Sarah Palin's Poison: The Secret of Her Right-Wing Success
This article is adapted from Going Rouge: Sarah Palin--An American Nightmare, edited by Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, available only by direct order from OR Books.
In one way of looking at it, Sarah Palin is the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party.
Electorally, she is the GOP gift that keeps on giving. First there was Campaign 2008, which flamed out with her car-crash Katie Couric interview just as spectacularly as it had begun, three weeks earlier, with her star turn at the Republican convention. More recently, in the November 3 elections this year, she played a crucial role in delivering the Democrats one of their few victories. Palin and her culture-war comrades Rush Limbaugh, Dick Armey and Glenn Beck took up the cause of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in the 23rd District Congressional race in New York. As a result the moderate, prochoice Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, bowed out, endorsing Democrat Bill Owens. Hoffman was unable to convince the district's overwhelmingly white rural voters that banning abortions and gay marriage and bashing government held the answers to their concerns, and on election day the Democrat triumphed, capturing a district that had been in Republican hands since the nineteenth century.
With enemies like this, who needs friends? If only Palin had intervened more forcefully in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia -- where, unbidden, she issued robocalls to get out the vote for Republican Bob McDonnell -- Democrats might be celebrating an electoral trifecta.
It's tempting to cheer Sarah Barracuda on as she cannibalizes what remains of the Republican Party. The Going Rogue book tour, the 2010 targeting of moderates like Florida's Charlie Crist, a 2012 bid for the presidency -- bring it on! While the percentage of Republican voters who say they would seriously consider voting for Palin for president stands at 65 percent, among all voters the figure is mired at 33 percent. As former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt -- one of the key architects of the Palin veep pick -- put it recently, "Were she to be the nominee [for president in 2012], we could have a catastrophic election result." Three more years of Palin poison infusing Republican politics will likely spell supermajorities for Democrats and a second term for Obama.
But what of the poison's other effects? Her nonsensical statements may inadvertently provide comic relief, but it's no laughing matter when serious debate is distorted by the wild misinformation she feeds to her increasingly paranoid base. Sometimes the lunacy is contained on the fringes. At a recent Wisconsin Right to Life fundraiser, she somberly raised the decision to move the "In God We Trust" motto to the edge of the presidential dollar coin. "Who calls a shot like that?" she said, insinuatingly. Actually, George W. Bush did. It was an embarrassing gaffe that also neatly captures the key elements of Palinism: fact-free conspiracy, hollow patriotism and public religiosity -- the very coins of Republican populist rage.
But sometimes her interventions reach a wider audience. Consider the role Palin played in the "death panel" hysteria that hijacked the healthcare debate this summer. That myth did not originate with Palin; the source was Betsy McCaughey, the Clinton healthcare antagonist. But it was Palin who popularized the term "death panel" by posting a screed against healthcare reform on her Facebook page that included this classic Palinism: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." With remarkable economy of prose, Palin cast healthcare reform as an assault on the country, put a face on its supposed victims (her baby, Trig), contrived the expression "death panel" (linking it directly to Obama), raised the specter of euthanasia in the service of a state-run economy and rallied the troops around a fight against "evil." We all know what happened next. After a summer of zany tea parties, more than 40 percent of Americans believed that healthcare reform would create death panels, and support for a public option (the campaign's real target) had sunk to 52 percent, led by a 17 percent shift among independents.
The recently passed House version of healthcare reform includes both a public option and funding for optional end-of-life consultations (the so-called death panels), and it's possible the final bill will retain those provisions. But the measure of Palin's power lies not in her capacity to write legislation or win national elections but in her ability to torpedo the democratic process, inducing legislative paralysis and, perhaps more important, driving discussion of more progressive options off the road. Palin's death panel crusade has provided a chilling lesson: that a minority armed with conspiracy theories is capable of occupying the national political discourse as long as it has conviction and a mouthpiece. Indeed, Palin is still at it, taking to her Facebook page to denounce the House bill as a theft of American "freedom" and reiterating the death panel lie. Should Congress recess without a healthcare bill on Obama's desk, one can expect Palin to bum rush the field once again.
A crucial aspect of Palinism is Sarah Palin -- the brand. Her name alone instantly conjures up a pungent brew of images, phrases and associations: just an average hockey mom of five, a pit bull with lipstick, beauty queen, moose hunter, long-distance runner, sexy librarian, winker, rogue. Palinism works by draping hard-right policy in a winning personal story and just-folks rhetoric. Its genius rests in its ability to magically absorb inconvenient facts and mutually contradictory realities into an unassailable personal narrative. In the Palin universe, her unwed pregnant teenage daughter, Bristol, is somehow a poster child for abstinence-only education; hence criticism of Palin's sex-ed policies is an attack on her family. Although Palin is an aggressive advocate for opening up the United States' oil reserves to drilling instead of investing in renewable energy, she labels herself pro-environment, a stance exemplified by her love of shooting animals or her husband's hobby of racing snowmobiles across the tundra. And who'd dare question Palin's foreign policy credentials, when her son Track shipped out to Iraq after high school?
Palin perfected this technique of substituting the personal for the political during the campaign, and she now plans a whistle-stop tour of the places she famously called the "real America" to hawk her hastily ghostwritten memoir, reprising her Campaign '08 rallies with appearances in Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Florida. But she's learned a thing or two about the dangers of dealing with journalists who take their jobs seriously, and so, beyond Oprah and Barbara Walters, she'll stick to the right-wing cable and talk-radio circuit. She's also banned all cellphones and recording devices from her appearances. She will, in other words, be talking to her people inside the Palin bubble.
Those of us who reside in the parts of America Palin regards as unreal may secretly enjoy watching the bubble bounce along, relishing her run-on sentences and looney-tunes lines. But the more we chuckle, the more indignant and impassioned the Palin army becomes. That's the bedeviling thing about Sarah Palin, and the secret to her success: neither the left nor the right can get enough of her.