She’s not a politician, exactly—she quit her job as governix of Alaska, and that whole second-in-line-for-the-presidency thing mercifully remained conjecture—yet all she talks about is politics. Normally that would make her a commentator, but her public statements are not really, um, up to the standards of the field. Palin’s pronouncements combine brevity and vagueness in a manner that suggests she’s not trying to convert us to her position so much as convert us to her. When she says that health care policy must strengthen American values, it’s not an argument so much as an answer. So far, Palin’s priority as a commentator seems to be to make her own position clear in relation to everybody else’s, albeit in the most infuriatingly abstract way possible. That agenda seems doubly odd, since we already know what she thinks before she says it: Sarah Palin agrees with the Republican Party. Still, she seems aligned with but not quite of the GOP, perhaps because the bulk of her rhetoric is not for anything; she’s just against President Obama. Consider her most recent piece in the National Review, in which she argues that the President’s recent support for expanded oil and gas drilling is just a trick. When one of her stated nemeses agrees with her, she refines her position in order to renew the dichotomy. In the past, we’ve criticized her for not having any ideas, but that isn’t really fair. In her present incarnation, Sarah Palin doesn’t need ideas, because the idea is herself. As David Carr suggests in today’s Times, Sarah Palin is a brand.
In Carr’s construction, Palin’s most useful analog is Oprah Winfrey. The comparison became more apt on Thursday, with the premiere of Palin’s Real American Stories on Fox News. Video of that august television event turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find, but enjoy this jerkily-edited version of the show, apparently cut down to four and a half minutes so that the poster could append a five-minute song he wrote himself. Thanks, new media!
Even in QuickTime-addled form, we get the gist: heartwarming stories about a kid with cerebral palsy who loves his dog, inner-city students who’ve had their college educations paid for by a generous millionaire, and a soldier who died to protect his unit in Iraq. As Frank Rich put it, it’s television for the kind of people who complain that they never show any good news—inspiring, if you consider the impulse to smile smugly at your TV a form of inspiration, but kind of an odd programming choice for what is ostensibly a news network. The existence of these people certainly constitutes fact, but it’s not what I’d call information. More informative is Palin’s opening monologue. And I quote:
Heroism, courage, generosity and a warrior spirit—these are the things that unite all Americans. Our ancestors from around the world—they boarded boats, leaving behind everything, because in America anything is possible. Those first fearless souls believed freedom was their destiny. Our proud history is a record of their vision and determination. The fight for life without tyranny. From the revolutionaries of 1776 to the Greatest Generation and today, Americans have always answered the call, risking life for liberty to defend our country and to protect the world. Tonight, Real American Stories celebrates our heroes.
There are two main rhetorical strategies at work, here. The first is a creepy militarism; of the four qualities that bind us together, three of them are heroism, courage, and warrior spirit. Palin’s “fight for life without tyranny” and “risking life for liberty” imply that the primary machine for creating freedom is war. Her show includes a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice, but it’s also about a disabled person who wants to walk and a bunch of kids who got college scholarships. If you only had Palin’s monologue to go by, you’d think it was 22 minutes of your grandfather’s Korea stories. Palin’s America is a nation of guns, babies and millionaires, not scientists. Still, that’s hardly a less accurate picture of what makes this country great than you would find elsewhere on prime-time television. The selfless acts of research biologists do not make for good TV.
The second feature of Palin’s monologue is a sweeping view of history—what is typically called American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is ordained by god or the unique spirit of its people to preserve freedom in the world. There’s an obvious flaw to that sort of thinking—it’s unlikely that Americans are the only people who like liberty and dislike tyrants—but I’m going to go ahead and say that America really is the best country in the world, because I live here. After all, how could I think otherwise? This brings us to the problem of Sarah Palin. Her monologue is distasteful in the same sense that a t-shirt with an eagle clutching an American flag is distasteful: not because I disagree with the sentiment expressed, but because expressing it elevates a home truth to the level of profound insight. It’s kitsch.
More than any other public figure, Palin makes loving freedom and our troops and our families and our can-do spirit into a political position. When she says she supports American values, she says it as if there’s someone out there who would claim he doesn’t. Palin is the human equivalent of your grandmother’s collection of Hummel figurines—a little creepy, certainly unsatisfying, but not something you can openly oppose without looking like an asshole. The disagreement between one half of America and the other over Sarah Palin isn’t over values, as she would have you believe; it’s over discourse, over what properly constitutes an actual idea. Organizing your political philosophy around “America is great because of freedom and our troops” isn’t wrong, exactly, any more than sitting down to dinner and saying, “Boy, I love eating!” is wrong. It’s just stupid.
Sarah Palin is a machine for making kitsch, like Thomas Kinkade or Alice Sebold. It explains the either-you-get-it-or-you-don’t mystery around her popularity, at it explains why she and her supporters define themselves in opposition to an imagined elite. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to excite you guys on the East Coast, but everyone else is dying to hear stories like these,” one of her representatives told David Carr about Real American Stories. The implication is that you city folk have become so effete and sophisticated that you can’t appreciate the simple beauty of a kid in wheelchair who loves his dog. How do you argue with a statement like that?
I was about to wind this blog post up by saying that Sarah Palin is the first instance of kitsch as politics, but that’s not true. There’s another historical example of kitsch raised to the level of political thought: European fascism. The blood-and-soil rhetoric of the 1930s created a politics that celebrated traditional values and the warrior spirit while denigrating the intellectual, the artistic, the quote-unquote elite. Is Sarah Palin an American fascist? No—she’s just a racist Oprah, cashing in by telling her audience that their simplest feelings are world-changing notions. Every time she opens her mouth she creates an idea-free space, where discourse is replaced by a hearty endorsement of what we all agreed on already. She’s not wrong. She’s just very, very dumb, and she’s inviting the rest of America to come along with her.