The most polarizing figure in American politics is never going away.
Not if she stays out of the race. Not if she jumps in. Whether you love, hate or respectfully decline to invest emotional energy in her, Sarah Palin is here for good.
Though her success hinges on the passion of her supporters, that passion springs less from Palin herself than from the weird new reality of American life, which has thrust both Palin and her constituency into the limelight that real novelty always enjoys in democratic life.
It’s pity enough that so few commentators understand how real-life social conditions are responsible for Palin’s ascension to the hyperborean layer of popular consciousness. (You know who you are.) What’s worse is that so many of them read the Palin phenomenon as a vaudevillian attempt to wring a few extra moments out of Warhol’s famous fifteen.
Though Palin delights in intensifying the confusion of the intensely confused (her tame liaisons with celebreality are actually right at home in “post-imperial” America), the truth is simple enough to fit in a column.
Beneath the novelty act, Palin has cultivated, nourished and capitalized on our secret wellspring of civic participation. The conventional wisdom on Palin is distorted into ridiculousness by its own inability to comprehend this secret — and the real power and purpose of American politics it reveals.
In a democratic age, the primary threat to liberty comes from within. Despite persistent disparities of wealth and talent, the notion that we’re all really the same captures our imagination. Hierarchical institutions, predicated on the idea that we’re not interchangeably equal, fall apart or fade away. For some of us, this means we should look forward to an imminent age when every individual is fully equal and fully sovereign. For more of us, this means we should look upward, to a government authoritative and powerful enough to confer equal pride — if not quite material equality — on everyone.
But both of these reactions to the dominance of equality in our thought and our lives discourage people from coming face to face with local strangers and working together to solve “small-time” political problems. Both tend to enclose us within the petty, all-consuming cares of our everyday lives. Both tend to make all political problems into big ones that only Washington can cope with — but never solve.
If this pathological path is all too evident nowadays, the remedy will emphasize drawing us back out of strangerhood, and de-emphasize what we’re all used to thinking politics is about: representing our interests.
Enter Sarah Palin, who doesn’t need to run for office because her valuable function is not to represent anyone’s interests. It’s to draw them out of their self-enclosed personal space and into face-to-face relationships. When, at her best, Palin rambles around the country (don’t call it community organizing), she doesn’t draw an audience so much as a crowd — big groups of people pulled together to reckon with one another, not just ogle a star.
This is how irresistible political forces are created in America.
They might not be destined for total victory. They might not even make an electoral majority. But they are an outworking of undeniably real life, and they cannot be dislodged or dissipated by discrediting their organizer-in-chief.
Indeed, precisely because they’re so rooted in reality, it’s virtually impossible to discredit their organizer-in-chief. (Such is the belated, fear-stricken discovery of master discreditors like GOP toad prince Karl Rove.)
Do not believe it when your favorite pundit says an epic defeat would send Palin back to oblivion. Do not suppose that, if she stays out, the declared candidates will suck up all the oxygen. Anyone who thinks a bad loss would erase Palin is in denial about the history of Republican primary politics, where today’s shameful losers become tomorrow’s nominees — and presidents. And anyone who imagines that Palin could somehow be made not to captivate wrongly believes this is somehow first and foremost about her.
It’s not. Not even her complicity in identity politics (which does limit her power as an organizer of strangers) can be blamed on her own machinations.
The right-wing constituency which she has assembled is off-putting to liberals and conservatives alike because it is a natural-born mutant of several of America’s most potent and fertile cultural strains. You have no right to greet Palin’s feminisim, for example, with shock and bewilderment — in a society where three generations of women have endured the triumphs and tragedies of equalization with men.
Even as Palin’s role as a representative of identities stunts her potential, it underscores the increasing irrelevance of the politics of interest that has too long been the destructive default model of liberal democracy.
Unable to draw us together on the basis of raw self-interest, our political system adapted, perversely, to unite strangers on the basis of their shared membership in more or less artificially constructed constituencies — the ethnic and sexual cubbyholes of the ’80s, the single-issue movements of the ’90s and the gerrymandered districts of the ’00s that ensured groups of human beings “represented” in Congress would correspond as little as possible to the organic living patterns beneath.
It sounds farfetched to say Palin-induced polarization is any less permanent than Palin herself. But beyond the partisan horizon is a realization that could fundamentally change our approach to politics.
Social forces that strongly affect the whole of American life are responsible for enabling and sustaining Palin’s prominence. Dismissing Team Palin as an identitarian “experience” (“it’s a rube thing — you wouldn’t understand”) badly misleads us about the nature of the straits we’re all in together.
If we remain too angry and too awkward to meet our fellow strangers outside our ideological comfort zones, we will remain mired in identity politics. We will vainly deny a self-enclosure that only deepens. And, most likely, we’ll wind up both more dependent on government and more on our own than ever — a far more dangerous polarization than any Palin could induce.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.