Sarah Palin as perpetual outsider in US politics?
Once a rogue, always a rogue, unless she adopts a positive, ideas-rich style of leadership.
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If anything, the former vice presidential candidate is now a leading political indicator of public anger at incumbents.
And in an age of high unemployment, when being in elected office can be a liability, that public anger is looking for a leader who can speak of the public's bile with a smile.
No wonder Ms. Palin suddenly left her job as Alaska's governor in July and has become the classic outsider in American politics.
Palin may be tapping into something deep. A Pew Research Center poll finds Americans of both parties are unusually negative about their own lawmakers in Congress. The numbers approach those of 1994 and 2006, when power shifted on Capitol Hill. Independent voters are even more down on their incumbents in the House and Senate.
Polls reflect a widespread sentiment that representatives are not acting on the views of those who elected them. The recent elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey were seen as rejections of ruling parties in those states.
Besides rising anger over issues such as joblessness, healthcare, Wall Street bailouts, and the federal debt, one factor pushing anti-incumbency feelings may be the rise of Internet politicking, which was perfected in the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.
The ease in channeling each citizen's views – and especially grievances – only increases in this new age of digital democracy, especially among the independent-minded. As a candidate, Barack Obama said, "we are the ones we've been waiting for," and he was able to reach millions by e-mail. (He can still tap that electronic list to push his legislative agenda against incumbents in Congress.)
The Web has become a powerful megaphone for the public voice and comes the closest in the history of American populism to Athenian-style direct democracy. And the loudest voices on the Internet tend to be those that can quickly organize angry dissent.
Palin is less of a great Internet organizer than she is a recipient of Internet politics. As a result, she is more a messenger than a leader. There's a hint of her role in a USA Today/Gallup poll looking at the possible GOP candidates for president in 2012. It found that more Americans would consider voting for Palin than say she is qualified to be president.
With no platform now to reveal her abilities at governance, will Palin be able to ride the politics of resentment for long? Or can she adopt a positive, idea-rich style – the way Ronald Reagan did during the 1970s before becoming president?
Rising up against the establishment has a well-worn history in America. That's why incumbents in legislatures have become so good at gerrymandering districts to ensure a "safe seat" around certain demographic groups. And they've also been able to finesse charges of corruption in enriching their campaign chests with money from special interests. Such defensive actions have only made elections less competitive, and thus helped feed the politics of anger.
Palin's rogue reputation was built up after she bucked her state's entrenched GOP leaders. Now she aims to do the same nationally – with both Republicans and Democrats in her sights. A book tour and more fiery speeches, however, won't be enough to propel her into national leadership. Throw-the-bums-out anger can take a politician only so far.