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Weekly Commentary — Sarah Palin and the Crazy Right

2009 November 23
by rahul

Sarah Palin’s “auto”-biography is really boring. Having a mere twenty minutes to spare, I only got a chance to read about a quarter of it, but that was enough for me.

The exigencies of expending 400 pages on the non-events of what was until mid-2008 a non-life are not pleasant to imagine; it’s quite obvious that the book was published early because, unlike most political memoirs, there was no need to sift through a mass of facts, anecdotes and musings to refine out a coherent story — all that was need was to add in lots of junior-high prose describing the Alaskan landscape and to recapitulate well-known events from the presidential campaign.

The book is full of distortions and outright lies — the AP put 11 fact-checkers on the story (as Markos Moulitsas pointed out, it might have been nice if they did this for the Iraq WMD story). There is also a lot of cheap score-settling, showcasing Palin’s by-now legendary vindictive, backbiting personality. But the dominant thread is simply the fact that she is a non-entity, with nothing discernible behind the moose-shooting leg-showing façade.

There seem to be sharp disagreements over whether she can be safely dismissed. Frank Rich says she is here to stay as a phenomenon because she taps into something deep in the American soul, a sentiment shared by Maureen Dowd. Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard, one of her greatest fans, locates her in a hallowed lineage of hard-nosed American “populism,” following in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and Ronald Reagan, ending his bizarre piece with an injunction to Palin to oppose the crucifixion of America on the “cross of Goldman Sachs.”

My sense, though, among the more explicitly partisan liberals, is that they are salivating at the thought of a Palin presidential campaign, expecting an easy win for the Democrats. It is true that key bloggers like Moulitsas and Matthew Yglesias do frequently express concern for the descent of the Republican Party into insanity and extremism. Some of that is schadenfreude expressed as concern, and some of it is based on the idea that the country needs a two-party system, that implosion of the Republicans because they have stopped representing Americans will in the long run be bad for the polity.

I come down on the side of concern myself, but not for the same reasons. I don’t think the extremization of the Republican Party has any chance of leading to its disintegration. The institutional strength of the two-party system and the emotional resonance of the liberal-conservative divide are too great. The last real challenge to the two-party system was in the late 19th century with, in fact, William Jennings Bryan. The end of the Vietnam War and the impeachment of Richard Nixon wrecked the Republican Party; in 1975 and 1976, its demise was already being celebrated in some quarters. Yet, four years later, a Republican was elected president and an era of Republican political dominance was ushered in; it still has not ended.

My guess now is that, no matter how far the Republican Party goes, they will lose very little more of their support. You can already see Obama losing popularity, even though most of what he has done is at least partly in the interest of the lower and middle classes and even though the only prescriptions Republicans have are utter nonsense (or stalking horses for insurance companies, like the call to let them sell insurance policies across state lines, thus freeing them to pick the state with the least onerous regulatory requirements).

This analysis is, I think, especially true with a foreign black Muslim Kenyan in the White House. Although Obama’s victory was indeed a victory for a certain post-racial America (which is very different from an America that has dealt with the injustice of race and racism), there is a large chunk of the country that is not ready to be dragged into the 21st century — or the 20th.

The latest trope in this unsavory group is a bumper sticker saying “Pray for Obama — Psalm 109:8.” In the King James Bible (if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me), this reads, “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” The psalm continues with imprecations against his fatherless children and his widow. The expression of these charming sentiments coincides with a huge rise in death threats against the president, which, along with an increase in related incidents, apparently threatens to overwhelm the Secret Service.

Obviously, a presidential campaign espousing this sort of hatred will get nowhere fast; just as obviously, a non-entity like Palin would be nowhere without it.

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