This finishes the very silly part of the post
With Sarah Palin’s unconventional resignation, there’s been a lot of discussion of what Sarah Palin means, and why she has such appeal for a subset of Americans. While people have described Palin as engaging in identity politics, but that sells identity politics short. Palin along with the proto-movement surrounding her–Palinism–practices what could be call ‘politics of the blood.’ It’s derived from Giovanni Gentile’s description of fascism: “We think with our blood.”*See Godwin disclaimer below In Palin’s case, it’s an emotional appeal to a romanticized, mythical past of “real America.” And that’s why I think the fixation people have on Palin’s complete policy incoherence and ignorance is missing the point.
Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way. Why risk having your fantasy muddied by reality?
In this way, symbols and short phrases are the goal, not a means (although others, such as corporations and lobbyists, are willing to co-opt the emotions these symbols generate to further their own agendas). A good, and possibly familiar example to ScienceBlogs readers, is when, during the Dover creationism trial, one defender of creationism declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” One could argue that every Sunday, millions of Americans do take a stand for Jesus. Oh, and what the hell does this have to do with biology? Certainly, on the merits, this is a weak argument. But it’s a very good emotional and symbolic appeal. It’s also romantic: it invokes a noble stand on behalf of the oppressed (as ridiculous as that is in an overwhelmingly Christian country).
But that romanticism is at the heart of Palinism. It’s not a forward-looking utopianism, but a desire to return to a mythical, halcyon America that was Christian, low-tax, small government, and had less racial and ethnic discord (the latter is the most absurd, but, if you were white, there weren’t racial problems: you were white–no problems!). This vision has not existed for decades, if at all, but it is a predictable reaction to the loss of primus inter pares status of Christian whites; they are no longer the default setting.
What’s potentially dangerous about Palinism is that it is not the usual form of ‘identity politics.’ Even in its crudest, bluntest form–or when policies influenced by identity politics are implemented poorly–identity politics are ultimately about inclusion: a group believes it has been excluded or marginalized and wants to be included into the mainstream. What makes Palinism worrisome, and why I think it can be labelled ‘para [or proto]-fascist’ is that it is marginalist. For ‘real Americans’ to take back ‘their’ country–and note the phrase take back–they, by definition, are taking it back from an Other, whether that Other be a religious minority, racial minority, or some other group. This isn’t ‘old-school’ identity politics–getting a fair share; even if we disagree about amount of shares and methods,
it’s traditional identity politics are not marginalist. There is a disconcerting streak of marginalization of the Other (e.g., gays, religious minorities, racial minorities) that could easily veer into eliminationist rhetoric and violence; arguably, Palin came very close in the 2008 campaign. Had Palin or McCain wanted to, they could have incited their political rallies to violence; they were that angry.
This is not to say that all forms of conservative thought are marginalist, at least in terms of identity (although political and economic power perhaps), but it is disconcerting that the GOP is flirting with the politics of the blood. Historically, the politics of the blood hasn’t needed a majority, just a sizable minority, to be successful.
*Disclaimer: I am not claiming that Palin or her admirers are fascists. There are, however, some fascist tendencies, which could very well morph into full-blown fascism.
Note: Edited slightly for clarity.