PALIN: Eye-candy laced with cyanide, and an excellent incarnation of the Right’s inherent hypocrisy.
By John Brown
The style of conservatism that Sarah Palin represents will be the only one that has a majoritarian future in today’s America. The populist conservatism will be openly hateful, paranoid, anti-intellectual, belligerently militaristic and most significantly ideologically inconsistent and opportunistic.
When we look back with the benefit of hindsight at this year’s presidential election, we will remember two noteworthy developments. The first and the most obvious one is the historic victory of Senator Barack Obama, and the other and much less noted one is the political birth of Governor Sarah Palin or more importantly the new prototype of conservatism her emergence represents.
Senator Obama’s victory is most important in what it negated, the primary political narrative of our time. The conservative political and economic consensus, which has dominated this country since the start of the Reagan administration, is no more. Governor Sarah Palin’s emergence is important in what it revealed, a snap shot into how and in what form the American right makes its comeback.
Both of these revelations have a similar starting point. They both come about due to the death of the old right. The conservatism of Buckley, Reagan, Gingrich and Bush the younger is no longer capable of garnering a working majority in American politics, a fact even more highlighted by the very profile of the candidate which routed them on Tuesday.
Many of us will rejoice in this fact, as we should, but we would be wise to remember that the collapse of what passes as the respectable right in any nation is the first sign of a society moving in a non-democratic direction.
The old right itself died a dialectic death, by which it passed on as the very result of the spectacular success of its policies. The destruction of the labor movement, deregulation, free movement of capital, massive military spending and the massive shift in wages and wealth to the top 10% of the country at the expense of the rest of the population undermined majoritarian political support for its programs.
In politics it is foolhardy to make predictions about the future course of events, politics is by its very nature fluid and unpredictable. If one is to do so, one must also be willing to draw a picture of a likely social and economic context in which our public life will be operating in.
The primary patterns of American social and economic development that we have experienced in the past 30 years are likely to continue and accelerate over the next 20 years regardless of who is in the White House. The deindustrialization of the country will continue finally placing the last of the unionized living wage income earning working class of the 20th century into the history books. The continued expansion of the information and service based parts of the economy and the generally meager wages and benefits it offers will further harden the income, education and opportunity gap between the top 20% of American society and the rest of the population, leaving the country more rigidly divided than ever in its history.
Palin was chosen to be savaged because in order to savage her you would need to savage the realities, the life styles and thinking of the largest segment (though not a majority) of American electorate.
Senator John McCain, left. is joined by Samuel Wurzelbacher, right, also known as “Joe the Plumber”. The McCain-Palin ticket cynically used Wurzelbacher as en emblem of their constituency, a blatant falsehood. Wurzelbacher himself lost no time in attempting to cash in on his newly found recognition.
This would be a bad scenario in any country, but it is a disastrous scenario in the United States given how it runs counter to the great American narrative. The American narrative, or what most people call “The American Dream”, has always been a practical bargain. The rules were the following: you give up your former identity and allegiances, you do not think socially or politically, you do not question economic hierarchies, and in return you or your children will have a reasonable chance at achieving a better material life. In truth it was always a lousy deal, but it was a deal real and tangible enough to improve the lives of countless millions of people.
What was never part of the deal was the creation of a hard caste system of social and economic polarization. When the day arrives when the vast majority of Americans understand in the deepest recesses of their minds that this myth is shattered and that their children will have less opportunity and poorer economic prospects than themselves, all that we have ever thought or learned about American politics will become irrelevant.
Within such a context the primary task of the new Obama administration will be to weave together a new political consensus that will fill the political space left behind by the collapse of the old right. These discussions over the next few months are likely to decide the political direction of the United States for a long period of time.
An Obama administration will have two primary options to choose from. One choice would be to move center left and reestablish the social compact of a modern New Deal type program. Barring a further deterioration of the economic situation in the country, it is not likely the direction they will move in. The second choice would be to reassemble a new establishment center consensus, minus the most reactionary elements of corporate power, and create a soft Democratic Party Corporatism as the new vital center of American political life.
