Monday, July 06, 2009

Sarah Palin and Movement Conservatism

I'm getting a head-ache from watching the bouncing Palin ball. What's Palin trying to do? Is she getting out of politics altogether? Setting up her run for the presidency in 2012? 2016? Is Palin trying to get rich on the right-wing lecture circuit? Is she going to have a show on Fox or CNN? Who hates Palin more--feminists, liberals, or the Republican establishment? Is George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or Barry Goldwater the best analogy for Palin.

And finally what does Palin represent in America?

Palin and Class. Ross Douthat of the New York Times--the most lamely officious "young fogey" since George Will was a young fogey--writes that Palin is subject to so much hostility because she's a working class woman.

You’ll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your “slutty” looks and your “white trash concupiscence,” while a prominent female academic declares that your “greatest hypocrisy” is the “pretense” that you’re a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin’s gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

I'm not sure what's working class about Palin? Her father was a science teacher--her mother a school secretary. Being from an even smaller town than Wasilla, Alaska myself, I can say with a lot of confidence that Palin middle-class. Palin herself was a high school legend as an athlete, a beauty queen, and a college graduate who worked as a sports reporter. That's all middle class as well. So was being married to Todd Palin who had a management position at BP and was a small businessman (commerical fishing) on the side.

All that says middle-class. Palin describes herself as an "ordinary" person and she does have a pretty humble middle-class background. But Palin was unusually confident and aggressive and that got her on a political fast-track from Wasilla city council and mayor to Governor of Alaska. Palin was somewhat of a conservative version of the fast-rising Barack Obama.

In fact, by 2008, Palin wasn't a middle-class person any more than Obama was a community organizer. She was seen as a potential political star, gaining credibility in the light of the 2006 Republican scandals, and hosting Bill Kristol and other Republican luminaries from the Weekly Standard cruise. By the time McCain nominated her for VP, Palin was already nibbling at the edges of elite status.

Palin was on the gravy train to some sort of elite position in Republican politics.

Palin and the Future of Conservatism. Many of the questions following the Republican reaction to Palin's resignation announcement concern the future of conservatism in national politics. Movement conservatives are not sure how much they want to participate in the efforts of the Republican Party to seek to get candidates elected for president and Republican majorities in the House and Senate. This is where the Palin ball bounces in ways that are confusing to establishment Republicans and activist Democrats. Palin is a "conservatism first, Republican second" politician. Her husband didn't even register as a Republican for a long time and Palin didn't care. Conservatives themselves aren't sure what "conservativism first" means right now, but they are exploring some pretty specific kinds of questions.

Conservatives look at the same information as other observers and can see that the Republicans are losing ground among expanding demographics of minority, urban, and young voters. That means that conservatism is losing ground among these groups as well. But they aren't asking themselves what they can do to appeal to African-Americans, Asians, Jewish voters, and young voters. Rather movement conservatives are asking themselves whether America as a country is irretrievably "lost" and whether they should continue to participate politically or should retreat into their rural towns, home schools, Christian music, and religious colleges. I haven't seen anything that fully articulates this idea, but I believe conservatives are thinking of a Mormon-like exodus out of the larger American society into their own enclaves. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a
post on The Atlantic entitled "What the Right Means When They Say America." In my opinion, the right increasingly thinks of America as a society from which they might want to distance themselves.

I don't think Palin has made her own decisions on this kind of question. Perhaps she hasn't formulated it yet in her mind. But I'm pretty sure that what she's doing with her resignation as governor is positioning herself so she can spend the next two years promoting the "conservative movement." Then, Palin will evaluate the extent to which running as president will be worth her time and energy. I don't think Palin would run for president if she didn't think she would have a good chance of winning. But I also seriously doubt that she would run if she thought she would be facing big Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. How would she promote the conservative movement--how would she represent the America she knows and loves--by working with a Democratic Congress?

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight thinks that much of the liberal hostility to Palin originates in her resemblance to George W. Bush.
Palin is the most Bushlike of all the Republicans who have emerged as contenders for the national ticket: the smirkiness, the smugness . . . the malapropisms, the contempt for media . . . the express deference to religious faith, the occasionally undeniably likable moments of joviality and regular guy/gal-ness, the tendency toward self-dealing, the bulldog/barracuda mentality, the comfort in one's own skin . . . the (apparent) preference for isolation in [Wasilla, Crawford], and last but not least, the no-holds-barred, no-apologies conservatism.

But Sarah Palin is more Bush than Bush. She's even less knowledgeable of the world than Bush and is perfectly content with knowing little. Bush studied up quite a bit with Condoleeza Rice and others as he prepared for his presidential run in 2000. Palin didn't try to read more after she was nominated for VP and hasn't done any study in preparation for a 2000 run. This is dumbfounding to Karl Rove, Fred Barnes, and other establishment Republicans. But George W. Bush believed far more in the politics of big gestures than he believed in sound policy and Palin believes in the politics of gestures more than Bush. Conservatives have become increasingly suspicious of climate science, evolutionary theory, and other forms of research whose findings contradict their values. Palin takes that suspicion to its logical conclusion of not particularly needing to know much in order to campaign and govern according to her values.

Personally, I don't think Sarah Palin is going to run in 2012. She'd have a shot at winning the nomination in a shrinking Republican Party but would have so little chance of beating Barack Obama that I don't think she'd see running as worthwhile.

Instead, I believe that Palin will find a platform for promoting movement conservatism and be a factor in drawing movement conservatism a little further from the American mainstream.

That, I have to admit, is a development that makes me rather nervous.

No comments: