Rousing the Rubes

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Sarah Palin interested me during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, for two reasons.

First, she occasionally seemed to embody the “West coast” style of libertarian political philosophy, based more on practical life experience than on academic training.

Second, her flashes of libertarianism seemed in tension with her claims of evangelical religious faith.

Either of these matters could have made her a compelling public figure. I hoped that she’d bring the first into mainstream political consciousness and offer some resolution to the second. But things didn’t work out that way. Quickly, Palin’s public figure had more to do with persona than philosophy.

Then, in fairly short order, her ticket came in second in the presidential election, she resigned as governor of Alaska halfway through her first term, and she signed a contract with the Fox News Channel to appear regularly as a commentator. She also released two books and starred in a short-lived “reality” television show.

In the coming presidential election cycle, I expect that Jon Huntsman — who’s recently resigned his position as U.S. Ambassador to China and taken the initial steps toward candidacy — will be the person who might raise the issues I’d hoped that Palin would.

Meanwhile, Palin remains on the scene. Her cult of personality is still strong. And her cult of animosity may be even stronger.

I’m not the first to note how closely she resembles the character Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984 — in respect to oppositional politics, if not to intellectual power. Establishment Left groups use her name or image to incite passionate response in readers, donors, and other constituents. We’d need someone like Freud to explain the reasons why Palin resonates so strongly with the Left. But there’s little doubt that she’s marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

There we might leave the discussion. And yet . . . the intensity of Palin-hate that small minds on the Left feel is worth considering in some detail. It’s instructive of the state of political discourse.

In late January, the New York Times ran an opinion column by one if its lesser agitators. The piece was highly critical of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’d recently delivered a semi-official Tea Party response to the president’s state of the union speech. The agitator mocked Bachmann’s manners and makeup but, more than anything else, she presented Bachmann and Palin (by ham-fisted logic since, to that point, Palin had said little publicly about Obama’s speech) for Two Minutes of Hate.

There’s little doubt that Palin is marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

And hate the Times readers did. It’s easy to ignore, or forget, how childish and emotional some Americans are about politics. The internet is great for illuminating things like this. Here are some excerpts from the scores of comments that appeared afterward on the newspaper’s website.

“Michelle Bachmann is as ridiculous a political figure as Sarah Palin. The question, however, is why we are covering either one of them. Both Palin and Bachmann know virtually nothing about the important political issues facing our nation, are not qualified to serve in any sort of high level political office, and do little more than degrade the level of political discourse in our nation.”

“The GOP is ignorant about history. The GOP is ignorant about Europe (Paul Krugman’s piece yesterday). The GOP combines that ignorance with an agenda to misinform the public in such a way that voters, against their own economic interests, support policies that benefit a wealthy elite that is getting richer by the day. . . . If only Obama had been the people’s leader we thought we were getting.”

“When I think of Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin I always think of mud wrestling. Even Michelle’s description of the lovely outfit she was wearing years ago . . . doesn’t dislodge the frame by frame fixation I have of her and the former half-governor from Alaska in a mud pit, pulling each other’s hair, calling each other names, slipping and sliding in the sticky brown goo.”

Such keen insights are hard to top, but here are two more:

“I just don’t get it as to why do so many people respond favorably to people like Palin and Bachmann? And add to them Glen [sic] Beck and Limbaugh fueling their fire along with others trailing in their wake like Ryan and Boehner. They mock and are sarcastic with religious fervor. To me they are so off the wall and ridiculous that whatever they say is total nonsense. . . . I tremble. I want a brainy President like Obama and brainy people around him.”

She serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves.

“Bachman and Palin are the bullies in the kindergarden [sic] of Republican politics and no other kid in their class will stand up to them. Could their behavior be a portent of the approaching death of the party of the rich old white well educated ruling elite and the emergence of a new party of servants of the rich — probably labeled the New Stupids, but just as much in the pockets of the monied [sic] class . . .”

Bear in mind that all of this was posted, in a public forum, just a few weeks after the “brainy” Barack Obama had called for more civilized rhetoric in the nation’s political debate.

I’m no Freud, but even I can see the psychological themes in the Palin-hate. It’s projection. And she serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves. Ignorant, ridiculous, stupid, bullying, mocking, sarcastic, a stupid servant of others, of elite political forces,and . . . ridiculous. Clearly, her haters don’t feel very good about themselves.

And they worry — a lot — that they’re ridiculous.

Perhaps with good reason. “JF” from Wisconsin believes that the GOP’s wide-ranging ignorance empowers it to bamboozle the nation’s voters. And consider the political order, as interpreted by “Annie” from Rhode Island: in her view, three pundits and a junior congresswoman dictate the political agenda to the Speaker of the House. And there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of these mail-order Aristotles out there — all desperate to show that they are so very much smarter than Sarah Palin.

I have no idea whether Palin will run for president in 2012 — though I doubt she will go very far if she does. But I’m glad she’s still on the scene. The response she evokes in the rubes is rich.

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