Answering Rush Limbaugh’s Question: The Sarah Palin Symbolism Generating Machine

Rush Limbaugh asked an intriguing question on his show yesterday, which is interesting in and of itself, since Rush is the one who usually provides the answers:

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a story at Politico today. I’m gonna have to turn to some of you for some help. I thought I had this figured out, but it’s gone beyond my ability to explain this, and that is this incessant, inexplicable, growing hatred of Sarah Palin by people on our side. The Politico story here: “‘She’s Becoming Al Sharpton, Alaska Edition.'”

…”Among those taking aim at Palin in recent interviews with Politico are George F. Will, the elder statesman of conservative columnists; Peter Wehner, a top strategist in George W. Bush’s White House, and Heather Mac Donald, a leading voice with the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. Matt Labash, a longtime writer for the Weekly Standard, said that because of Palin’s frequent appeals to victimhood and group grievance, ‘She’s becoming Al Sharpton, Alaska edition.’ Conservative intellectuals, while having scant ability to drive large blocs of votes on their own, traditionally have played an outsize role in the early stages of Republican nominating contests.

…But this rising vitriol from the “conservative intellectual” bench is mystifying to me. (sigh) I don’t get this comparison to Al Sharpton. I don’t know where that comes from. That’s Matt Labash at the Weekly Standard. I don’t know where that comes from. What does Sharpton do? Would somebody point out one similarity between Al Sharpton and Sarah Palin? Where is the Tawana Brawley in Sarah Palin’s life? Where is that incident? Where are all the megaphone-lead rallies and protests? Where are those things? Where is the complement to the National Action Network and its annual convention in whatever else?

….But these people that I know here had spent an evening with her, and couple days later I met them for dinner — and, folks, these are rock-ribbed conservatives, huge donors and fundraisers, Reaganites. Their pedigree is unquestionable, and they said to me, “You know, dear, we met Sarah Palin. I think you would agree, dear, she just doesn’t have the heft. She’s much prettier in person than even on TV — you can’t escape noticing that — but, I don’t know. I think she’s just not presidential. Do you think, dear?” And, you know, I recalled what the circumstance was here. This is not a place to start an argument. I didn’t care to, didn’t want to spend that kind of time there.

…Somebody’s gonna have to explain this to me because it makes no sense. You know, I’m totally immersed in logic and common sense, and some of this doesn’t register that way for me. I don’t get it. I can think of — I’m not going to mention any names here — the Republican field, what is it, nine or ten people that are said to be interested in it. There are four or five of them that can’t hold a candle to her, as far as I’m concerned. But these guys don’t think there’s one. So I’m thinking: What did she do to them? Does she embarrass them? (interruption) Okay. (interruption) If she does embarrass them, what? (interruption) Okay, well, of course the liberals are gonna say she’s stupid. That’s enough for us to say, “Okay, we don’t want her,” ’cause the liberals are rejecting her so we’ve gotta dump her? Okay.

First off, to get what I’m about to say, you have to understand that a lot of what goes on in politics is nothing more than stereotyping writ large. So much of what goes on is really nothing more than one side or the other trying shoehorn people into particular templates or people trying to keep from being pigeonholed.

This is a constant process that features certain archetypes that are used over and over again. For example, liberals absolutely LOVE “crazy,” “stupid,” and “racist.” Liberals label almost every GOP presidential candidate as either “crazy” or “stupid” and they pretty much treat “conservative” like a synonym for “racist.” Conservatives do the same thing. Think “unpatriotic,” “tax and spend liberal,” and “no common sense.”

It’s worth noting that sometimes these labels are baseless, but there’s often a lot of truth involved. In fact, I’d argue that the stereotypes about liberals are mostly true. But, that’s an argument for another day. The point is that politics is so centered around these labels that people often react to the label more than they do to any particular thing a politician believes, says, or supports.

This is where Sarah Palin comes in. More than any other politician in America, she’s come to be the prototype for certain important cultural ideals. In other words, she’s a human symbolism generating machine whose enemies AND even some of her supporters are reacting to the image she represents more than any particular position she holds or thing she says.

For example, here’s what I think of Palin: She is one of the single most impressive people in the entire country. She has done it all. She’s been a beauty queen, has a great marriage and family, and then pulled herself up from obscurity to governor of Alaska. From there, she became the first Republican VP candidate. After that, she moved on to writing best selling books, making millions, being a national political force, and redefining feminism. Meanwhile, she did a TV series, where she shot wild game, fished next to bears in the wilderness, and went rock climbing. As a human being, she’s been about as successful as you can possibly be. She is the total package.

Many Palin fans probably agree with that assessment, but notice something: None of that has anything to do with the policies she supports (although I see eye-to-eye with her on those) or her great charisma (She’s much more charismatic than Obama).

Palin’s strength — and weakness — is that people pay much more attention to who she is and what she represents than what she says or does. Let me give you some more examples….

People who view themselves as elitists: Palin’s the living embodiment of anti-elitism in America!
People who don’t like elitists: Palin’s the living embodiment of anti-elitism in America!

Liberal feminists: Palin is living proof people can succeed without us!
Conservative feminists: Palin is living proof we don’t need liberal feminism to succeed!

Establishment Republicans: She’s one of them!
Grassroots conservatives: She’s one of us!

People who hate social conservatives: She’s a pro-life zealot!
Social conservatives: She’s what social conservatism is supposed to be all about. She doesn’t just talk the talk; she walks the walk!

Women who admire her success: She’s everything I want to be!
Women who are jealous of her success: She’s an example I can never measure up to and I hate her for it!

People who view themselves as cultured: She represents the rabble!
People who don’t view themselves as cultured: She’s a regular American like us!

Liberals: She’s the ultimate conservative woman and I want to attack her for it!
Conservatives: Liberals are attacking her because she’s conservative and so I want to defend her!

You can go on and on with these examples, but the key point is that most of the hatred and even some of the love for Sarah Palin is more for what she represents, rather than anything she’s doing or saying. That’s why the reaction to Palin tends to be so out-of-proportion and at times, even unrelated to what she actually says or does.

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