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Palin: The Worst Angels of Our Nature

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Unless something unexpected happens in the next nineteen days, the American people will elect Barack Obama to be the next President of the United States, and will do so by a large enough margin to give him the mandate he needs to address the numerous problems caused by that disaster known as the Bush Administration.

The challenges will be immense. And should Obama stumble, Sarah Palin will be waiting in the wings.

Like it or not, an Obama victory will not end the Palin threat. She is already laying the groundwork for a run in 2012. And given her actions over the past two months, it is a safe bet that she will do everything in her power to win.

The key question is not whether she will challenge Obama in four years, but rather what kind of race she will run. Is Palin merely another ambitious politician willing to say and do anything to get elected, or are we witnessing the emergence of a genuinely anti-democratic populist -- a successor to such notorious figures as Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, Strom Thurmond, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace?

If the past two months are prologue, Palin represents a real threat to our democratic traditions. She favors demagoguery over democracy. She celebrates her own lack of judgment and experience as her best qualifications for the office she seeks. She slanders Obama and other opponents, suggesting that they are willing to sell out America. She uses her supposedly folksy background to attack the media and elites as out of touch with average Americans. And she plays to the mob, appealing to and encouraging the most reactionary, angry, hateful, and racist elements of our society.

These are Palin's people, the worst angels of our nature. They are ready, willing, and determined to follow her regardless of what happens on Election Day. The Palinistas are far less interested in electing McCain than they are in putting the Sarahnator one step away from the White House (and, they hope, in it soon). They will never accept an Obama presidency, and should McCain somehow pull off a miracle, they will count the days until Palin is able to push him aside and assume power herself.

It would be easy to suggest that Palin is little more than a demagogue, that she would not move the United States away from its democratic traditions. Some may contend that it is still far too early in Palin's career to determine whether she is a genuine threat.

But do we really want to take the chance?

If Palin really does represent a move toward anti-democratic populism, she already is far more dangerous than any earlier demagogue. She's not merely some nutjob with a radio following, or a regional figure who failed to move onto the national stage. She's a major party nominee for Vice President of the United States.

No previous anti-democratic figure -- not even Strom Thurmond in 1948 or George Wallace in 1968 -- ever had a serious chance of getting elected. Palin does. Change genders, and Palin is a modern day version of Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrup, the anti-hero of It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis's alternate history of America under a fascist dictatorship:

Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, in the especial nobility of dogs, . . .in being chummy with all waitresses at all junction lunch rooms. . .and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not syndicated in newspapers, and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.

But he was. . .twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.

That's Sarah Palin: fake small-town rhetoric combined with an unquenchable thirst for power. Like Windrup, she has attracted a cabal of back-room intellectuals (e.g. Karl Rove, William Kristol, and Henry Kissinger) who intend to use her to achieve their own ends. What's not yet clear is whether Palin is, like Windrup, little more than a figurehead, or if she actually has the ruthlessness to control those who would make her queen.

Given the fact that we still do not know how much worse things will get over the next few years (and even though they are unlikely to be as bad as the Great Depression, they surely will be worse than anything most of us have ever seen), there is a very real possibility that an Obama Administration may not reverse the disastrous situation that Bush has left us. That is the premise of Lewis's novel -- that Roosevelt's best efforts weren't enough and things were much worse at the end of his first term, opening the door to an anti-democratic demagogue.

If history does not repeat itself -- if Obama is not able to tackle the problems we face -- then hope, change, logic, and cool will not be enough to sustain him. Again, Lewis:

The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party. . . was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whisky, angelic orchestras heard soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water--all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.

Sarah Palin is ready. Should things get even worse over the next four years, her folksiness and rhetoric may start appealing to more than just the far right. If she turns out to be all that I fear, then John McCain may be remembered best not for his own career, but for his role as an American Paul von Hindenburg.

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