A recent review of Sarah Palin's bestselling book, Going Rogue, ends by declaring that she is the worst nightmare come true for democrats with a small d. This is both a startling and an obvious claim. It's obvious in that Palin is a rabble-rouser. Without shame or apology she targets the crazy right, fueling their resentment and anger with outright lies. "Death panels" are only the most colorful example. She is willing to bait the mob with any fear about America's future, from financial collapse to terrorist devastation.
Palin's image as an abortion-hating, meat-eating, gun-toting hockey mom is a flimsy contrivance. But if she seems like a prime example of political piffle, Palin's rise is also startling, because her followers truly bond with her in a visceral way that is rare for any politician. In February Palin will give the keynote speech to a national convention of the tea-bag movement. At that moment we will learn something about political passions and the future of democracy -- something we wish wasn't there.
In his year-end roundup, New York Times columnist David Brooks said that he has always looked to passionate outsiders as omens for the future. John Birchers in the Sixties, feminists in the Seventies, and religious fundamentalists in the Eighties are examples of embattled outsiders who gained center stage through their passionate commitment. Brooks sees that same passion among the tea-baggers, with their blinkered obsession over socialism, taxes, and big government. It's a potent, toxic mix. Ronald Reagan wasn't telling the truth when he said that government is the problem, not the solution, but with that slogan he launched a reactionary crusade. Today, thousands of Americans feel more compelled than ever to join that crusade.
Once any political movement wins, it becomes self-justifying. Reaganism was on the whole very harmful to America and at its heart hypocritical, since Reagan presided over an enormous jump in the size of government and a tripling of the deficit. But since the reactionary right was able to seize the reins of democracy, it automatically felt justified. As a result, a generation of Americans has grown up disgusted with government while at the same time buying into a range of bigoted and prejudicial beliefs that make good government impossible. When you will do anything to block health care reform, immigration reform, subsidized spending for a crippled economy, and increased revenues to care for an aging population, government isn't the problem: you are.
People don't like to feel that they are the problem. Therefore, many flock to a myth-maker like Palin. Her hokey frontier ethic is completely divorced from reality. Few poor people can shoot a moose outside our back window or would want to. They need food stamps and other kinds of compassionate help. Palin touts free enterprise and hates federal programs. But Alaska takes more federal dollars per capita than any other state, and a third of its jobs are government jobs.
What we're seeing is an old tactic in new bottles. The right wing thrived by distracting voters from reality. The average person's life isn't remotely affected by school prayer, flag-burning, late-term abortion, or gay marriage. But if you get enough voters aroused by these issues, the party in power can subsidize the rich with vast tax cuts and look aside as real incomes for the middle-class fail to rise. All the benefits of corruption, from freewheeling lobbyists and influence peddling to Wall Street chicanery and subprime lending, go to the haves and hurt the have nots.
Palin has turned up the volume but pursues the same tactic. Her situation is one that's easy to identify with if you are hurting. She holds together a family and fiercely defends it in the face of a teenage pregnancy and a Down's syndrome baby. It's also easy to identify with her knee-jerk reaction against taxes, federal bureaucracy, and unwanted intrusions from Washington.
But if you go one layer deeper, Palin's kind of mobocracy would lead to the following:
-- reluctant assistance for victims of disasters like Katrina
-- a burgeoning underclass cut adrift from government aid
-- an out-of-control medical system at the mercy of insurance companies and ever-rising costs
-- the vicious criminalization of illegal immigrants
-- a belligerent military stance around the world
-- an atmosphere of permanent fear-mongering
-- the driving out of tolerant, educated people from the political system
-- a chaotic attack on all government programs
-- a huge mismatch between income and spending by the government
This list would represent fear-mongering on my part except for the fact that all these things occurred during the Bush years. Democracy suffered a huge setback with the long reign of right-wing ideology. All that Sarah Palin offers is an amped-up version fueled by more blatant appeals to mindless fear and rage. Will she succeed? It's an open question. The American public has barely emerged from the fog of illusion; Palin's success or failure will tell us a lot about whether the same fog, only thicker, is about to return.