Ever since she pranced into the limelight last summer, Sarah Palin has been making liberals like me crazy. She embodies almost everything loathsome about the modern Republican Party—its brutish anti-intellectualism, its Christianist extremism, and its smug provincialism. Her nomination was identity politics of the crudest sort, engineered by men who imagined that disappointed Hillary Clinton voters would chuck all their principles out of gender solidarity and rally to a candidate of the religious right. (The same geniuses envisioned the buffoonish Michael Steele as a right-wing answer to Barack Obama.) Palin is a beauty-queen Elmer Gantry, outdoing Stephen Colbert in cheesy, braying nationalism. She’s terrifying. And now that she’s stepping down as governor, I hope we see a lot more of her.
In fact, I hope she runs for president. In 1971, Pat Buchanan wrote a famous memo to Richard Nixon suggesting that the president’s allies “promote, assist, and fund a fourth-party candidacy of the Left Democrats and/or the Black Democrats.” If the Republicans could tear the country in half, he wrote, they would end up with “far the bigger half.” He was right. The 1972 election represented the ultimate Pyrrhic victory for the left, with George McGovern’s success in the Democratic primaries leading to catastrophe in November. Palin, should she run, could inflict similar damage on the Republicans.
The longer Palin sticks around, the more she reminds everyone outside the looking-glass world of the right just what the modern Republican Party has become.
In a way, it’s indecent to compare her and McGovern—he was a war hero and a profoundly good man whose positions have been vindicated by history. But Palin, like McGovern, represents an avid, countercultural minority that overestimates its own appeal and overplays its hand.
For several decades now, the Christian right has been the largest and most cohesive social movement in the country. Ever since the Christian Coalition was formed from the ashes of Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign, religious conservatives have worked systematically to take over the GOP from within, one school board and town council at a time. Palin was very much a product of that movement. She rose to power in concert with the Christian right, turning her race against Wasilla Mayor John Stein into a referendum on abortion, guns, and God. When John McCain chose her as his running mate, it was a triumph for the movement. Suddenly, a member of its own ranks—not just a supporter, like Bush—seemed close to the pinnacle of power. Yet in retrospect, it was also a sign that Christian conservatism was becoming a victim of its own success.
That’s because the religious right, big as it was, never commanded a majority. It could only exercise power as part of a coalition, but the more it has come to dominate the Republican Party, the less inclined it has been to compromise. There’s little room for moderates or intellectuals in today’s GOP. Electoral losses have only driven the party further rightward, shearing it of its Northeastern wing. Republicanism has become a Southern Gothic farce of paranoia, resentment, scandal, and hypocritical moralism. Palin is its perfect representative, a constant reminder of its degradation.
Her wild popularity with Republicans is matched by her unpopularity with everyone else. In a USA Today/Gallup poll taken a week after she quit as governor, 72 percent of Republicans said they would support her for president in 2012. Other polls have shown that a majority of Republicans think she helped McCain in 2008. That is almost certainly not the case. Recent research by Emily Thorson and Richard Johnston of the University of Pennsylvania, publicized by bloggers including Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, has shown that Palin’s negative effect on McCain was unprecedented for a vice-presidential candidate.
The longer Palin sticks around, the more she reminds everyone outside the looking-glass world of the right just what the modern Republican Party has become. Of course, some liberals might fear that she could still be dangerous; after the shock of George W. Bush’s re-election, it’s hard to put one’s unswerving faith in the wisdom of the American voting public. But Bush was not Palin. Ignorant and inarticulate as he was, he and his handlers knew how to create at least an ersatz aura of seriousness. There’s no reason to believe that just because he was elected, she could be as well. She has little more chance of actually becoming president than Al Sharpton.
Right-wing operative Roger Stone lavishly supported Sharpton in 2004 because he knew that Sharpton could damage the Democrats without remotely threatening Republicans. As The New York Times reported in a 2004 story about the alliance, Sharpton generated “one of [Howard] Dean's lowest moments in a debate when he forced him to admit he had no blacks or Hispanics in his cabinet when he was governor of Vermont.” Palin could play a similar role in the 2012 primaries, riling up the base while appalling moderates and independents. I’m not suggesting that liberals step in to fund her—her addled admirers will be happy to do it themselves. But everyone who hates her politics should be hoping that as she leaves Alaska’s government, she imagines still greater things in her future. Run, Sarah, run!
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.