Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Sarah Palin. See his previous OUPblogs here.
Last Thursday, former Governor of Alaska endorsed Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, over Republican Party candidate, Dede Scozzafava, in New York’s 23rd Congressional District’s special election. This is a pre-book launching publicity stunt, leaving no doubt that Sarah Palin is Going Rogue. She has now erased all remaining speculation that she retains personal political ambitions, at least within the Republican Party. Ironically, it is not Barack Obama who has become a self-centered celebrity, but Sarah Palin, who is wowing the conservative crowd with her personal, anti-party appeal. Celebrities are most popular when they stand beyond and outside party – consider the sharp dip in Oprah Winfrey’s popularity when she campaigned for Obama – and this is exactly what Palin has done. On Facebook, she explained her endorsement of Hoffman: “Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of “blurring the lines” between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party’s ticket.” Palin must know that her support of the Conservative candidate will split the Republican vote, and could end up giving the election to Democrat Bill Owens. If she had wanted to play the endorsement game without stepping on anyone’s shoes, she could have thrown in her support for the Republican candidates in the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, but she hasn’t. Instead, she has become the Frankenstein maverick the McCain campaign created, biting the very hand that fed her. Here is how she concluded her Facebook note: “Republicans and conservatives around the country are sending an important message to the Republican establishment in their outstanding grassroots support for Doug Hoffman: no more politics as usual.” Palin doesn’t so much stand for Doug Hoffman as she stands against “the Republican establishment,” fanning the conservative sentiment that the Republican Party performed poorly in 2008 not because it had become too conservative but because it wasn’t conservative enough. Hers is the anti-median-voter theory of elections, better read as the ideological theory of losing elections. Palin is going to drive the legitimacy crisis of conservatism if she continues on this road. Harold Hotelling and Anthony Downs have showed us that in single-member districts moderate parties targeting median voters win elections. This is a mathematically provable proposition. That is why Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty are not weighing in on the New York race, because they are trying to do exactly what Sarah Palin is accusing the Republican Party of doing – blur the line between conservatism and Republicanism so that they can appeal to as many potential primary voters as possible should they choose to run in 2012. Ideologues (and celebrities) do not care about winning elections, and Huckabee and Pawlenty want to keep that option open. There was a time when liberals were proud to be liberals, and that spelt the beginning of liberalism’s end. Pride and ideological purity drove liberalism’s legitimacy crisis, as will be the case for modern conservatism’s demise. Democrats, folllowing the lead of the “third-way” Bill Clinton, learned after the excesses of the War on Poverty not to stand on ideology alone – which is always extreme and uncompromising – but also on programmatic commitments that could appeal to the median voter. Sarah Palin would not remember it, but there was a time, at the turn of the 20th century, when “conservatism” was a bad word coterminous with “stand-patting.” She is in danger of recycling history, not that she cares, because she has a personal agenda, not an institutional one. When a party allows those who do not care about winning elections to speak for its base, it courts trouble. Behind every anti-Republican establishment hurrah Palin provokes is a voter ready to Go Rogue on election day. Republicans, beware.