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Thursday, Jun 10, 2010, 7:51 am

Life Imitates Art: Palin, GOP Ride the Populist Tiger

By Theo Anderson
By Theo Anderson

She wasn’t on a ballot, but Sarah Palin was one of the big winners in the recent round of primary elections.

She got her name in the news regularly—endorsing candidates, posing as some kind of expert on events in the Gulf of Mexico, taking shots at President Obama—and secured her place as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

One of the more intriguing alliances she’s been cultivating is with Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard who won the GOP’s primary election in California. Fiorina will challenge Barbara Boxer in the upcoming Senate election.

Fiorina has a thin record, politically speaking. She earned an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the National Rifle Association, and she’s against abortion rights. But before she entered the Senate primary race, there was little in the public record to suggest she was anything other than a cookie-cutter, country-club Republican—favoring lower taxes and less government but basically a moderate, especially on social issues.

So it’s been interesting to watch as Fiorina dumbs herself down and tacks aggressively to the right, most notoriously with the ad “Safe,” which begins with a clip of Barbara Boxer talking about the threats posed by global warming, then cuts to Fiorina, who suggests that Boxer should perhaps spend less time worrying about “the weather” and focus on national security since, after all, “terrorism kills.”

The problems with “Safe” are well-documented, to put it gently.

Palin probably had nothing to do with the ad. But in a broad sense, her fingerprints are all over it. The emerging alliance between Palin and Fiorina brings to mind a scene from one of the masterpieces about American politics, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. It’s in the early part of the book, before the politician Willie Stark has become a shameless and unscrupulous governor. Stark has just given a sober and policy-heavy speech about taxes. He asks the man who will become his assistant, Jack Burden, how the campaign is going.

I said to him, “Fine, I reckon it’s going fine.”

"You think so, for a fact?" he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

He chewed that for about a minute and then swallowed it. Then he said, “They didn’t seem to be paying attention much tonight. Not while I was trying to explain about my tax program.”

“Maybe you try to tell ‘em too much. It breaks down their brain cells.”

“Looks like they’d want to hear about taxes, though,” he said.

“You tell ‘em too much. Just tell ‘em you’re gonna soak the fat boys, and forget the rest of the tax stuff.”

“What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that—”

“Yeah,” I said, “ I heard the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ‘em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ’em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make ’em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ’em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch ’em in the soft place. They aren’t alive, most of ’em, and haven’t been alive in twenty years. . . . So it’s up to you to give ’em something to stir ’em up and make ’em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ’em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake don’t try to improve their minds.”

As a portrait of the GOP’s cynical, terror-driven politics for the past decade, it’s difficult to improve on that. And with Palin at the helm, there’s much more to come.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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