The second option is the more likely choice and also the path of least resistance. The Obama administration will not pay a great political price in abandoning the pretense of moving the country in a progressive direction for two primary reasons. First, for Senator Obama’s political base the symbolism of his election is the change they were seeking and not an idea or program based on a set of policies. The second reason is the political weakness of what passes for the left in the United States, a line up of individuals and organizations stretching from MoveOn.org to the AFL-CIO, who in their misunderstanding of the nature of power confuse access with power itself.
The primary task of serious progressives over the next few months must be to prevent progressive votes of this Tuesday from being turned into another corporatist victory. No one should be very hopeful for the prospects of such an effort. I suspect as progressives spend their time fighting over tickets to the inaugural ball, the Wall Street and K Street branches of the Democratic Party will win the war of priorities and ideas of the new Obama Administration in a rout.
The significance of Governor Palin’s emergence is in its confirmation that the old right is no more. When conservatism makes its comeback, it is likely to look and sound a lot like Sarah Palin.
Within the hierarchies of the old right, Sarah Palin’s style of pseudo working class conservatism was reserved for the proverbial back of the bus. Her type was not to speak, but to be spoken to; they were assigned to work as the foot soldiers in campaigns and be ignored until the next election.
But as social divisions widen and opportunity declines, there will be an ever-decreasing market for the type of homely business conservatism dished along with breakfast at the local Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club. The style of conservatism that Sarah Palin represents will be the only one that has a majoritarian future in today’s America. The populist conservatism will be openly hateful, paranoid, anti-intellectual, belligerently militaristic and most significantly ideologically inconsistent and opportunistic.
To understand what these changes mean in practical electoral terms, we must first digress three months and understand the electoral and political rationale that went into the decision to nominate Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate — a decision as learned as it was unabashedly cynical.
Sarah Palin was never chosen for her strengths, but in fact for her weaknesses. For electoral purposes these were her strengths. She was chosen to be savaged because in order to savage her you would need to savage the realities, the life styles and thinking of the largest segment (though not a majority) of American electorate. Her ignorance of the world, her religious practices, her out of wedlock pregnant daughter represented far more true pictures of the realities of American life than the cosmopolitanism of Barack Obama.
It was to be the juxtaposition of his professorship of constitutional law to the countless community colleges she attended, his perfect family to her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, his Harvard educated wife to the “First Dude” of Alaska. What they were trying to say to American voters was the following: Barack Obama might be the mask you want to put on in this hour of need, but you know in your heart of hearts it is Sarah Palin that is the more truthful nature of your profile.
Her selection was an attempt to make the election about the culture wars, and it nearly worked. Absent the timely melt down in Wall Street it would have likely led to a John McCain victory.
For any one who doubts the transformative nature of what Palinism signifies for the conservative movement, one needs to look no further than the negative reaction of so many prominent conservatives to the Palin nomination. From Peggy Noonan to Andrew Sullivan to many of the propagandist scribes of the National Review, her appointment was savaged as symbolizing the death of a certain kind of conservatism, which in fact was very much true.
It is hard not to have contempt for these intellectual half-men who in their moral cowardice despise the very forces they have spend their careers in unleashing.
As we look into the future regardless of what course the Obama administration chooses to take for the politically serious on both the right and the left, the future is not likely to lie in the center of a new elite consensus. In a system, which is entering a period of semi-permanent crisis, to plant oneself or one’s party in its political center is to make yourself responsible for a political system which is forever failing, losing legitimacy and eventually its right to rule. In the long run, the future will belong to whichever political force flies the boldest flags, stands credibly far enough from those who will be held accountable for our troubles, and curses the loudest at the coming darkness.
JOHN BROWN is the nom de guerre of a professional political analyst. Email John Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.