Palin Populism Is Just Another Kind Of Elitism

As Sarah Palin's "bus" tour rolls on, journalists are beginning to identify her as the leader of a new kind of populism. But this movement really just enshrines another elite.

In the newNew Yorker, Sam Tanenhaus writes,

Polls taken last November showed that [Palin] had alienated centrists, and a majority of people still eye her with mistrust. But this is beside the point. Populists, from William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long through Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, have always been divisive and polarizing. Their job is not to win national elections but to carry the torch and inspire the faithful, and this Palin seems poised to do. That she is the first woman to generate populist fervor on such a scale enhances her appeal-and makes her, potentially, a figure of historic consequence.

That chilling last statement aside, Tanenhaus offers a smart analysis of Palin's inexperience and the political hay she's made of it — "her insistent ordinariness," he writes, "is an expression not of humility but of egotism, the certitude that simply being herself, in whatever unfinished condition, will always be good enough." Tanenhaus isn't the first to point out that Palin has elevated her lack of qualifications into a qualification — and indeed, she isn't the first to do this. But Tanenhaus does hint that when Palin positions herself as a woman of the people, she really only means certain people. He calls into question her claim "that Todd, whom she met in high school, is 'part Yupik Eskimo' and opened her to the 'social diversity' of Alaska" with the aside, "Wasilla is more than eighty per cent white." And of her year spent in college in Hawaii, he says,

'Hawaii was a little too perfect,' Palin writes. 'Perpetual sunshine isn't necessarily conducive to serious academics for eighteen-year-old Alaska girls.' Perhaps not. But Palin's father, Chuck Heath, gave a different account to Conroy and Walshe. According to him, the presence of so many Asians and Pacific Islanders made her uncomfortable: 'They were a minority type thing and it wasn't glamorous, so she came home.'

Tanenhaus also points out that Palin's tour has visited mainly small cities in the Midwest, where "minority type things" are rare. And, he says, "race is often the subtext of populist campaigns; their most potent appeal is to whites who are feeling under siege by changing economic and cultural conditions." Palin's not exactly under any economic siege — though her Going Rogue junket has been billed as a bus tour, she's actually traveling by $4,000/hr private jet, a fact she occasionally slips up and Tweets about. But Tanenhaus isn't the only one to see in Sarah Palin a new and disturbing brand of populism.

In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter links Palin with Lou Dobbs — that famed anti-immigration crusader who "is dropping hints about running for the White House in 2012, presumably without the benefit of the Hispanic vote" — and Fox News fearmonger Glenn Beck. Alter's main quibble against the axis of Palin-Dobbs-Beck is that it's substance-free — he writes, "They say nothing loudly, colorfully, and sometimes even charmingly, but it still doesn't amount to a new vision for the country." But while Palin may not have much to say about real policy matters, her entire self-concept is disturbingly exclusionary. In the LA Times, Neal Gabler compares Palin to Richard Nixon, who "understood that anti-elitism trumps everything — in his case, even his own unlikability." Gabler writes,

Palin is playing that same card on the gamble that anti-elitism will trump her own inexperience, incompetence and lack of knowledge. She knows that the more pundits harp on these so-called deficiencies, and the more the media cover it, the more she can claim that they are really just engaging in an old sport: expressing contempt for ordinary Americans, of which she is the self-proclaimed political exemplar. Her self-promotion is designed to elicit their contempt for her and express her's for them, including the very title of her book. At one point she describes inviting NBC's Andrea Mitchell to Alaska, ostensibly so Palin could be interviewed but really, she says, so that Mitchell and her fancy-pants East Coast crew could be "slimed" with fish guts.

The scariest thing about Palin's populism isn't that she uses it to camouflage her lack of knowledge or qualifications. It's that by claiming she stands for "real America," she promulgates an extremely narrow conception of what real America is. She supports men like Harold B. Estes, whose letter calling President Obama "son" she just posted on Facebook. She stands for women — but not those who want reproductive choice — and for moms — but not if they're on welfare. And while she purports to stand for working-class Americans, she seems to care most about a particular slice of them — white conservatives who live in small cities and towns a decent distance from any coast. These are Sarah Palin's elite.

It's not surprising that Palin's anti-liberal-media rhetoric has resonated with this demographic. While journalists come from all over, middle America — especially rural middle America — has a dearth of major media outlets, and it's not stupid that people in Grand Rapids sometimes feel ignored. But this is more the result of the decline of the American newspaper — and the decline of manufacturing in what is now the Rust Belt — than any vast left-wing conspiracy. And it's been a long time since white, Christian voters in Midwestern states have been overlooked by political candidates (oh hai, Iowa). The genius of Palin and other conservatives of her ilk (Dobbs and Beck, but also Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh) has been to present a certain subset of white America as both majority — making up the true bedrock of the country — and minority — cruelly marginalized by its ruling elites. In so doing, they can ignore groups more seriously and systematically marginalized — gays, immigrants, actual racial minorities — and still claim to represent the American people. As a strategy, it's been extremely effective at dividing the country against itself. Whether it will put Sarah Palin in the White House, only time will tell.

North Star [The New Yorker]
Enter The Foxulists [Newsweek]
Palin's Bus Hoax [The Daily Beast]
Hate Sarah Palin? She Loves That [LA Times]
Palin Posts Letter Calling Obama ‘Son' [Daily Beast]