10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Palin Exists in America's Mythical Past--And Can't Escape It

Sarah Palin appeals to Americans' greatest conceit and greatest weakness. That makes her extremely dangerous.

Understanding the dangers in Palin's appeal requires an understanding of aspects of America's national experience. America began as an open frontier, a place to escape the constrictions and limitations of the Old World. It was a place of few limits, with wide-open spaces, abundant resources, and sparse population. It developed an exemplary form of government that allowed its citizens great freedom of belief and action. Within this environment, and probably in response to it, America developed an optimistic and entrepreneurial citizenry, impatient with or contemptuous of limits, with many individuals convinced they could accomplish anything to which they set their minds and wills. This mindset served America well. People who believed they could do anything tried many things. Some enterprises failed, but many succeeded. Experimentation was widespread. Innovation was high.

America's energetic spirit soon transformed the nation. The population grew and spread. America became an urban and industrial nation. Successful businesses grew to become mighty national, then multi-national corporations. The transformation, though, brought limits. The frontier closed. Some resources became scarcer. Increasing density of population and the proximity and competition of diverse groups and economic entities in cities and suburbs required regulation of their interactions. Large corporations required large bureaucracies to run them, and educational institutions began to produce graduates suitable to work peaceably within those bureaucracies. Large corporations were able to transform part of their economic power into political power to enhance and protect what became their hegemony, thus negating some of the advantages America's exemplary form of government provided. The distribution of wealth and income became increasingly unequal, and the economic system struggled to adjust, bringing problems even to those people who had been most privileged. Meanwhile, changes in the world's physical environment imposed new limits, as it became evident that what had served as an atmospheric dump was filling with greenhouse gases and, without drastic preventive steps, would change climate and bring catastrophes from which even rich Americans would suffer.

America's great conceit, honored by almost all politicians, is that America is still the free-wheeling place it was through its frontier days. Americans have not found it easy to adjust to today's world, since the limitations of their present economic, social, political, and physical environments contrast with their national experience. Their mindset has proven in many cases less suited to their new environment than that of people left behind in the Old World, which has had to deal for centuries with many limits Americans are only now encountering and comprehending. Probably most Americans harbor nostalgia for the old environment, and the minds of many have not yet even emerged into the new. Resulting conflicts appear in the political arena, with some people calling for change necessary to cope with the new environment and others not even able to understand that change is necessary. Those who find it hardest to adjust resent not just domestic opponents, but nations, even allies, who live in a different conceptual reality. Meanwhile, the costs--social, economic, political, and human--of failing to organize to cope with the new environment keep mounting. In time they could destroy all that we value most.

Sarah Palin comes from an environment that approximates that of America's past. Alaska is the last American frontier. Its population is sparse, its resources greater than those of any other American state. There has been much commentary about Palin's lack of foreign policy experience, but her deficiencies in experience go much deeper than that. She has no experience with an urban nation, or with urban problems. Her experience with resources is not with conserving them, but with exploiting them. Her budgetary experience is one few executives have had the opportunity to enjoy, and has little relevance to the rest of America. She has not had to contend with state sales and income taxes. Supported by the federal government (and its taxpayers, since oil companies get to write off their federal taxes the taxes they pay to Alaska) Alaska has been able to tax oil companies so profitably that it is able to distribute $3,200 this year to each Alaskan resident. With all citizens having such a stake in continuing that revenue stream, it is no wonder that most are eager to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Likewise, they have a strong economic disincentive to seeing dangers arising from human contributions to global warming. Some Alaskans are able to transcend their unusual environment and their immediate economic self-interest to understand the needs of their country and the world, as opposed to those of their state. Unfortunately, Sarah Palin is not among them.

Although Palin's experience and mindset have little relevance to the problems of America outside of Alaska, they fit the myths and some of the reality of America's past. They have great appeal for many people--both those who have never escaped the past and those who are nostalgic for it. The current Presidential campaign pits the past not so much against the future as against the present. If we do not cope realistically, even imaginatively, with the present, though, we will greatly endanger our future. In this environment, Sarah Palin presents a great danger. Those who understand the limits with which we must live and the challenges attendant to coping with them have trouble believing anyone sincerely believes in the palliatives offered by Senator McCain and Governor Palin. They doubt the motives of those who argue for the palliatives. Although some motives are undoubtedly bad and great cynicism is in play, the conclusion that motives are all bad and inability to understand the perspective of those who sincerely (however mistakenly) support the policies, inhibits critics' ability to construct arguments effective in combating them. It also leads progressives to underestimate the appeal of the conservatives' arguments and the number of voters they may attract.

One of the advantages conservatives have in the public forum is that they can keep referencing conservative stereotypes and myths. Those things exist as stereotypes and myths because they are the default cases people carry around in their heads. To combat them, liberals have to explain a reality that is more complex, or at least more up-to-date than the stereotypes and myths. The conservatives (Republicans) are always repeating what people already "know," and liberals, progressives, and democrats are always trying to combat that. People hate to have their illusions destroyed, so even if the liberals prove to be right, people resent them for it.

The Republicans habitually make a number of assertions and arguments that are at variance with reality and can be proven to be so. Whether a discrepancy is due to error or to design, it gives a certain advantage to the Democrats--they have the truth on their side, and the reality of that truth keeps asserting itself in one way or another. The Republicans, though, gain a certain advantage because their falsehoods draw upon the common myths of the real and imagined past.

Palin draws upon the mythical past in a stronger manner than any candidate in recent memory, and she goes further into the past to do it than almost any contemporary politician can. She is herself immersed in that past and seems unable to escape it. That simultaneously makes her a formidable candidate and a potentially disastrous president.