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Is Sarah Palin the First Post-Modern Politician?

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Let's start with a multiple-choice question: Which answer is correct?

  1. Sarah Palin's resignation less than two/thirds of the way through her term as governor is a violation of her compact with the voters, a flaky act that destroys her credibility as a serious politician.
  2. Her resignation was a brilliant tactical move that makes her the de facto frontrunner for the GOP nomination.
  3. Who gives a @#%$ @#$ about your traditional political conventions?

If you answered #1 or #2 you missed the point. Sarah Palin is not part of your frame of reference. She isn't participating in the worldview you share with your allies and opponents alike. If Obama is the Superego of American politics, the externalization of our idealized sense of who we are, Palin is its Id. She's the repository and expression of a deep-seated psychic urge to blow up the political world as we've come to understand it. She's the dark secret behind Door #3, the conjured vision of a deep-seated lurking anger that is greater than her own.

The "goshes" and "gollies" of the outgoing Alaska governor are a thin veneer for deep-seated rage, a spiderweb of resentment that captures every perceived insult and slight. That's a powerful motivator for a political career. It could resonate with a lot of voters, too, if their possibilities seem to shrink and the future remains shrouded in fear.

"We're not retreating," Sarah Palin quoted Gen. MacArthur as saying, "we're advancing in another direction." Anyone who doesn't recognize the essential truth behind that statement runs the risk of not only misunderstanding Palin, but of failing to foresee the threat she could represent. And those who judge her performance on traditional lines will overlook her genuine talent.

Palin may be as erratic as many people say. I wasn't the only observer who noted a hopped up, free-associating, almost amphetamine-like quality to the cadence of her resignation speech. But another way to view her speech is as the latest example of a style that could, in the end, prove revolutionary. Call it "post-modern" politics.

Look up postmodernism (or "PoMo," as some call it) and you'll get a broad range of definitions. It's almost like the Supreme Court definition of obscenity: You can't define it, but you know it when you see it. It was born of the sense that there are no underlying principles or conventions we can trust. It involves identifying, naming, and ultimately shattering the rules under which we've all been operating. It's related to the theater concept of "breaking the proscenium" or "knocking down the fourth wall," acknowledging that some of us are actors and some are spectators in what is, after all, only a performance.

Coherence? That's so yesterday.

It was very postmodern of Palin to characterize her resignation - an outrageous act by any reasonable standard - as a principled refusal to "go with the flow." Her vision of politics is so profoundly radical that even performing the duties of office becomes unimportant. The job you sought is no longer the point. It's all about the performance. It's politics as Conceptual Art.

Of all the Postmodernist movements, Palin most closely resembles the punk-rockers of the 1970's, especially the ones who insisted that having musical skill reflected an outmoded attachment to obsolete forms. Emotion was enough, and the dominant emotion was fury. A quick glance through Media Matters will illustrate the many forms of fury that are now bubbling on the Right.

Some say that there are more Palin scandals coming, although there's no evidence for that. In any case, scandals don't matter that much to a Postmodernist Politician. "Oh, sure," the PoMo Pol can say, "they care about those things, because that's how they've always operated. It's what they do." When they attack her she can kick through the Fourth Wall and claim it's all part of the show.

Politicians have always done that, to a certain extent. They've always claimed that they're not part of the system, and handled bad publicity by implicating their critics and the press. But Palin takes it to a new level, to the level of art form. It could be argued that the bipartisan outrage now being expressed toward her in Washington is directly proportional to the revolutionary nature of her words.

Sure, she's a long shot for President, but there are scenarios where she could win. Picture this: It's 2011 and unemployment is still high. The Democrats have been too cautious with their economic remedies, so lenders have pocketed bailout money without loosening credit for the average consumer. People are confused and frightened. Along comes Sarah with her Postmodernist neo-punk message: "The system is broken! Democrats, Republicans, all those guys in Washington have let you down. Let's really change things!" One or two moderate gestures to placate swing voters, and she could be the 45th President.

Odds are she'll fade away the way most pundits are predicting. But there's a chance - call it one in five - that she could seize the moment. She seems ridiculous to most Washington insiders right now, but truly transformative figures often seem ridiculous ... until they change the world. Democrats who dismiss Palin do so at their own peril, particularly considering the risks involved.

It probably won't work - but it could. Think about it: She'd be the most revolutionary force to hit her profession since Huey Long. Or Johnny Rotten. And the country would never, ever be the same.

You betcha.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

Eskow & Associates