Those Who Follow Sarah Palin are Sowing the Seeds of Their Own Destruction

The former Alaska governor represents thwarted aspirations and brooding resentment. But she backs policies which would increase them

In the film, The American President,
the president's speechwriter Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J Fox)
appeals to the commander-in-chief to take a firm, clear stand against
the Right. "People want leadership, Mr President, and in the absence of
genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the
microphone." he says. "They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it
they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they
discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."

The president
(played by Michael Douglas) retorts that the American electorate's
problem is not a lack of leadership but an undiscerning palate.

"We've
had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence
with two hands and a flashlight," he says. "People don't drink the sand
because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know
the difference."

As the faithful wait in line in small towns across the country (some for more than a day) to see Sarah Palin on her book tour,
the question of whether the US is deprived of a competent political
class or gets the leadership it both deserves and truly desires seems
as pertinent as ever.

On the one hand there is roughly between a
quarter and a third of America that will clearly believe anything. That
is the figure that strongly approved of George Bush's handling of the
economy last year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the bailout. That same figure, in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, believed that Bush's response to the disaster was "about right", and still supports the war in Iraq.

That
also happens to be approximately the same proportion of Americans who
back Palin for president. Most data suggest the overlap is
considerable. Palin's rise to prominence, from little-known governor to
one of the most popular and arguably most charismatic Republicans in
the country in just a year, has been startling. She had a thin record
when she was picked to run as vice-president. Today, having quit the
Alaska governorship mid-term and published a bestseller, only her
wallet is thicker.

Her resignation speech
was so rambling that you would have struggled to find a coherent
sentence with an industrial-strength searchlight. "Let me go back to a
comfortable analogy for me - sports," she announced. "I use it because
you're naive if you don't see the national full-court press picking
away right now: A good point guard drives through a full court press,
protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket ... and she knows
exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win." This was not
the answer to a hostile interview from the "liberal media elite" but a
prepared speech of her own making.

It would be easy to discount
her as just a media phenomenon who would go away if we stopped talking
about her. That would be a mistake. It would be even easier to poke fun
at her as just a small town hick who has blundered into the limelight
with a nod, wink and a "you betcha". That too would be a mistake.

For
the very things that liberal commentators ridicule her for - being
inarticulate, unworldly, simplistic and hokey - are the very things
that make her attractive to her base. Indeed, every time she is taunted
she becomes more popular because it reaffirms the (not entirely
mistaken) view that the deeply held values of a sizable section of the
population are being disparaged.

The same dynamic was true for
George Bush, but with one crucial exception. Bush is the scion of a
wealthy family who turned his back on the cultural trappings of his
class while embracing the social confidence and political and financial
entitlement that came with it. Palin had none of those advantages: she
grew up far from power and privilege in every sense.

The difference in their comfort levels when put on the spot with simple questions was evident when each was asked about their newspaper reading habits.
Bush was cocky: "The best way to get the news is from objective
sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff
who tell me what's happening in the world." Palin froze: "I've read
most of them ... all of them, any of them that have been in front of me
over all these years."

In her world, Ivy League is a slur; cities are not the "real America"; and those who know the price of arugula
but cannot handle a rifle are not to be trusted. Palin is the
antithesis of an aspirational figure. Her supporters love her not
because they want to be like her, but because they already are like
her. So for better and for worse, Palin is an entirely self-made - and,
if her book is anything to go by, self-invented - personification of
the kind of political animal Bush sought to both emulate and nurture.
Bush was Palin-lite.

To that extent her performance over the past
year has been more tragic than comic. Palin represents the thwarted
aspirations and brooding resentment of a large section of white working
class Americans. That is not to suggest that her supporters are
necessarily racist, but polls show her support is racially exclusive.

Her
base has plenty to be resentful about. Their wages are stagnant, their
economic security has eroded, and their prospects for social and
economic advancement have stalled. In 2004, white Americans were the
only racial group for whom the poverty rate actually rose. The fact
that it was lower than every other group is of little comfort.
Demographically, they are set to become a minority by 2042.
Geopolitically, the country for which they display so much patriotic
fervour has lost one war, is losing another, and is regularly lectured
by others about the urgency of putting its fiscal house in order.
America is not what it used to be. The country they keep saying they
want to "take back" no longer exists and is not returning.

So
when Palin rails against Washington DC, bank bailouts and elitist media
she catches their ear. The longer unemployment keeps rising, house
prices keep falling and universal healthcare continues to be elusive,
the more ears there will be. Motivated, organised and angry, Palin's
wing of the Republican party does not have the numbers to make bad
things happen; but, as it showed over the summer during the healthcare town hall meetings, its determination to derail good things should not be underestimated.

The
trouble is that while many of their grievances are well founded, their
affection is certainly misplaced. None of their problems can be
remedied by the politics championed by Palin. Indeed, the greater the
traction her politics gets, the worse things will be for her base. The
America whose passing they mourn was lost precisely because of the
freemarket, low-tax, warmongering agenda she advocates.

To crawl
through the desert in search of water only to find sand is
disappointing; to not know the difference between water and sand is
delusional; but to go looking for sand in the belief that it will truly
quench your thirst, not once but twice, well that is truly depressing.

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