US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

The decline of Sarah Palin’s political fortunes was fully evident at last weekend’s Iowa Freedom Summit. As the C-SPAN camera intermittently swung around to take in the audience, it captured a crowd that seemed at first intrigued, then puzzled and, at last, exhausted. When the former vice-presidential candidate built to her finale, a few people lumbered to their feet. The rest just stared on in silence.

The speech was panned across the board. Palin called for a 2016 candidate who was “a bit avant-garde,” but critics who declared the speech “performance art” and “Jabberwocky” were clearly not in agreement. “I don’t say this lightly,” tweeted Scott Conroy, who co-wrote a book about Palin called "Sarah from Alaska." “This is the strangest speech I’ve ever seen Sarah Palin deliver.”

The freewheeling oddity of the speech has been attributed to a teleprompter failure (a problem that has plagued Palin, who ironically loves to tweak Obama about his use of the equipment). But the speech represented not a failure of technology but of ideology: the end result of a populism untethered from serious engagement with policy.

Populism often gets a bad rap from analysts. Historian Richard Hofstadter, writing about populism in the 1960s, dismissed it as paranoid and anti-intellectual, and others have since piled on charges of racism, violence and close-mindedness. But to say populism can carry those traits doesn’t mean it must. In his 1995 book "The Populist Persuasion," historian Michael Kazin insisted that it is a necessary part of democratic (and Democratic) politics. “Through populism,” he wrote, “Americans have been able to protest social and economic inequalities without calling the entire system into question.” In other words, populism has allowed Americans to challenge the country’s shortcomings while upholding its fundamental creed.

The recent financial crisis breathed new life into American populism, particularly in the conservative movement. Palin seemed to embody that revival: Marketing herself as a mama grizzly who had taken on the good ol’ boys in Juneau, she presented a say-it-like-it-is folksiness that found an enthusiastic audience among Republicans in 2008. The rise of the tea party in 2009 seemed to vindicate Palin’s emergence as a GOP leader.

Yet the cracks in Palin’s brand of populism showed early on, foreshadowing the problems tea party populism would run into in 2010 and 2012. Her disastrous interview with Katie Couric, in which she stumbled trying to name a single newspaper she regularly read, seemed to confirm Hofstadter’s anti-intellectualism charge. When tea party candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Richard Mourdock in Indiana gaffed their way out of contention in their bids for the Senate, populism seemed to spell electoral disaster as well.

Which is, of course, nonsense. Populism remains a viable electoral strategy, used effectively by presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. But it does have some problems as a political mode, ones that are particularly highlighted in Republican politics, where the line between entertainment and politics is more blurred.

When populism is reduced to rhetorical flourish, as it was in Palin’s Iowa speech, it becomes paranoid and crass. Thus Palin’s speech was peppered with references better suited to talk radio: countless anecdotes about her family’s run-ins with the press, a slew of references to the president eating dog meat in Indonesia, and a clumsily suggestive metaphor claiming “the man can only ride you when your back is bent.” At National Review, John Fund tagged her one of the losers of the event, writing, “She will always be an entertaining speaker at conservative events, but she clearly lacks the discipline for a full-fledged campaign.” The rambling Iowa speech showed she even lacks the discipline even to be an entertaining speaker.

Fortunately for Republicans, Palin represents only one course for the party’s populist impulse. When populism translates only to newness, inexperience and rhetorical flourish, then it inevitably fails. Empty-shirt populists like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump fail to launch. (Running a presidential campaign requires too much work, which is why Palin might be “seriously interested” in the 2016 race but won’t be part of it.) Those who manage to run wither in the heat of the campaign, as several tea party candidates in 2010 and 2012 did.

The conservative politicians who succeed are those who marry their populism to policy debates — the Ted Cruzes, the Mike Lees, the Rand Pauls. They criticize the direction of America but also offer solutions that, while deeply inflected with ideology, are serious enough to shape their party’s platform. It is yet another reminder to Republicans to draw a bright line between their politics and their entertainment, lest they give rise to more candidates like Sarah Palin, who inevitably fail at both.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report