Sarah Palin and reality-TV titan Mark Burnett are about to collaborate on a “docudrama” about Alaska? Ha! A pundit on Fox, a comedian on Leno, and now a producer and most likely star of her own TV show—surely, by cheapening herself and making herself look ludicrous as an entertainer, Sarah Palin is destroying (thank heavens) her political ambitions. Surely, especially at a critical historical moment like this, even the most disaffected Americans will reject a political aspirant who has turned herself into a TV buffoon.
By the time she ascends the podium to address the Republican National Convention in 2012, the joke will be on us. Palin will have made her foolishness a pedestal for her power, thus robbing anyone of the power to expose her as a fool.
Not a chance. Once upon a time, reality TV was the last refuge for political scoundrels. (See Rod "I'm a Celebrity Defendant in a Major Corruption Case .... Get Me Out of Here" Blagojevich.) In Palin's innovative hands, however, TV is the first stop in an extreme political makeover. Consolidating her power on TV has become more important to her than the urge to govern and wield real power. For now.
Sarah Palin has stumbled into the magic formula for political success in America in 2010. At a time when not just brazenly dishonest politicians are falling like sleet, but also honest ones, too frightened to compete in our age of microscopic surveillance, Palin—a rotten genius at intuiting the latest weak spots in our dysfunctional democracy—has found a way around the unremitting scrutiny of personal characteristics. Do you think her embarrassingly mechanical and unfunny monologue on Leno was ridiculous? Well, by making herself ridiculous, she is immunizing herself against those who would seek to undermine her by making her seem ridiculous. By dragging herself through TV mud, she is ensuring that by the time she turns serious and starts a real political campaign, there will be no white spots left to muddy. In 2008, they turned her into the butt of a national joke. Now she is pre-butting herself, as it were. By the time she ascends the podium to address the Republican National Convention in 2012, the joke will be on us. Palin will have made her foolishness a pedestal for her power, thus robbing anyone of the power to expose her as a fool.
Yet if Palin is pre-buffooned, she is also pre-scandalized. She has mastered the structure of modern scandal. She seems to viscerally grasp that, like the winning side in a courtroom trial, a scandal only dominates the public consciousness when it presents the most riveting story. The public narratives upon which John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer, for example, built their careers were powerless against the more gripping narratives of their transgressions. It wasn’t just the egregious unethical nature of what they did; it was the fabulous reality-TV-like storyline of what they did. (Paterson is so easy to knock down because he never had a strong public narrative to begin with.) With her projects on Fox, on late-night TV, and now with Burnett, Palin is building up a storehouse of gripping stories. Unless she is caught in flagrante in a huge way, it will be almost impossible to come up with a counter-story that could undo them. We might criticize her for acting “shamelessly” and “disgracefully” when she promotes herself on these various entertainment venues. But this is how she is so shrewdly immunizing herself against shame and disgrace.
By the time Palin takes to the political hustings—if that is her intention—she will have enclosed herself in the actor’s enchantment. Watching her on TV, people will have lived through her vicariously. Because they will have assimilated her into their own lives, they will be entirely invested in her. No matter what she does, she will be thoroughly enmeshed in their affections—people will think of her as family, the way we think of our favorite sitcom characters, whom we live through week after week.
By then, pre-buffooned and pre-scandalized, Palin’s image and her substance will be the same. It will be impossible to puncture her image and get behind it because behind it will only be layers and layers of image. That will be the moment for a Palin/Scott Brown ticket with Brown’s daughter running the campaign along “American Idol” lines. That will be the moment when dominating prime time, sweeping the ratings, and murdering democracy will all come to mean the same thing.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.