Matthew Continetti proposes that Palin become a Jacksonian tribune. What he means by being a Jacksonian is this:
Andrew Jackson’s plantation is a lot more than a beautifully restored example of Greek Revival architecture and design. It’s also a monument to the seventh president’s democratic legacy–of rule by the people, of competitive commercial markets, of entrepreneurial individuals lighting out to the territories. It’s a legacy to which Palin is heiress.
In reality, Jackson’s legacy is the antithesis of much of what the Whigs and Republicans have stood for in domestic politics since 1824, and Palin has no claim on such a legacy. The financial sector bailout last year was the sort of close collusion between government and banks that infuriated Jackson and his followers. The so-called heiress of Jackson endorsed the bailout. There is a Jackson-like anti-Fed populism out there, but Continetti and his colleagues have no interest in encouraging Palin to embrace their arguments. So Continetti creates a safe, generic Jacksonian “legacy” that sounds as if it had come from the late Jack Kemp. Everything that made Jackson and Bryan’s populism interesting gives most Republican and movement conservative leaders hives, because these men married cultural and economic populism together. As the GOP’s Palinolatry itself shows, cultural pseudo-populism is at least tolerated as a gimmick or electoral maneuver, but even a whiff of real economic populism has always been toxic for Republican leaders and activists. There is a reason why Palin’s own Alaska record of hiking windfall profit taxes on oil companies has been carefully and consistently eliminated from all conservative discussions of her time as governor. That is her claim to some measure of populist leadership, and it is the one thing about her economic conservatives and national GOP leaders would like to forget. Indeed, as she has become a national figure she has run as far away from the substance of what she did in Alaska as possible, because raising any taxes on major corporations for any reason is exactly the one thing that will never fly with Republicans on a national level.
Continetti notes the angry, distrustful public mood, and mentions this:
In September, the Democratic pollster Peter Hart asked registered voters who they thought had benefited most from the Obama administration’s economic policies. Sixty-two percent said the main beneficiary had been the “large banks.” In contrast, 65 percent said the “average working person” and “small businesses” hadn’t been helped. Seventy-three percent said “my family/myself” hadn’t been helped.
Now obviously one way to tap into that reservoir of dissatisfaction would be for Continetti’s would-be Jacksonian heiress to rail against the influence and power of banks and the government’s unduly close relationship with them. This is the one thing Continetti has no wish for her to do, so what is the point of writing the article?
Of course, we understand that the purpose of the article is to give favorable press coverage to Palin and to continue The Weekly Standard‘s embarrassing cheerleading for her. There is also a clear desire to burnish Palin’s credentials as the “rogue” anti-elitist and to make her part of the most absurdly artificial tradition of “Jackson-Bryan-Reagan.” After all, no Palin love letter would ever be complete without some reference to how she resembles Reagan in some intangible, mystical way that only devotees can understand. I simply don’t know how one draws a line between William Jennings Bryan, an intense evangelical Christian who fiercely opposed concentrated wealth and power, and Ronald Reagan, a mild
Unitarian Presbyterian and former FDR Democrat whose practical domestic legacy was the advancement of corporate and large business interests. Of course, Bryan never won a presidential race, so it’s hard to know whether he would or could have translated his rhetoric into policy, but I doubt very much that he would have recognized any of his legacy in Reagan. How much less is Palin in the same tradition?
So we come to the core of Palin’s pseudo-populism, which is her cultivation of the cultural grievances of her audience and the manipulation of their feelings of relative powerlessness to promote her own ambitions. She feeds off of the elite anxiety that her performance generates, and elites are happy to fuel her rise, because she makes populism appear ridiculous and makes their positions even more secure than they were before. After all, when given the choice between the incompetent and ridiculous populist and even a moderately informed establishment figure, the public will tend to favor the latter despite their dissatisfaction with the status quo. They may also suspect that she has no intention of giving any substance to her complaints against elites. This makes her useful as a means of diverting populist anger away from them and their preferred policies and channeling it into useless identitarian protest movements that congratulate themselves on how deeply American they are before fading into obscurity. This is why many movement and party elites tolerate and even encourage Palin, but regard Huckabee as a serious threat who must be thwarted, because he occasionally gives them reason to worry that he is hostile to their interests. In reality, even Huckabee’s gestures towards economic populism are empty, but they have seemed real enough to terrify some of the very same people who now happily boost Palin as the great populist hope.