Palin's tea leaves

Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin
It is a little early in the piece to be announcing a candidacy for the United States presidential election in 2012, but several commentators have suggested this is precisely what Sarah Palin did in delivering the closing address to the Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tennessee, last Saturday night.

At the very least, it was a reminder to Americans that the Alaskan comet is firing again, having blazed brightly in the political firmament of the last presidential campaign as running mate to Republican contender John McCain, before burning out amid recriminations over Team McCain micromanagement, the cost of her clothing allowance, and a clutch of revealing and electorally damaging media interviews.

Reading the tea leaves in the convention's wake, it is evident the former governor of Alaska has not retreated to Wasilla and dug herself a snow cave in which to sulk and view Russia, and other more insidious American enemies, from afar.

She has returned to the fray with her recently published, best-selling memoirs Going Rogue: An American Life, and is building an expanding platform, particularly among the white middle-classes of middle America.

Her popularity is as baffling as it is perhaps frightening to liberal intellectuals, Democrats - and, some suggest - to old-school Republicans whose most fervent wish is to retake the White House in 2012 and who fear her potentially divisive influence on the party.

Part of the angst derives from Mrs Palin's audience at the weekend - the so-called Tea Party movement.

A loose amalgam of climate sceptics, religious fundamentalists, "birthers" (who claim Barack Obama is not an American), pro-lifers, anti-intellectuals, and tax-hating small-government activists, it takes its name from the Boston Tea Party of the 18th century in which American colonists opposed British taxation.

A self-styled "silent majority", it considers itself the true descendant and moral heir of the revolutionary spirit that sent the British packing in the War of Independence.

Only now, the enemy is within.

It proclaims itself a "bottom-up" movement and relies heavily on viral internet activism to spread its message and attract like-minded souls.

Writing in the London Observer, columnist Joe Queenan described it thus: "An 18th-century political movement is using 21st-century technology to persuade America to return to its bedrock 19th-century values.

The 20th century - income taxes, going off the gold standard, abortion, hip-hop - was a mistake."By various accounts, Mrs Palin's speech was a rousing but initially made-for-television performance.

As is almost obligatory on such occasions, she ran the old standards, "hope" and "change", up the flagpole and saluted them with references to "common sense conservative principles".

But it was during the unscripted question and answer session afterwards that she was most forthcoming.

Asked what a Republican regime's top three priorities should be, she cited reduced spending, energy policy and, in a rambling, barely sensible circumlocution - reminiscent of her most hair-raising forays during the presidential campaign - the need for politicians to "start seeking some divine intervention again in this country".

Government by divine decree? Why not? They appear to do it in Iran.

Mockery, however, is an inadequate response from those who see the expression and debate of ideas, the articulation of coherent policy platforms, of logic and rational intelligence applied to the solution of evident economic and social problems as essential to the democratic project.

Sarah Palin champions an alternative tendency, the triumph of spectacle and rhetoric over reason.

And that tendency, oxygenated in the embittered chatrooms and blog-sites of the self-proclaimed disenfranchised, is spreading faster than an Australian bushfire in a heat wave.

It is also infecting the very engine rooms - the House of Representatives and the Senate - of the American political system wherein Mr Obama's conciliatory gestures towards bipartisanship are increasingly met by either scorn or derision.

As Time magazine columnist Joe Klein recently wrote: "And therein lies the crisis of democracy that the US faces: a moderate-liberal President, willing to make judicious compromises, confronted by a Republican Party paralysed by cynicism and hypocrisy, undergirded by inchoate ideological fervour."It is not a happy recipe for progress, and in this respect the rise and rise of Mrs Palin's popularity does not augur well.

In Nashville, she had the audience eating out of her hand.

At times chants erupted, proclaiming her rightful place on the throne of American politics - "Run, Sarah, Run".

She may embody all the colourful hyperbole and grammatical integrity of a hastily penned country and western anthem, but down-home, emotive, illogical, God-fearing and at times disturbingly ignorant, she epitomises a certain cross-section of the electorate.

As such Mrs Palin is a potentially powerful influence on the future course of US politics.

Mainstream political forces will continue to dismiss her at their peril.


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