Regular readers of this screed will know I have no love for Sarah Palin. The mere sight of her makes me angry. The sound of her voice sends me into paroxysms of rage. No surprise then my deep pleasure at her resignation this weekend. The question, however, remains: what are we to make of Ms. Palin's short tenure as the "great white hope" of American conservatism? In many ways, the former Governor of Alaska is the apex of the dominant trends in contemporary right-wing politics. It's all there: The paranoid media victim complex; the triumph of "values" over policy or leadership; the axiomatic rejection of anything approaching the intellectual; and the disturbing desire of large segments of the voting public to elect "someone just like me", with little thought for actual ability. These trends have been around for a long time. But never have they been so starkly apparent as in Palin's populist hucksterism. As John McCain learned far too late, she has an infinite capacity to distract, but almost no substance on which to build a meaningful political career.
No one seems to know why Palin resigned. Some claim it was the mounting pressure of endless (and justified) ethics complaints. Others cite a potential 2012 White House bid, or the ugly economic fact that the erstwhile governor could make much more money writing vapid books and giving speeches than she ever could in public office. It has even been suggested that Palin just doesn't really like governing. All of these factors have likely played a role. But the overriding reason has more to do with what Palin is rather than what she has done or plans to do.
Palin's primary - indeed, only - appeal lies in the populism at the heart of her image. She plays to the insecurities, the ignorance, and the excitable emotion of her supporters. To the fundamentally dumb, Palin represents novelty without challenging their stupidity. For Palin, actually being in public office actually weakens her ability to leverage this popular appeal into a career. When her wagon is hitched to a specific job, like the Governor of Alaska, intelligent observers can counter her popularity with frequent and glaring examples of both her ineffectiveness as a leader and the utter lack of substance beneath the dynamic exterior. To maximize her populist gifts, Palin has to stay out of any position of substantive responsibility.
There's an obvious irony here. Palin's electability evaporates the second she is elected. But, if she intends to bamboozle the citizenry into voting her into high office, she needs to be free from the shackles of actual political work. If she is only subconciously aware of this fact, then I fully expect her to run for President in 2012. But if she has some measure of self-understanding, she may avoid future campaigns altogether, instead opting to be a kind of freelance culture warrior bankrolled by her ability to dazzle the simpleminded.
Of course, even the simplest of souls can recognize a con under the right circumstances. Palin's resignation may prove to be a fatal miscalculation. While it was calculated to free her from the constraints of actual work, it may have also served to highlight her inadequacies. In a poll conducted last week, 53 per cent of Americans had a negative view of Palin, and only 40 per cent view her favourably. Contrast that to her poll numbers a year ago, when six in 10 Americans held a positive view. The sharp focus on her record caused by her resignation may be the charm that finally breaks the spell.
Sarah Palin, and the type of politician she represents, is bad politics. Bad for democracy, bad for debate, and bad for a nation that needs strong leadership in the face of unprecedented challenges. It's a cliche, but its application seems appropriate here: the empress has no clothes.
Exempting the thousands of dollars of togs bought for her by the Republican Party, of course.