To borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon, you won’t have Sarah Palin to vindictively masturbate to anymore. The nation’s youngest Republican left her post as governor of Alaska yesterday, but first she delivered a speech to her assembled well-wishers at the resignation picnic. The picnic was mandated by the Alaska constitution, and the content of Palin’s remarks was mandated by what is rapidly becoming the sole unifying element of the contemporary Republican party: populism.
Webster’s Dictionary defines populism as “food poisoning caused by a bacterium growing on improperly sterilized canned meats and other preserved foods.”* Historically, the adjective “populist” has also been applied to political movements seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people. Like a lot of -ism words, though, populism has enjoyed great flexibility of meaning since more people started acquiring/forgetting liberal arts educations, and now “populist” is applied to most any rhetorician who holds the wisdom of the common people supreme.
Enter Sarah Palin.* Her farewell speech was a study in old-fashioned populist rhetoric, during which she praised the patriotic, hardy residents of Fairbanks and set up a series of oppositions between the common person and venal elites: Washington politicians, members of the media, and Hollywood actors who make movies that try to take away your guns.* She didn’t confine her populism to the American ruralist strain, either; Palin also brought in some Germany-in-the-thirties-style militarist populism. Addressing the media, she said that freedom of the press is “a cornerstone of our democracy—and that’s why our troops are willing to die for you. So how about in honor of the American solider you quit making things up?”*
In trope after trope, Palin constructed two Americas: one powerful, deceptive and hell-bent on “tearing our nation down,” the other simple, hard-working and/or dead, and above all proudly convinced that these are salad days. This insistence that everything is super is Palin’s first sharp departure from traditional populism. The most famous American populist movement—the one that actually spawned a Populist Party—emerged in response to the brutal farm economy of the late nineteenth century. By the 1890s, the Populist platform was a full-blown critique—one that railed against an America run by banks, exploiting its laborers, neglecting its farmers and reeling under a full-blown depression. American populists were the “pessimists” Palin decried on Sunday, shouting to be heard over callous governors and senators confident that America was strong.
So Palin’s call for the common man to join together in approving of stuff is one historical incongruity. The second, and more frightening, is in her actual political message. Populism has always been concerned with the interests of the common people to who it speaks; it is a movement of the poor, the uneducated and the disenfranchised, which is why it always tended to get its ass whipped in presidential elections. Palin’s aw-shucks demeanor is certainly a cipher for the rural lower class, but the actual policies she’s urging them to accept—small government, reduced taxes on businesses, deregulation of industry, and refusal of government welfare—is the down-the-pike agenda of the rich. In another political climate, she would be a fake. In this one—at least to hear her enemies in the national new media tell it—people love her authenticity.
It is this profound disconnect between her rhetoric and her message that disqualify Sarah Palin from actual populism. She is a populist speechmaker, for sure, but the policies she urges on her audience are standard upper-class conservatism. There’s a term for someone who employs populist rhetoric in the dogged pursuit of an anti-populist agenda: a demagogue. Historically, demagogues have emerged at times of great discrepancy between the upper and lower classes, when the interests of the rich and the ignorance of the poor become sufficiently massive as to constitute a voting bloc. Those of us who are neither rich nor dumb have no place in Sarah Palin’s America, or in the rhetoric of the contemporary GOP. We are the middle on the outside, not real Americans but the imagined elite whose pessimism is tearing everything down. And gosh darn it, folks, aren’t we just too dang smart to get it?