Thursday, July 02, 2009

How the Palin Phenomenon will Change American Politics

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 7/2/09

When Vanity Fair this month attempted to institutionalize the anti-Palin mnemonic slander into a regular New York City zeitgeist, it bounced off the wall again as it did with Letterman. William Kristol, the most influential commentator and editor of The Weekly Standard, responded and the Palin Phenomenon is now at the heart of Republican politics.

The generic Palin haters, Letterman, Tiny Fey, Katie Couric and the others, do not initiate trends. Their job is to reinforce and advance old trends that are dying out of lack of oxygen and energy and diseases of the aging and the infirm. These are New York’s’ Chryslers and Chevys; dying breeds forcing influence in a last hurrah as the city itself seems on the verge of drowning.

Sarah Palin represents a new force in American politics and it is one that eventually and as soon as possible the Democrats are going to have to catch up with.

Palin, with husband and children in tow, represents a new cultural dimension in America. She represents small town America. She represents agricultural America and the rising future of plain folk who live among a wealth of commodities. She represents to America exactly what Andrew Jackson represented to America when he came out of the frontier and brought with him a spirit of nature that would trump Adams and Jefferson and stay with us for decades.

When she first took the podium it presented to America a Rorschach test. She was deeply and instinctively hated by some for the way she looked and spoke. She was hated because she had babies, a good husband who didn’t read The Thorn Birds, went to church local and because she represented an Earth Mother archetype which the urban professional class in particular had left behind last when Jerry Rubin instructed the hippies to leave the country and the rural ways and head to Wall Street with him and the Clintons.

Kristol, and conservative commentators including The Hill columnist Dick Morris and David Brooks of The New York Times spontaneously greeted her with un-designed enthusiasm. The Wall Street Journal’s conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, most influential in forming the recent tradition of East Coast Republicans – which might be called George H.W. Bush Republicans or “Catholic” conservatives – cried, “Eek! A mouse!”

Noonan’s are perhaps the best instincts in thoughtful commentary today and back to the 1980s. She saw instinctively that this would change everything for them. And she was right. Today Republicans have to decide. Do they go forward with the new agrarian paradigm and Sarah Palin, or try to match up with the Obama Democrat sensibilities and issues (Schwarzenegger Republicans) – gay marriage, choice, deficit spending – on social issues. That is, should they follow the new path to the heartland or try to be more like urban Democrats? Three things will influence their choice: Obama’s rank in the polls which is sinking; the continued influence on culture of New York and California, which is also sinking and demographics: Americans continue to move south and southwest and to the middle and western states and so does the economy. This is Palin’s turf, not Noonan’s. Not Obama’s either.

We are at a historic turning today and in cultural terms it closely resembles the rise of Andrew Jackson, whose influence came about primarily because the colonial period had simply come to a dead end with the death of Adams and Jefferson. Everything ends. Then it begins again. The Founding Fathers brought us through a birthing period and once we were ready to walk, we correctly left them behind. The terror in the eyes of the New Yorkers at first sight of Palin – one regular New York Times columnist compared her to Hitler, another mocked the pregnancy of her 17-year-old child, starting a short philosophical tradition of disgrace - was exactly that of Jefferson and the high church East Coasters when they saw the rustic brawlers coming in from the country with Jackson. He feared for his country, he said, at the thought that Jackson, still with a bullet lodged in his chest from a duel in Tennessee, could one day rise to the Presidency.

But Jackson was the purely American – non-European – President, while the colonials still looked across the Atlantic for advice, validation of their ideas and culture and consent. In Obama’s autobiography he talked about the vision of Jefferson and Madison in insisting and fighting for religious freedom and what it meant at the time, when the political struggle was to keep the Baptists – the common folk of the South – out of politics and keep it in the hands of the Virginia Episcopalians – the ruling gentry. Jackson represented those common folk and more.

In that regard, Sarah Palin is pure country today and purely Jacksonian. That is what is scaring the britches off the New Yorkers and the smart set at Café Des Artistes and Elaine’s and the Berkeley annex at Chez Panisse, you betcha. But the country would not be held back then and it will not be held back today. The campaign strategies of both Obama and Hillary Clinton designed to “whistle past Dixie . . .” and write off the South and the Midwest as much as possible, so to take control through urban enclaves was short-sighted, dangerous and immoral. The regions will not be left behind.

He may not be fully aware of it, but John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for VP will prove in time to have been a master stroke. But in fact, he stole the idea from the Democrats. It was not Sarah Palin who initiated rural, Jacksonian sensibilities into politics; it was the brilliant, gun-tottin’, tobacco-chewing new senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, who had done so just two years before in his run for Senate. Webb outright campaigned in his Democratic primary as a rural Virginia warrior, Scotch-Irish, Old South red neck. And he won two to one in Alexandria, the “urban profession” enclave, over his polite, urban professional opponent.

History looks in one direction, forward. When Jackson took the Presidency it would mark the end of the Colonial period. America would no longer look to the Ivy League-educated, the editors of Harvard Law Review, the Boston Quincy neighborhood or Monticello for governance. To the contrary. One’s status would rise by being thrown out of Harvard as Emerson was. Instead, all parties would look West and rekindle the heartland spirit thereafter with Jacksonian knockoffs, up to and including the man in the stove-pipe hat and the Amish whiskers said to grow up in a log cabin with only three sides.

We are today at such a turning. Palin is a harbinger. The old ways are over. The new day is here and it must be engaged on its own terms. To countervail against Palin, the odds on favorite of agrarian, conservative, heartland America, the Democrats will eventually have to look back to Jim Webb. The will need to appeal to the heartland or they will lose it entirely and the consequences for them and for the country could be devastating. (Watch Rick Perry and Ted Nugent at the upcoming Fourth of July tea parties.)

Webb’s pal Mark Warner, now Senator from Virginia, has in his career been the leader in converging the needs and desires of rural hills and hollows when he was the most successful Governor of Virginia. Jon Tester, the Senator from Montana and a farmer with fingers missing to prove it, would make a good match for VP in 2012 or thereafter. Or Brian Schweitzer, Governor or Montana, with one of the highest approval ratings in the nation, a steadfast Second Amendment supporter with an “A” rating from the NRA.

The Republicans should take the heartland initiative that Palin represents and the Democrats have to leave the lace curtain Palin-haters behind if they want to compete in the long term. Otherwise, Obama will be their last hurrah.


Anonymous said...

Great take on Palin!

You don't have to be a genius or even a great orator to be effective, which apparently she has been. All this vitriol is simply a knee-jerk to perfection.. like in high school when the new girl in town hits class and the boys go nuts.. .all the old guard cheerleaders fear for their boyfriends.


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