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Sarah Palin, the User-Generated Candidate

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YouTube + Yahoo! Answers + Twitter + Unremitting Blogging = Sarah Palin.

Last night, we saw the debut of a politician who was made possible by the last 5 years of the Internet. Those in the game call it Web 2.0, and it carries in its wake many variants of linguistic triumphalism: the wisdom of crowds, the democratization of media, crowd-sourcing, and citizen journalism. Web 2.0 is also a hockey mom whose ordinariness is instantly validating.

This apotheosis of average has been excoriated in books like The Cult of the Amateur and lauded in paeans like Here Comes Everyone. Say what you will, its impact is profound, just as its essence runs deep. There's absolutely nothing new, and everything old about the very American religion that everyone's opinion is as good as anyone's, that expertise is lived and not earned by study, that training is overrated, that talent is as ubiquitous and evenly distributed as oxygen, that a physician with 15 years of training likely knows no more (and perhaps less) about ear infections than some random mom in an iVillage chat room.

The promise of sagacity hiding in the humble corners of the continent, along with a latent and corresponding anti-intellectualism, are American memes that arch back to Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, and to those Jimmy Stewart movies on TCM.

What is new, though, are two ways in which the Internet has amped up this belief structure.

First, the web removes all the friction from disseminating your bone-headed opinions. And it creates instant gratification. We write, we post, we see our wisdom on the Internet immediately - and so does all the world. It's Kant 2.0. Cogito ergo sum becomes cogito ergo send.

The second shift is that marketers are cannily playing to our over-heated self-esteem, stroking our Capra-fattened egos. They are building their own brands by celebrating yours.

"You're as clever and wise as our overpaid ad guys," they whisper. "Come up with your own Superbowl spot."

"Your political opinion means to us as much as Olbermann and Matthews, combined", they coo. "Please tell us what you think." In fact, put the phrase "Tell us what you think" into Ask.com and there are over 6 million hits. Brands today define themselves by "empowering" consumers, stoking and stroking their egos.

All of which brings us back to Sarah Palin. The Republicans, perhaps the savviest marketers of them all, know how to tap into the resentment at smarty-pants, self-appointed urban authorities, and how to channel our natural gusher of sentiment for the ordinary person plucked from banality who turns out to be wiser than the wise.

Sarah Palin is the living, shooting, carcass-gutting example of this narrative. She recalled last night that "I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA." She mocked "...all the experts in Washington {who} counted out our nominee" and punched their "Usual certitude..." in the nose. She drives to work, she fired the governor's private chef (and with that lost the entire private chefs' vote, sending them thumping into the Obama camp, where those arugula-arranging elitists belong), and she did with the state plane what all moms do when they've got something to unload: she put it on eBay.

She also pre-empted any value judgment about her daughter by transforming an unwanted pregnancy into an occasion for bonding. Was Mark Salter channeling Tolstoy -- "Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"? -- when he wrote "You know, from the inside, no family ever seems typical, and that's how it is with us. Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys."

There are two master narratives in American life: destiny and serendipity. Destiny - a framework that holds the notion "Manifest Destiny" - works the seam of American exceptionalism. It is part and parcel of the Obama brand, that in some ineffable way he was marked for this role. His two autobiographies, (or "memoirs" as Sarah dismissed them last night) are part of that mythology. In a completely different way, as a son and grandson of admirals -- John McCain's life is a destiny narrative as well.

Sarah Palin's narrative is one of serendipity, and she played that to the hilt yesterday, even referencing perhaps the 20th century's most successful of accidental politicians, Harry Truman. What she did in St. Paul night was weave both these narratives together, taking her sheer unremarkableness - shared by those "who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, and run our factories, and fight our wars" - and fusing it to the narrative of America's destiny. Leave it to the Republicans to find a loom (probably made in China) that weaves these two threads together.

What Governor Palin also did was confirm that you can be plucked from obscurity, defy the experts, and beat the pros at their own game. She is the Poster Gal of user-generated content, and she makes us feel very, very good about our own undiscovered gifts and (just temporary) invisibility.

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