparency. Though Palin touched on those themes, she is best known for rhetoric that extols a narrow slice of America: the residents of small towns in "the heartland" who hunt and attend church (though the specific cultural cues she invokes vary a bit from speech to TV appearance to speech).

If you're a Republican political junkie in Orange County, California or Charleston, South Carolina, it's likely that you hear Palin's rhetoric about the moral superiority of hockey moms in small towns -- and the implied inferiority of Starbucks customers in cities -- as symbolic rhetoric intended to signal solidarity with Red America, mostly by driving liberals the nation over crazy. But what if some GOP voters on the coasts and in big cities and exurbs aren't hearing Palin's rhetoric as symbolic?

Then there are the constant attacks on "the lame-stream media." Once again, that's language with appeal to a lot of political junkies on the right. But if you're a Republican voter for whom the news media plays a small, decidedly peripheral role in life, how are you going to react to the woman who always seems to be on the TV, complaining about how much the people on the TV suck?

There is a small universe of right-leaning populists that would rather spend down moments at work on The Drudge Report than ESPN.com. Whether Sarah Palin tried to court them because they buy what she's selling, or foolishly bet on a small, noisy demographic to further her political career, other would-be right-leaning populists can learn something from her many missteps.

It may seem, inside the bubble of movement conservatism, that everyone on the right responds favorably to pitches aimed at the "Red American" stereotype. But a lot of citizens, Republican and Democrat alike, aren't particularly attuned to political symbolism. Upon hearing a politician signal solidarity with small-town residents who hunt, they conclude that, since they live in an exurb, own no gun, and play basketball on the weekends, that candidate isn't for them.

In a country with as many subcultures as America, it's foolish for any political actor to appeal narrowly to any one if the aim is electoral success. Then again, if the aim is profit, it can be lucrative. The conservative movement has built itself a media machine that affords to some politicians the option to be lucrative brands. I suspect that Palin thought she didn't have to choose between electoral success and business success -- and that she won't be the last of the ambitious pols who fool themselves into thinking the same thing (or else to knowingly choose the latter).

Image credit: Reuters