I am not exactly a grizzled veteran as a teacher, but I do have a few years under my belt at this point. While I am not yet as good at it as I need to be, I'm beyond the point of having trainwreck moments in the classroom. It's rare that I am at a loss for words or without a clear plan of what to cover that day. Today that happened, although the story isn't as entertaining as you might hope.
In my campaigns class we are talking about positioning the candidate – creating a brand and carving out a niche relative to the other candidates. We discussed this using the 2012 GOP field as examples. You know, Mitt Romney is the successful businessman with enough leadership skills to win elections in Massachusetts. Tim Pawlenty is a non-Mormon, less blow dried Romney. Huckabee is the flag-bearer for evangelical Christians. Haley Barbour is the good ol' boy party insider. Ron Paul is the libertarian. You get the idea.
Then we got to Sarah Palin.
No one was sure what to say about which issue Palin "owns" or the niche she carved out. Someone half-jokingly said "woman." When no one put forward a serious answer it fell to me to make the point. And suddenly I realized that I have absolutely no idea how to explain what Sarah Palin stands for…at least not in a classroom setting. What issue does she have any mastery over? What issue does she even talk about consistently, even if not well? Where is she located in ideological space? How can we even vaguely describe what she stands for?
This stuck with me for some time after class. Is it the social issues? Lots of Republican politicians have identical positions or stronger. She certainly has next to no grasp of foreign or economic policy. Yet we have to admit that she has a loyal following even if the mainstream GOP is waking up to the reality that she's poison. What are Palin and the Palin Crowd really about? We all intuitively understand it, but it's pretty difficult to put into words.
I came up with two answers, neither entirely satisfactory.
First, if Barack Obama says the sky is blue, she says it's green. Palin is about complete and consistent opposition to all things Obama. She loudly leads the charge against the dark-skinned secret Muslim usurper and underminer of the Constitution. She represents Real 'Mericans who know what a Real 'Merican looks like, and Barry Obama ain't it.
Second, and tied to the first point, Palin is essentially the American equivalent of European and Asian ultra-nationalist movements. Palin is about the politics of blood, of national identity. Sarah Palin isn't about a policy or an ideology; she is about American exceptionalism and restoring Real America to its rightful place in the world (and Real Americans to their rightful place in America, of course). To support Palin is to demand that the American social order of the 1950s (or earlier) be restored, that white folk with no fancy book-learnin' be placed once again on the altar and worshipped for their salt-of-the-Earthiness. A vote for Palin is a vote to return to the Disneyland, Leave It to Beaver fantasy of an idealized white Christian America of years past – mowed lawns, picket fences, two Ford freedom, and so on. This is to be Ours, as We are Americans and You are not.
Now if I can only think of a neutral classroom-appropriate way of describing Palinism as an American spin on the platform of your average Central Asian nationalist party. But honestly, what else is it but an affirmation that We are the chosen people and all would be righted if only our society was structured around that fact?