Monday night, Sarah Palin watched from the audience as daughter Bristol danced on ABC. Twenty-three million other Americans joined her from their homes. Tuesday, the former vice-presidential candidate started a 13-state book tour for her new book, “America By Heart,” which has a first printing of 1 million. Her reality show on TLC, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” is in its third week. Last Sunday she was the cover story in the New York Times magazine.
It’s all part of The Palin Strategy for becoming president in 2012 — or 2016 or 2020.
Republican leaders don’t believe it. “If she wanted the Republican nomination she’d be working on the inside,” one influential Republican told me a few days ago. “She’d be building relationships with Republican Senators and representatives, governors, and state party officials. She’d be smoothing the feathers she ruffled by backing Tea Party candidates. She’d be in strategy sessions with GOP kingmakers.” When I suggested she has a different strategy, the influential Republican smiled knowingly. “That’s how it’s done – how McCain, Bush, and everyone has done it. That’s the only way to do it. But all she really wants is celebrity.”
The Republican establishment doesn’t get it. Celebrity is part of The Palin Strategy – as is avoiding the insider game. She doesn’t want to do what Huckabee, Pawlenty, Gingrich, or Romney have to do. She has an outside game.
Palin’s game plan is directly related to America’ white working class, and the economy it faces – and the economy it’s likely to continue to experience for years.
No prospective candidate so sharply embodies the anger of America’s white working class as does Palin. And none is channeling that anger nearly as effectively.
White working class anger isn’t new, of course, nor is the Republican Party’s use of it. Apart from the South, where the anger came in response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the more widespread working-class anxiety began in the late 1970s when the median male wage that had been rising for three decades began to stagnate.
As I noted in “Aftershock,” families responded by sending wives and mothers into the paid workforce, working longer hours, and then, finally, going deep into debt. These coping mechanisms allayed but did not remove the growing anxiety.
Over the years, Republicans channeled the anxiety into anger, through overt appeals to a so-called “silent majority” that were overlooked by Democrats and liberals; through “tax revolts” by working and middle-class families that couldn’t afford to pay more; and in subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to racist fears (Willie Horton).
But now that the Great Recession has eliminated the last coping mechanism – ending the easy borrowing, and ratcheting up unemployment – the working class’s economic insecurities have soared. A recent Washington Post poll showed 53 percent of homeowners worried about meeting their mortgage payments. Home foreclosures have slowed largely because of bad paperwork on the part of banks, but the threat remains. Housing prices are still dropping.
The white working class has not benefitted from the recent rise in corporate profits and stock prices. To the contrary, both have been fueled by foreign sales of goods made abroad and by labor-saving technologies that have allowed American companies to do more with fewer workers here at home.
Joblessness among the white working class is far higher than the 9.6 percent average for the nation. While the unemployment rate among college grads (most of whom are professionals or managers) is around 5 percent, the unemployment rate for people with only a high school degree or less (blue-collar, pink-collar, clerical) is almost 20 percent.
All of this is spawning a new and more virulent politics of anger in the nation’s white working class, stoked by Republicans – anger against immigrants, blacks, gays, intellectuals, and international bankers (consider the latest Fox News salvos against George Soros).
According to the right-wing narrative, the calamity that’s befallen the white working class is due to the global and intellectual elites who run the mainstream media, direct the government, dispense benefits to the undeserving, and dominate popular culture. The story and targets are not substantially different from those that have fueled right-wing and fascist movements during times of economic stress for more than a century, here and abroad.
Sarah Palin has special appeal because she offers the story in an upbeat message. She avoids bilious rants of Rush, Sean Hannity, and their ilk. But her cheerfulness isn’t sunny; she doesn’t promise Morning in America. She offers pure snark, and promises revenge. Over and over again she tells a snide, sarcastic, inside joke: “They think they can keep screwing us, but (wink, wink), we know something they don’t. We’re gonna take over and screw them.”
The Palin Strategy is to circumvent the Republican establishment, filled as it is with career Republicans, business executives, and Wall Streeters. That’s why her path to the Republican nomination isn’t the usual insider game. It’s a celebrity game – a snark-fest with the nation’s entire white working class. Vote for Bristol and we’ll show the media establishment how powerful we are! Buy my book and we’ll show the know-it-all coastal elites a real book directed at real people! Tune into my cable show and we’ll show the real America – far from the urban centers with immigrants and blacks and fancy city slickers!
As I believe will become clearer, the Palin Strategy rests on a political threat to the GOP establishment: Deny her the nomination she’ll run as independent. This will split off much of the white working class and guarantee defeat of the Republican establishment candidate. It will also result in her defeat in 2012, but that’s a small price to pay for gaining the credibility and power to demand the nomination in 2016, or threaten a third party run in 2020.
Once nominated, her campaign for the general election will be purely populist. She’ll seek to broaden her base to become the candidate of the people, taking on America’s vested Establishment.
But more than anything else, the Palin Strategy depends on the continuing fear and anger of America’s white working class. She’s betting that their economic prospects will not improve by 2012, or even by 2016 and beyond.
Sadly, this is likely to be the case. On Tuesday, the Fed issued a gloomy prognosis. Even if the U.S. economy began to grow at a rate more typical of recoveries than the current anemic 2 percent, unemployment won’t drop to its pre-recession level for 5 to 7 years. A minority of the Fed thought that was too optimistic.
The disturbing truth is the bad economy is likely to continue for most Americans because of a chronic lack of aggregate demand. Beyond inevitable inventory replacements and the necessary replacements by consumers of cars, appliances, and clothing that wear out, nothing will propel the U.S. economy forward. So much income and wealth have now concentrated at the top that the broad middle and working class no longer has the buying power to do so. The top will resume buying, but their purchases won’t be nearly enough.
Japan lost a decade of economic growth after its real estate bubble exploded. It seems entirely probable that the United States will suffer the same fate. Our economic structure – how we now allocate the gains of growth, the yawning gap between Wall Street and Main Street, the incentives operating on large corporations to pare American payrolls and expand abroad – almost dictates it.
We might change that structure, of course. But at this point that doesn’t seem in the cards. The President seems unable or unwilling to provide the clear narrative that explains what’s happened and what needs to be done, and Republicans are at this moment ascendant.
It all fits into Sarah Palin’s strategy.