We Europeans might pretend that we don’t understand the Sarah Palin phenomenon, but we know full well what it is. We have met her like before, in the shape of various politicians down the years, such as Pierre Poujade. She is a populist. She is putting into words – but not necessarily cogent or fact-based ones – what many of her fellow citizens feel right now, frustrated and furious about the current state of affairs in their country.
Like certain plants that appear from time to time, but only when a certain level of heat or humidity has been reached, populists burst into the political arena. They have much to say, all of it angry. To vary the metaphor, they are like the canaries in the coalmine: they warn of any build-up of gas in the tunnels. In the hearts of those who approve of what the populist is saying, this is a precise analogy.
The gas is the disconnect between citizens and representatives who, many feel, don’t listen to them any more. Whether or not that is true, politicians get hammered if, as soon as the canaries sing, they do not hasten back to their constituents to reconnect with their concerns and fears. Even that does not always work: witness the roasting of Senator Specter, at a town meeting not long ago, by ordinary people in Pennsylvania concerned about, and clearly misunderstanding, what is going on in the US.
The video amply demonstrates what might be called two opposing weather systems: the failure of the hapless Senator to gain any traction in the situation, and the marked political ignorance of the protestors. Whose fault is this?
To this question, Sarah Palin has an answer. If certain politicians grow into their positions so well that they stop listening to those whom they purport to represent and fail to heed what they are saying, however inarticulately, then someone like her is entitled to rail against them and has the talent for it. In so doing, she promises to articulate what all the discontented disconnected cannot quite put their finger on. Put into words what they really feel. Make the demands they cannot formulate properly. Compel the establishment to listen. In this, it has to be said, she seems rather good.
But Ms Palin must know that it is not all the politicians’ fault. They know why health provision has to be overhauled. They know why there are no simple answers to the immigration problem. But they have forgotten to explain this. Crucially, they often seem as if they have not yet come to grips with the gaps in their constituents’ world view.
If this is true, and if the media does not help, citizens become baffled and confused. Witness Tea Party stalwarts’ threats over Medicare, which they think is a private corporation that the government should leave alone.
Who will tell me why?
So, will Ms Palin do the explaining? Of course not: populists are not there to explain but to inflame. Furthermore she seems to share much of their ignorance as well as their inarticulate rage. That limits her effectiveness. It makes her unattractive to moderates, unhelpful to Republican candidates, and a real problem for her admirers. She can’t do it.
If she enters the race for the White House, there will come a time and place when, Muskie style, she will inadvertently say something really, carelessly, wrong. Then she will not be able to recover, the caravan will move on without her and she will fade from view.
But her work will have been done. She will have jolted all the politicians, Republicans included, and all the media, and reminded them that democracy only works if people feel properly informed and involved. Misrepresentation won’t do it either, Mr Cameron: you who cannot seem to be able to start a sentence except by saying, “Let me be perfectly clear…”. It has to be as near to the truth as possible, and convincing.
The one who knows all this clearly and can explain things so that citizens understand and buy into change will gain the White House. Or regain it. It won’t be Ms Palin.