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Palin's siren song

In denouncing Hollywood and Washington insiders in her farewell speech, she shows that the culture wars are still alive, at least for some.

July 28, 2009

Sarah Palin's valedictory address as governor of Alaska will (we hope) be little noted nor long remembered. But its denunciation of Hollywood and Washington insiders reflects a perennial obsession by some conservatives that mainstream politicians are too eager to indulge. As Republicans regroup after the disaster of 2008, they would be wise to resist this shrill siren song.

Palin's speech Sunday was an improvement over the stream-of-consciousness performance earlier this month in which she announced that she would be stepping down. Those remarks, which sounded as if they were ghostwritten by love-struck Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, included the Zen-like assertion that she didn't want to take "a quitter's way out." Her official farewell was better focused -- and that's the problem.

Threaded through Palin's encomiums to Alaska and apologias for her self-aborted administration was a thesis familiar to students of this country's culture wars. Unlike those patriotic Alaskans, inhabitants of the Lower 48 number among them a fifth column that in Palin's words is "hell-bent maybe on tearing down our nation." These doomsayers peddle pessimism about the future of the nation and belittle "the great proud volunteers who sacrifice everything for country."

And where does one find these naysayers? In Washington, Hollywood and a clueless mainstream news media. Washington is the home of a "big central government" that plots the "enslavement" of citizens who keep alive a "pioneering spirit." Meanwhile, values cherished by inhabitants of what Palin once called the "real America" -- such as the right to bear arms -- are being undermined by liberals employing "delicate, tiny, very talented celebrity starlets." As for the media, yes, journalists are protected by the 1st Amendment, but they should stop "making things up."

None of these themes originated with Palin. President Nixon celebrated the "silent majority" that supported his conduct of the Vietnam War. Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, attacked journalists as "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "an effete corps of impudent snobs." Ronald Reagan declared that the federal government "is not the solution to our problem, the government is our problem." The architects of George W. Bush's 2004 reelection celebrated his support among so-called values voters who turned out to vote against same-sex marriage.

But Palin -- perhaps because of a paucity of policy views -- has made the opposition between liberal elites and ordinary God-fearing, gun-toting, oil-drilling Americans central to her appeal. It's tempting to say that has been her downfall as a national figure. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 53% of Americans view Palin negatively, while 40% view her positively. Yet the same survey found that 70% of Republicans view the former GOP vice presidential nominee in a positive light. Is that because of her down-home persona or because she is seen as the victim of a liberal-media conspiracy?

Perhaps both. As Rich Lowry of the National Review wrote: "It's fashionable to opine that the culture wars are over. Palin proves that they still burn hot. Her very existence is a cultural provocation. Before she had been on the national stage five minutes -- before the Katie Couric interview, before the Tina Fey parodies -- she had earned the eternal enmity of the liberal elite for the affront of who she was: a working-class, pro-life woman with decidedly red-state mores. Conservatives loved her for the same reason." No doubt some snooty liberals harbor such views, but the notion that Palin's biggest liability was her personal uprightness is loopy.

Even if Palin recedes as a national figure, other Republicans will be advised to capitalize on the politics of cultural resentment she practiced in her folksy style. That occurred in 2007 when presidential hopeful and erstwhile moderate Mitt Romney told the conservative Values Voters Summit that same-sex marriage would exacerbate teenage pregnancy, drug use and crime by undermining the traditional family. Palin's poll numbers may be dropping, but ratings are up for Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly, a self-described culture warrior who inveighs against a "secular-progressive movement that wants to change America dramatically [and] mold it in the image of Western Europe."

Palin may or may not be finished as a political force, but Palinism lives on. Will that be a problem for a Republican Party seeking to move beyond its conservative base? You betcha.

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