Only two years late, I finally got to Jonathan Franzen’s sprawling social novel Freedom, in which one of protagonists, a fortysomething far-left environmentalist named Walter, expresses puzzlement at conservative rage in early 20th-century America:
Why the conservatives, who controlled all three branches of the federal government, were still so enraged—at respectful skeptics of the Iraq war, at gay couples who wanted to get married, at bland Al Gore and cautious Hillary Clinton, at endangered species and their advocates, at taxes and gas prices that were among the lowest of any industrialized nation, at a mainstream media whose corporate owners were themselves conservative, at the Mexicans who cut their grass and washed their dishes—was somewhat mysterious to Walter. His father had been enraged like that, of course, but in a much more liberal era.
What Franzen’s Walter (and, for all I know, Franzen himself) didn’t understand is that much of this rage is a put-on. The populist-minded conservatives I grew up around and attended church with were not enraged, for instance, by endangered species advocates; they simply liked to laugh along with Rush Limbaugh at the “treehuggers.” They liked to laugh at Al Gore for, yes, his blandness—an exterior that masked arrogance, ambition, and a desire to meddle in your everyday life. There was, and is, rage at the mainstreaming of homosexuality, but that’s hardly unique to contemporary American conservatives. Indeed it’s more like a vanishing once-universal norm.
At some point in the last 10 or 15 years, however, conservatives have so thoroughly internalized this put-on that there’s no longer any daylight between affect and cognition, between feeling and thinking. It’s the difference between, say, questioning the prudence of a metropolitan government banning large sugary drinks and celebrating the consumption of such drinks because you just like to piss off busybodies.
Does Sarah Palin look to you like she often imbibes Big Gulps or buys food at 7-Eleven? Do you by chance suspect that, on the contrary, she devotes significantly more time than you and I do to the upkeep of her physical appearance and sedulously monitors her daily caloric intake?
What message did Sarah Palin send to her CPAC ’13 audience Saturday, and thence to the world, by sipping from a Big Gulp soda during her speech and, in conclusion, brandishing it as if it were a trophy? Oh, I know what message she intended to send: Don’t tell us real Americans how to live our lives. We’ll decide what’s best for ourselves and our children. Stop treading on our liberty.
But that’s not the message Palin sent. Amazingly for someone who still must harbor some kind of desire for a second act in American politics, the message Sarah Palin sent was this: Republicans will start winning elections again by telling Americans they should be proud of acting stupid.