Sarah Palin, the populist wears Prada

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 17, 2010


Although she was not in any ballot, Sarah Palin was the big winner in the 2010 midterm elections. Her militant support of Tea Party candidates helped Republicans defeat Democratic incumbents. Though she is far from securing the presidential Republican nomination for 2012, everyone will either support her or campaign against her in the primaries. Her unpredictability and extreme political positions might pave President Barack Obama’s path to re-election. With all her liabilities, Palin is a much needed breath of fresh air for Republicans. Without Palin, the Republican Party would still be the party of George W. Bush. Moreover, with an electorate dissatisfied with the direction the country is going, she has a good chance to capitalize on the anti-incumbent and anti-establishment predominant mood.


When the number of women politicians increases, the notion that women have a different approach to politics can be safely discarded. When women politicians are few and rare, some might claim that they a distinct approach to politics. However, when more women participate in politics, successfully and unsuccessfully, their approach to politics becomes as diverse and varied as men’s.  Like men, women belong to the entire political spectrum.  Although they do tend to vote more for democrats in the United States, women are by no means a safe political block as African Americans. Women politicians come in all ideologies, styles and personalities. 


Those familiar with Latin American recent experiences with left-of-center women leaders might be surprised by the rise of Palin as a symbolic figure of American rightwing politics.  Yet, there is no a priori reason to expect women to be leftwing politicians. Contrary to claims made by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, women politicians are not intrinsically different than men politicians. There might be women like Bachelet with different priorities than her male predecessors, but her political views not her gender explain those priorities.


After having polemically entered the national scene as John McCain’s VP candidate, Palin has remained as a leader in the Republican Party. Although she has more detractors than other Republican presidential hopefuls, she has also a stronger following.  The reasons that may make her unelectable are the same that explain why she is such a strong contender to win the Republican nomination. Palin enlivens the rightwing base in a way no other Republican can. Be it because they are considered as part of the business establishment, contaminated with Washington politics or too moderate (RINO, Republicans in Name Only), other Republican presidential hopefuls will inevitable have to campaign on the “second best, but electable” message. The Republican base might reject those alternatives and, encouraged by the midterm election results, opt for Palin in 2012.


Those who criticize her for not being specific—or coherent—in her policy proposals and government platform ought to remember the 2008 Democratic Party primaries. Although she had a much better, coherent and specific plan, Hillary Clinton was helpless in trying to stop the message of hope and enthusiasm that propelled a young and inexperienced senator from Illinois to the Democratic nomination.  Americans voted for a man named Barack Hussein whose biracial origin and unique life experience included living in a Muslim country because Obama could capture their imagination. Her limited intellectual ability, academic skills, and admittedly thin resume might prove to be obstacles for Palin only if she fails to connect with the dreams and fears of Americans in the next election.


When choosing a President, Americans do not opt for the most qualified—as when choosing a mechanic, a physician or an accountant. Instead, they choose a leader who can communicate with them and represent their interests and needs.  Charisma weights more than a perfect resume. Though the logic might be faulty, Americans seem to value real life experience more than academic preparedness or policy expertise. Granted, elsewhere, those attributes might feed populist leaders who campaign against traditional political parties and who identify with the marginalized people and blame the establishment for the ills of the country. When the electorate is dissatisfied, populist candidates can ripe the benefits of the discontent.  Palin might very well do the same in the United States.


Those who criticize Palin for advocating policies are not conducive to her stated objectives, those who laugh at her for not knowing geography or ignoring the ongoing intellectual debates and those who point to her ideological incongruence and contradictions ought to learn a lesson from the experience with populist leaders in Latin America. Marked by inequality and high levels of marginalization, discontent and distrust, Latin American electorates have occasionally fallen victim to populist rhetoric. Voters support those who can feel people’s pain rather than those who propose reforms that might alleviate that pain in the long term. If she does the same—and if the American electorate proves as discontent with the political establishment as Latin American voters have in the past—Palin might find her way to the White House as a charismatic leader who was wrongly rendered unelectable by an elite that failed to appropriately account for the growing discontent and frustration of the electorate.