Populist Poser

Sarah Palin: Mixing Up Left and Right in Her Iowa Speech

Palin borrows the language of the left, but she’s a populist poser. By David Sessions.

After a scheduling mix-up too baffling to untangle, Sarah Palin took the stage at a Tea Party event in Iowa Saturday to deliver a baffling mix-up of another kind: an impassioned rant against the current political system that married a string of left- wing grievances with a confounding set of right-wing solutions.

There was speculation that she might endorse the current GOP frontrunner, Rick Perry, but Palin seemed determine to carve out a message all her own. It’s one that implicitly critiqued candidates in the Republican field and identified explicitly with the concerns of the left—at least in name. Palin lambasted “crony capitalism”—a Perry specialty—and railed against “corporate welfare” and “socialism for the very rich.” She demanded to know what good can come from reform-promising candidates who were bought long before they ever took office. She invoked the legacy of America’s most transformative leftists, abolitionists, and Civil Rights activists. She said change would come from “ordinary people,” not from the “political class.” She even kicked around the term “revolution.”

Palin may be unique among Tea Party stars in expressing her platform in explicitly leftist terms. But the ostensible target of her barrage on Saturday wasn’t the types most responsible for the conditions she decried, politicians like George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or Rick Perry. No, the litany of Washington’s wrongs, in Palin’s estimation, can be laid at the feet of Barack Obama, and the solution to our dark days of plutocracy, upward redistribution of wealth, and money as speech are more austerity and more deregulation.

How Palin arrives at her root causes can be mind-bending. “Crony capitalism,” for example, typically refers to preferential relationships between politicians and business interests. A classic example would be Dick Cheney’s infamous energy task force, during which the vice president all but handed over regulatory authority to his friends in the industries to be affected by the legislation. More generally, the number of friends Bush appointed to executive positions without any relevant experience might be described as manifestations of “cronyism.” But when Palin assails Obama’s “cronyism,” she does not mean the president is cutting breaks for former business partners. She’s referring to federal bailouts of the financial and auto-manufacturing industries—emergency macroeconomic policies supported by virtually all economists and both political parties in response to catastrophic circumstances.

Speaking of Obama’s “cronyism,” Palin referred specifically to his “stimulus project for union bosses.” To be sure, Obama has drawn significant support from labor, but don’t miss Palin’s sly twist. A stimulus passed by a Democratic president could never be about creating jobs for American workers suffering from a planet-shaking recession. It’s about doing “union bosses” a favor—never mind that those union bosses also represent the interests of millions of struggling American workers. In a quick but violent contortion of logic, an effort to keep the worst economic crisis in a decade from laying waste to American workers becomes “crony capitalism”—no different than Rick Perry handing out millions of Texas tax dollars to fund his most loyal donors’ businesses.

The same type of twist comes when Palin talks about “corporate welfare” and “socialism for the very rich.” In a sense she’s correct: bailing out multinational investment banks is indeed a kind of “socialism” for a class of obscenely wealthy people, and it is unfortunate they could not be punished by losing everything. But Palin would have preferred her “ordinary Americans” to pay the price of a global economic meltdown that allowing banks to fail would have certainly caused. And she prefers they continue to pay the price: now that the deed is done, she opposes any attempt to rein in Wall Street’s casino capitalism. Let the market run free, she screeches. And her message to the corporations that have wolfed down government largess and returned to making record profits: You deserve to get away with it, you precious job creators. “We’ll unshackle you from the world’s highest federal taxes,” Palin shouted Saturday—federal taxes only a fraction of which are ever paid.

If Palin were truly concerned about “socialism for the very rich,” she might look at what her own platform calls for: lower taxes on corporations and the rich, who already monopolize a record share of America’s wealth, and severe cutting of government services that ease the misery at the lowest rungs of society. In other words, CEOs and their companies should keep even more of their millions, and Americans barely scraping by should go without health care, unemployment assistance, and in some cases even food and shelter. Even if you exchange the odious millionaire multinational executive for the more sympathetic upper-middle-class businessman who makes $200,000 per year, Palin’s policies would result in those with more having more and those with less having less. Her solution to socialism for the rich, then, is more socialism for the rich.

Palin’s co-opting of the language of the left may be masterful, but her solutions make clear that the Tea Party will never be a club for liberals. Still, the fact that she’s the only one injecting some of the disenchanted left’s most urgent concerns into the 2012 race—a government powerless before its moneyed overlords, and an establishment class more and more isolated from American pain—is remarkable. Obama has told the progressive story more passionately than Drew Westen would have us believe, but as 2012 draws near, his mouth is increasingly filled with right-wing boilerplate about burdensome regulations, tax cuts, and the federal deficit. If Sarah Palin is the only one talking about socialism for the rich, the left is further in the desert than it has yet imagined.