Why do so many people love Sarah Palin? Why do so many hate her? I cannot recall a politician in recent memory that has been both so loved and so reviled for no discernible reason.
When Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket many conservatives were intrigued, including me. It was reported that the Alaskan governor had been a member of Pat Buchanan’s “Buchanan Brigades” during the commentator’s presidential bids in 1996 and 2000 and that Palin had ties to the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party. An “America First” states rights’ radical on a major political ticket? Palin did not sound like the average Republican.
And yet today, even removed from the constraints of the McCain campaign, Palin sounds fairly conventional. Asks Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo: “Where and when has Palin ever articulated a coherent alternative to the orthodox Republican doctrines of supply-side economics and endless war?” Raimondo is right. What, exactly, differentiates Palin from the average Republican bear?
Or should that be “moose?” It seems that Palin– the attractive, outdoors-loving “hockey mom”-is popular solely because of her personality, not any specific policy positions. Notes columnist Steve Chapman “Who needs policy? In her world – and the world of legions of conservatives who revere her – the persona is the policy. Palin is beloved because she’s (supposedly) just like ordinary people, which (supposedly) gives her a profound understanding of their needs.” When dissecting political cults of personality, it would seem that Palin has become the Republicans’ Obama–handsome, charming and a human comfort blanket for partisans.
It is also true that Palin is hated because of her personality. The venom spewed at Palin by the mainstream and liberal media sounds like a bunch of catty women slandering another on a drunken Saturday night. Once again, policy-wise, why should Palin be any more despised than, say, Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner? Where do they differ ideologically? Catty women have never needed a specific reason to trash talk the prettiest girl in the room. Similarly, Palin’s mere existence is all that is needed to earn the continued scorn of the Left.
This is not to say that Palin’s presence has been completely insignificant. A hero to the Tea Party set, Palin has quickly come to represent anti-government, grassroots outrage. But using sporadic, nominally-conservative rhetoric with no ideological platform or voting record to back it up is not exactly a firm foundation for any would-be “conservative champion.”
Raimondo notes the major difference between the personality-driven Palin and more serious, policy-driven leaders like Texas Congressman Ron Paul: “What is especially irksome, however, is that there is indeed a populist champion of the Tea Party grassroots, someone with the knowledge, the organization, the proven fundraising ability, and the principles to lead the GOP out of its ideological and political morass: Ron Paul… ‘Palinism’ is a hairstyle. Paulism is a bona fide movement. The first has no future — no, she won’t be a major contender, come the presidential sweepstakes, as George Will predicted on the Stephanopoulos program. The second IS the future, if the GOP is to have a future.”
When conservatives have been dubbed “Paulite” or “Buchananite” it has always been meant to describe someone with libertarian or traditional conservative leanings. Being a “Goldwaterite” had similar, specific conservative policy implications in the 1960’s, as did “Reaganite” in the 80’s. But what is a “Palinite?” I’m not sure anyone knows. I’m not even sure she knows.
And it’s a problem. As Raimondo notes, when it comes to addressing the grievances of Tea Party conservatives, that Paul’s platform is far more ideologically sound does not change the fact that the Congressman is not exactly Mr. Personality. Even Paul admits this. And yet his brand of libertarian conservatism has found a sizeable audience based purely on the power of his ideas.
Palin has found a sizeable audience based purely on the power of her personality. In fact, Palin’s most rabid fans don’t seem too concerned about her policy positions, if at all. Perhaps the best definition of a “Palinite” is one who emotionally invests himself in Republican identity politics. For Paul’s fans, the man is a philosopher. For Palin fans-she’s Oprah. Whereas Paul represents a political platform in need of more personality, Palin is a personality desperately in need of a political platform. The title of her new book is “Going Rogue,” but where, exactly, has Palin gone off the Republican plantation ideologically? Simply wrapping up the same old Bush Republicanism in a prettier package is not “going rogue”–it’s going wrong.
Only time will tell if Palin will turn out to be just another Bush Republican. But when judging political figures, it is only logical that we first look at their politics. What are Sarah Palin’s? What is Sarah Palin? We may never know.