Why do Americans love Sarah Palin?

Why does America take Palin seriously? The answer lies in gender politics, and in the history of right-wing populism. That populism is at its strongest at a time of social anxiety.
Ruth Rosen
23 November 2009

The meteoric ascent of  Sarah Palin as a celebrity puzzles many Americans.  Why, her detractors ask, did a presidential candidate choose an inexperienced and inarticulate former beauty queen who had governed the state of Alaska for two years as his vice-presidential running mate?  Why were right-wing Americans not disillusioned when Palin simply decided to quit her position as Governor after only two years of service? Why is Sarah Palin on the cover of Newsweek in the United States this week, in short shorts, and athletic gear, holding several Blackberry phones, as she prepares to exercise her rather amazing body in a gym? Is this the image she intends to use as she pursues her ambition to run for president?

If the rest of the world finds this bizarre celebrity puzzling, so do many Americans who know there is little beneath her alluring exterior. This week, Sarah Palin is everywhere, on dozens of talk shows, flogging her new book, Going Rogue, and quite frankly, she’s a huge embarrassment to many people in this country.  And yet, her new book is already a best seller in the states.

Sarah Palin knows almost nothing about domestic or foreign policy. During the presidential campaign,  Katie Couric, a news anchor, asked her what magazines she routinely read.  Palin hedged, became evasive and, in the end, could not describe any journal at all.  More recently, on the right-wing cable network Fox News,  Sean Hannity, one of the well-known conservative blowhards, asked Palin what can be done to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Palin’s answer revealed her confusion between Iraq and Iran:

"Cutting off the imports into Iraq, of their refined petroleum products. They're reliant -- 40 to 45 percent of their energy supply is reliant on those imports. We have some control over there. And some of the beneficial international monetary deals that Iraq benefits from -- we can start implementing some sanctions there and start really shaking things up, and telling Ahmadinejad, nobody is going to stand for this."

This is the same person who argued she was well-equipped to deal with foreign policy because she could see Russia from her home.

To really understand the rise of Sarah Palin, you have to know something about gender politics, as well as American political culture.  Sarah Palin projects a paradoxical  image to the American public which many religious conservatives nevertheless find comforting.  On the one hand, she appears on the cover of Newsweek as a sexy siren who, as the mother of five, is still a rather stunning and glamorous former beauty queen.  At the same time, she tells listeners that she is a simple, ordinary housewife, married to a wonderful man, and the mother of five, including a child with Down’s syndrome. Complicating that image, however, is that fact that she has spent much of the last year away from her family, pursuing her ambition to run as president in 2012.  And somehow these contradictions work and don’t unravel the careful image she had chosen to embody—the sexy siren who’s greatest strength is that she’s just an ordinary housewife.

Why has she been so successful?   Because right-wing populism  is a strong strain in American political history. Politicians pretend to be just ordinary folk, raising hell about intellectual elites.  Sometimes they have also attacked economic elites, but that has certainly not been the case since 1980.  Instead, their current mantra is lowering taxes, fighting against  health care reform, using the government only for wars, and embracing “traditional values,” which includes opposing abortion, Darwinian evolution, and gay marriage. Their attacks are not against the wealthy, but against  government spending for the ordinary people and cultural and intellectual elites.

If Palin knew any American history, she’d know that right-wing populism invites great anger and sensationalism, but has not yet resulted  in electoral success.  For a conservative to win the presidency in the United States, he or she must have the warm genial quality that made Ronald Reagan so popular.  Even George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative,” a friendly frat boy who would buy you a beer, not someone who would try to incite the fury of angry mobs.

Palin, on the other hand, does try to stir up anger among her admirers. She is snarky and sarcastic.  She lies and tells the public that health care reform would create “death panels” that would decide which elders could receive medical treatment. With great authority, she accuses President Obama of hanging out with terrorists. Part of her appeal is that she is a maverick who can seemingly “go rogue” without suffering any consequences.  This image appeals to those who see themselves as outside of modern society, alienated by the cultural life and tastes of the East and West Coasts, left behind by history, wedded to her belief that the “end days” are coming within our lifetimes. Faith, she says, is what keeps her going.

Rumors are flying that the Associated Press is currently fact checking her book, which will undoubtedly reveal some whoppers.  But that won’t matter to her admirers.  She speaks for those who love to look at her, who don’t mind that her knowledge is thin, that her sentences are mangled, and that her ordinary mother routine is a ruse, or that she simply quit her job as Governor because she was bored.

Does she have a chance to run for president?  I don’t think so, but the Republican Party has become the home for ideological purists like Sarah Palin. They are market and religious fundamentalists.  “Moderate” Republicans have become political oxymorons.  They are targeted by right -wing purists and then replaced by more conservative candidates.  While it is true that America is a centrist-right society, ideological purists have never won national office.  Still, in primaries, where the conservative base is very strong, it is conceivable that that Republic party would self-destruct by annointing someone for their ideological purity.  Sarah Palin fits that bill.

But President Obama would have to do everything wrong to lose to Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, there is a great deal that can go wrong in four years—two disastrous wars and a broken economy, for starters. What she does possess is celebrity and name recognition.  She’s famous for being famous.  My best guess is that she will become a talk show host on the conservative cable network Fox News.  But, eventually, she would lose that gig because even those ideological right-wing talk show hosts are quick on their feet and speak in semi-coherent sentences.

Right-wing populism is strongest in America when there is social anxiety, economic panic, and a sense of personal desperation.  As the dollar weakens, and America ebbs as the world’s greatest superpower, there is plenty of this alienation among people whose jobs have been outsourced, who have been laid off and lost their homes, and blame intellectual and cultural elites, rather than the extraordinary greed of the financial industry and the government’s lack of strong regulation.

I don't think Sarah Palin has any chance to become a serious presidential candidate. But, i could be wrong. In 1970, i predicted that the first female president in the U.S would be a right-wing conservative. I really hope i was wrong.

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