Populist Mama as Media Maven

by Michael Kazin | July 13, 2010

Michelle Cottle’s piece on Sarah Palin’s media strategy (“Media Maven,” July 22) is a fine dissection of p.r. craftswomanship, one any magazine or website would be proud to run. But like too much reporting about the media, it scants the message that attracts so many people to a particular messenger.

Palin is the most dangerous politician in America today. Her stated views are on the wildest fringe of conservative thinking. She opposes even the mildest forms of corporate regulation, thinks the New Deal made the Depression worse, believes the U.S. is and must remain a Christian nation, condemns the idea that “God should be separated from the state,” and, of course, wants to ban all abortions and make it illegal for gay people to marry. A large minority of voters are eating it up. According to recent polls, Palin’s approval rating is just under 40 percent, roughly ten points behind Obama’s. If he continues to sink, she may well keep rising.

Worse, Palin conveys her positions with a menacing brilliance equaled by few populist figures from the past. Like Joe McCarthy, she identifies herself with “real people” against liberal Washington “elitists,” including a president whom, she implies, is unable or unwilling to defend the nation. Like George Wallace, she contrasts the practical wisdom of one raised in a God-fearing small town and educated at no-status colleges with the snobbish, secular intellectuals who, in Wallace’s words, thought they knew how to run the war in Vietnam but couldn’t park their bicycles straight.

In their heydays, McCarthy and Wallace were celebrities too, drawing as much attention in print as Palin does on TV and online. Both men also knew how to turn the media to their advantage. The press gave respectful coverage to every accusation McCarthy made against “Reds” and “fellow travelers.” On “Meet the Press,” Wallace rebutted a liberal journalist’s charge of racism by looking straight at the camera and replying, “We don’t have any utopia in Alabama. But neither do you have one here in New York City where you can’t walk in Central Park at night without fear of being raped, or mugged, or shot.” It was their ability to speak to ferocious waves of anti-liberalism that made them big news.

Palin may not run for president and would probably not get elected if she did. No figure so polarizing and so aggressive has ever ascended to the White House—and those disastrous Katie Couric interviews will haunt her to the end of her days. Yet, she has already done real damage. The accusation that Obama wanted to set up “death panels” threw health-reform advocates on the defensive and helped force them to trim back the benefits of the bill that finally passed.   

Freed from having to govern a small, remote state, Palin can keep burnishing her image as the creator and leader of the new tough mamas’ moral majority. Republican candidates compete for her endorsement, and she is the only politician nearly every Tea Partier would support with relish. Her most recent fundraising numbers are terrifyingly high as well. In the long history of populist talkers, both right and left, no other woman on the national stage has been able to channel resentments against elites into a consequential and growing movement. Her beauty, her toughness, and her Northwoodsy accent can seduce even some people who gladly voted for Obama. For example, a fellow professor I know who remains cold to nearly all of Palin’s political positions still admires her “feistiness” and “kick-ass attitude toward University of Chicago elites.”

Perhaps a clever media strategy has made her into what Cottle calls “the p.r. genius of our time.” But the beliefs which Palin is touting matter far more than her own beaming, resolutely confident self. In two years, she will at least be able to veto any Republican who seeks the nomination and be king, or queen-maker, of whomever gets to run against Obama. That frightening prospect is what talented reporters like Cottle should begin to explain.

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