"The term personal magnetism is frequently used, as if charismatic figures had a force that aligned followers like so many iron filings caught in their field of force. I would not want to deny that instances of charisma along those lines exist, but the complete surrender of personal will to a figure of power is, I believe, a comparatively rare and marginal phenomenon….As sociologists are fond of pointing out, the relational character of charisma means that one 'has charisma' only to the extent that others confer it upon one; it is their attribution of charisma that establishes the relationship." —James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance
The release of Going Rogue has set off another Palinpalooza in the press. Most of the coverage is frustrating, focused as it is on the woman whose name is on the book rather than the readers who are purchasing it. Sarah Palin's views and goals may be a significant story, but they're not nearly as significant as the views and goals of the people projecting their hopes onto her. When the serfs revolt in the name of the czar, the czar's platform should not be the first topic of concern.
Oh, there have been the obligatory reports from the crowds lined up to see her on her book tour. But Palin almost always dominates those stories as well. Even when reporters probe past her personal appeal and start asking questions about her audience's own opinions, the topic tends to circle back to Sarah.
Take Norah O'Donnell of MSNBC, who went searching last week for interviewees at a Palin stop in Michigan. She settled on a 17-year-old whose shirt said, "The U.S. Government handed out $700 billion towards the wall street bailout and all i got was this lousy t-shirt." Reading from notes, O'Donnell informed the young woman that Palin had actually supported the bailout.
Now: The fact that someone wore an anti-TARP message to a Palin event is interesting, isn't it? It should make you wonder how many other Palinphiles disagree with the Alaskan about the bank bailouts and other contentious issues, foreign and domestic. The teen in the T-shirt turned out to be unaware of Palin's position on the bailout, prompting O'Donnell to announce, "I think there's some confusion about Sarah Palin's policies." And I'm sure there's plenty of confusion to go around. But these people are fans, not followers. It's entirely possible that many of them have disagreements with the former governor, are entirely aware of those differences, and yet admire her anyway. They might not even plan to cast a ballot for her: They're lined up to have their books signed, not to vote. You can't write them off as confused or as dupes without first taking the time to discern what they believe.
Give credit to Kate Zernike of The New York Times, one of the few journalists covering the Palin tour who seems to have made an effort to talk policy with the people in line. (Here again you see some deviation from the standard Republican platform, when an Indiana firefighter expresses his opinion about Afghanistan: "Either man up and fight the war to win it, or get out.") Among Palin's critics, you can give some credit to Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll of New Left Media, who entered a line of Palinistas outside an Ohio Borders and let them speak for themselves. The resulting video may be edited to play up the interviewees' areas of ignorance—at any mass event like this, regardless of its political flavor, you're going to find a lot of areas of ignorance—but at least you get a sense of what hopes and fears are bubbling in that corner of the cauldron pot.
More typical was the Associated Press, which syndicated a story full of Michiganders saying why they like Palin ("She could be your next door neighbor") but only once quotes someone speaking about his own ideological outlook ("I like that she's pro-life"). Reporting from the same event, USA Today gives us no political content at all.
Why does this matter? Because the GOP isn't just undergoing a tug of war between the party leadership and the party base. There are several competing visions within that base, particularly when rank-and-file Republicans, outraged by the bailouts and uneasy about the recession, start regarding Wall Street with the same wary glare they have for Washington. There are, roughly speaking, three forms this wariness tends to take, personified by Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Lou Dobbs. Huckabee, the socially conservative progressive, thinks the state can be a counterweight to corporate power. Paul, the libertarian, sees big business and big government as mutually reinforcing allies; to reduce the power of the former he would reduce the power of the latter. And Dobbs, the nationalist, looks abroad for the sources of our troubles at home. If you listen to the people who go to tea parties, enjoy talk radio, and, yes, buy Sarah Palin books, you're apt to hear elements of all three worldviews sloshing around, sometimes inchoately and sometimes as well-defined worldviews. They're all parts of the grassroots right. (And not just the right. During the presidential primaries last year, the leftist writers Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair dismissed the Democratic frontrunners and suggested their ideal candidate would be a blend of Paul and Huckabee.)
Huckabee, Paul, and Dobbs all opposed the Wall Street bailouts. Palin, as O'Donnell will be quick to tell you, did not. Despite some early hints of heterodoxy, the politics Palin expresses now are pretty much standard-issue Red Team talking points. Her only significant break with the party establishment this year came with the congressional election in New York, when she endorsed the Conservative Party candidate over the GOP nominee; and in that case several other prominent Republicans joined her.
Yet her persona still appeals to people who hate the bailouts, distrust the Republican leadership, and are willing to use the phrase "or get out" when describing America's options in Afghanistan. We don't know how widespread such variant views are within her base of support, nor how such supporters regard the differences they have with the former governor. And until a news organization sends 11 reporters into the Palin fan culture to cover that story, all we're going to get are hints.
We do know that Palin has a gift for appealing to people's feelings of resentment—toward the government, the media, "the elites." Matt Taibbi made the point most starkly, writing in True/Slant that Palin "doesn't really have any political ideas" but "is on an endless crusade against assholes." If the assholes who bug you bear a family resemblance to the assholes who bug her, you just might find Palin appealing, even if her views and yours aren't entirely aligned.
For Taibbi that's a sign that her fans have been duped: that "she is the perfect patsy for our system, designed as it is to channel popular anger in any direction but a useful one." In 2009, though, it's far from clear where this particular wave of anger will allow itself to be channeled—particularly when it comes to Palin, a woman who has proven much better at rallying opposition to a controversial bill than at getting herself elected to national office. So yes, I'm interested in learning what Sarah Palin wants to do with her fans. But the more compelling question is what those fans intend to do with Sarah Palin.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.