Palin's People Power

One of the more awkward realities of this election is Governor Sarah Palin.  Her selection as the Vice Presidential candidate for Senator John McCain's bid to the White House has electrified America.  By electrified, I mean it has torn the nation in half-- those in euphoria over her populist appeal and those apoplectic about her alleged ignorance. 

It is convenient to pretend that Palin's rhetorical effects are easily divided as a partisan difference between Democrats and Republicans.  The problem is not, however, so neat.  Republican partisans have attacked and mocked Governor Palin in terms not unlike their Democratic counterparts.  Kristol, Krauthammer, Parker, Powell and Noonan are but a few of the prominent Republican partisans taking shots at Governor Palin.  Despite the broad agreement among the pundits-- and perhaps because of it-- Palin remains an intimidating political juggernaut.

Palin's rallies continue to attract tens of thousands of people while Biden and Obama struggle to draw a thousand.  Palin's presence at the Vice Presidential debate garnered the largest viewing audience in history-- more than 80 million people.  The viewership surpassed all other audiences for the Presidential debates.  When governor Palin appeared on Saturday Night Live this weekend-- the ratings which had already been rising in response to parodies of her by Tina Fey-- skyrocketed again to reach levels not seen in over a decade by the comedy TV show-- 17 million viewers.  In her appearance, viewers literally got to see her rock the house in the SNL studio.  The audacity of her presence stood in stark contrast to Chevy Chase's command a month ago for Tina Fey to 'destroy this woman' with her power of parody.  Fey has dramatically promised to leave the planet if Palin succeeds. 

Joining this Greek chorus, the pundits have spoken with bipartisan unity that Palin is not fit for high office.  So what gives?  It seems that no matter how many Katie Couric and Gwen Ifil questions she evades, the more endeared she is to the swarming public.  Why does Palin's rhetorical power continue to grow in the face of these establishment denouements?

The cruel reality for America's epistemological establishment-- composed of journalists, political leaders, political pundits, academics, and the entertainment industry-- is that the average American is disgusted by what passes for acceptable among politicians.  The demolition of Joe the plumber reminds the public of how they are not free to ask questions of politicians -- even when directly solicited by Presidential candidates.  The absurdity of the public relationship with its epistemological counterparts is so intense that the public resorts to a fantasy theme wherein a common individual overcomes the political establishment and despite having to carry out the mundane task of buying diapers at Walmart, is able to look Tina Fey in the eye and laugh.   That heroic persona has a zeal conventional pundits are loath to consider in the character that has become Sarah Palin.

Political pundits, and certainly the Obama campaign, are beginning to awaken to the cruel misstep of belittling this woman and people like her bitterly clinging to guns, religion . . . and now plumbing.  The foundations of this phenomenon are not new, and are discernible in political movements surrounding Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, and George W. Bush.  Bush's character was impugned like many republicans as a dim bulb foisted on the establishment through his folksy appeal. 

The public rightly suspects that to be "educated" in this country is becoming less about the central tasks of critical thinking and more about fluency in the insidious lingo of political correctness.  A recent Pew research poll asking people to identify answers to three basic current event questions found that of the major news organizations that the test takers relied upon, Hannity and Colmes viewers did the best -- far surpassing their counterparts at NPR and with CNN viewers finishing last.   The results fly in the face of the avalanche of criticism falling upon supporters of Governor Palin.  Conservatives, who like her, are stereotyped as dangerous Neanderthals on the verge of vigilanteeism.  The results of the survey are roundly ignored by the pundits as 'inconvenient truths.'

Partisans continue to decry, "Should we not desire educated intelligent leaders for governance?"  There is no self reflection among these pundits as to what counts for 'smarts.'  The public is mired in an education system more interested in promoting global warming consensus than reading mastery.  And while ice packs and snowfalls increase in Alaska, the governor of the state is denounced as an idiot on climate change.  The public knows that 'smarts' on these issues is little more than a demand to stop thinking critically about the political power associated with these conclusions. 

The alleged ignorance of the American public -- continually derided by pundits in every election cycle -- has reached a fever pitch.  The cliché has now been topped with the ultimate rhetorical cherry of American political life.  Anyone who draws the wrong conclusion this fall is a racist.  I remember advocating for African American gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell in the fall of 2006 and asking my friends in academia if their reluctance to support him was due to their personal issues with racism. 

That joke did not go ever well because it touched on a nerve that the establishment well understands.  Terms such as racism and sexism are exclusively reserved to the Democratic Party in scolding its opponents when substantive debate is failing.  Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are victims of sexism and racism.  Sarah Palin is not.  Ken Blackwell, Alan Keyes, Lynn Swann, Clarence Thomas and Michael Steele cannot be victims of racism-- they are Republicans. 

The establishment may be 'misunderestimating' public frustration with this long reliable rhetorical arrangement.  It is a sad day for argumentation, debate and civic practice when such accusations substitute for good public discourse.  It can hardly be a positive indication of a potential world judged on the content of character rather than the color of someone's skin.

Pundits ought not wonder any longer why the public rallies to Palin and seems to refuse to answer the pollsters according to the socially provided script.  The eerie accumulation of undecideds in the opinion polls is making for more than a scary Halloween in the Obama campaign.  Undecideds now make up twice as large of a population as is usually expected two weeks prior to a Presidential election. 

There is growing concern among the establishment that the effort to back the public into a rhetorical corner may be backfiring, but the campaign seems to have little choice but to press forward with the case for racism.  Despite this rhetorical bullying, the public has shown for decades a persistent imagination for leadership that falls outside the beltway and closer to the experiences of the everyday American.  Governor Sarah Palin continues to embody that frustrated public sensation.  On this basis, the Pitbull in Lipstick may drag the stunned political corpus of the McCain campaign across the electoral finish line ahead of Obama and Biden.

Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication and director of speech and debate programs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
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