With the Stars
the growing anxiety of the white working class dovetails
with Sarah Palin’s celebrity strategy for becoming president
Nov. 22, Sarah Palin watched from the audience as daughter
Bristol danced on national TV. Twenty-three million other
Americans joined her from their homes. The day after, the
former vice-presidential candidate started a 13-state book
tour for her new book, America by Heart, which has
a first printing of 1 million. Her reality show on TLC,
Sarah Palin’s Alaska, is in its fourth week. She
was recently the cover story in The New York Times Magazine.
It’s all part of the Palin strategy for becoming president
in 2012—or 2016 or 2020.
Republican leaders don’t believe it. “If she wanted the
Republican nomination, she’d be working on the inside,”
one influential Republican told me a few days ago. “She’d
be building relationships with Republican Senators and representatives,
governors, and state party officials. She’d be smoothing
the feathers she ruffled by backing Tea Party candidates.
She’d be huddled with GOP kingmakers.” When I suggested
she has a different strategy, the influential Republican
smiled knowingly. “That’s how it’s done, how McCain, Bush,
and everyone has done it. That’s the only way to do it.
But all she really wants is celebrity.”
The Republican establishment doesn’t get it. Celebrity is
part of the Palin strategy, as is avoiding the insider game.
She doesn’t want to do what Huckabee, Pawlenty, Gingrich,
or Romney have to do. She has an outside game.
Palin’s game plan is directly related to America’ white
working class, and the economy it faces and the economy
it’s likely to continue to experience for years.
No prospective candidate so sharply embodies the anger of
America’s white working class as does Palin. And none is
channeling that anger nearly as effectively.
White working-class anger isn’t new, of course, nor is the
Republican Party’s use of it. Apart from the South, where
the anger came in response to the Civil Rights movement
of the 1960s, the more widespread working-class anxiety
began in the late 1970s when the median male wage that had
been rising for three decades began to stagnate.
As I noted in my book Aftershock, families responded
by sending wives and mothers into the paid workforce, working
longer hours, and then, finally, going deep into debt. These
coping mechanisms allayed but did not remove the growing
Over the years, Republicans have channeled the anxiety into
anger, through overt appeals to a so-called “silent majority”
that were overlooked by Democrats and liberals; through
“tax revolts” by working and middle-class families that
couldn’t afford to pay more; and in subtle and not-so-subtle
appeals to racist fears (Willie Horton).
But now that the Great Recession has eliminated the last
coping mechanism by ending the easy borrowing and ratcheting
up unemployment, the working class’ economic insecurities
have soared. A recent Washington Post poll showed
53 percent of homeowners worried about meeting their mortgage
payments. Home foreclosures have slowed largely because
of bad paperwork on the part of banks, but the threat remains.
Housing prices are still dropping.
The white working class has not benefitted from the recent
rise in corporate profits and stock prices. To the contrary,
both have been fueled by foreign sales of goods made abroad
and by labor-saving technologies that have allowed American
companies to do more with fewer workers here at home.
Joblessness among the white working class is far higher
than the 9.6 percent average for the nation. While the unemployment
rate among college grads (most of whom are professionals
or managers) is around 5 percent, the average unemployment
rate for people with only a high school degree or less (blue-collar,
pink-collar, clerical) is almost 20 percent.
All of this is spawning a new and more virulent politics
of anger in the nation’s white working class, stoked by
Republicans’ anger against immigrants, blacks, gays, intellectuals,
and international bankers (consider the latest Fox News
salvos against George Soros).
According to the right-wing narrative, the calamity that’s
befallen the white working class is due to the global and
intellectual elites who run the mainstream media, direct
the government, dispense benefits to the undeserving, and
dominate popular culture. (The story and targets are not
substantially different from those that have fueled right-wing
and fascist movements during times of economic stress for
more than a century, here and abroad.)
Sarah Palin has special appeal because she wraps the story
in an upbeat message. She avoids the bilious rants of Rush,
Sean Hannity, and their ilk. But her cheerfulness isn’t
sunny; she doesn’t promise Morning in America. She offers
pure snark, and promises revenge. Over and over again she
tells the same snide, sarcastic, inside joke, but in different
words: “They think they can keep screwing us, but (wink,
wink), we know something they don’t. We’re gonna take over
and screw them.”
The Palin strategy is to circumvent the Republican establishment,
filled as it is with career Republicans, business executives,
and Wall Streeters. That’s why her path to the Republican
nomination isn’t the usual insider game. It’s a celebrity
game, a snarkfest with the nation’s entire white working
class. Vote for Bristol and we’ll show the media establishment
how powerful we are! Buy my book and we’ll show the know-it-all
coastal elites a real book directed at real people! Tune
into my cable show and we’ll show the real America far from
the urban centers with immigrants and blacks and fancy city
As I believe will become clearer, the Palin strategy will
involve a political threat to the GOP establishment: Deny
her the nomination and she’ll run as independent. This will
split off much of the white working class and guarantee
defeat of the Republican establishment candidate. It will
also result in her defeat in 2012, but that’s a small price
to pay for gaining the credibility and power to demand the
nomination in 2016, or threaten another third-party run
Once nominated, her campaign for the general election will
be purely populist. She’ll seek to broaden her base to become
the candidate of the people, taking on America’s vested
More than anything else, the Palin Strategy depends on the
continuing fear and anger of America’s white working class.
She’s betting that their economic prospects will not improve
by 2012, or even by 2016 and beyond.
Sadly, this is likely to be the case. The Fed just issued
a gloomy prognosis: Even if the U.S. economy began to grow
at a rate more typical of recoveries than the current anemic
2 percent, unemployment won’t drop to its pre-recession
level for 5 to 7 years. A minority of the Fed thought this
was too optimistic.
The disturbing truth is the bad economy is likely to continue
for most Americans beyond 7 years—maybe for 10 or more—because
of a chronic lack of aggregate demand. Apart from inevitable
inventory replacements and the necessary replacements by
consumers of cars, appliances, and clothing that wear out,
nothing will propel the U.S. economy forward. So much income
and wealth have now concentrated at the top that the broad
middle and working class no longer has the buying power
to do so. The top will resume buying, but their purchases
won’t be nearly enough.
Japan lost a decade of economic growth after its real estate
bubble exploded. It seems entirely probable that the United
States will suffer the same fate. Our economic structure—how
we now allocate the gains of growth, the yawning gap between
Wall Street and Main Street, the incentives operating on
large corporations to pare American payrolls and expand
abroad—almost dictates it.
We might change that structure, of course. But at this point
that doesn’t seem in the cards. The president seems unable
or unwilling to provide the clear narrative that explains
what’s happened and what needs to be done, and Republicans
are at this moment ascendant.
It all fits into Sarah Palin’s strategy.
Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration,
is professor of public policy at the University of California
at Berkeley, and the author of Supercapitalism. Source: