The Culture of Personal Crisis
Palin's daughter's drama caught vividly a culture of personal crisis that defines so many evangelical communities across the country. That culture is described in a landmark congressionally funded study of adolescent behavior, Add Health, revealing that white evangelical women like Bristol Palin lose their virginity, on average, at age 16—earlier, that is, than any group except black Protestants.
Another recent study by sociologists Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner notes that over half of evangelical girls who have pledged to maintain their virginity until marriage wind up having sex before marriage, and with a man other than their future husband. Bearman and Bruckner also disclose that communities with the highest population of girls who attend so-called purity balls, where they vow chastity until marriage before their fathers in a prom-like religious ceremony, also have some of the country's highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In Lubbock, Texas, where abstinence education has been mandated since 1995, the rate of gonorrhea is now double the national average, while teen pregnancy has spiked to the highest levels in the state.
"So many families deal with the same issues Sarah Palin is dealing with, so we really can relate to what she is going through," Grace Van Diest, a middle-aged Alaskan delegate from Wasilla, told me on the floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention. Van Diest then described how each of her daughters went on "a date with their dad" to discuss their pledge to "keep themselves pure until marriage."
Palin consolidated her bond with the movement in another very personal way. She cradled her new son Trig, born with Downs Syndrome, before the klieg lights. Her husband Todd had chosen the name believing it was Norse for "strength." ("Trygg" actually means "safe" or "reliable" in Norwegian.) Palin's decision to carry the baby to term excited many evangelicals and anti-abortion activists, including James Dobson, who wrote a letter congratulating her for having what he called "that little Downs Syndrome baby." "What a way to emphasize your pro-life leanings there!" he exclaimed during a radio broadcast in which he endorsed the McCain-Palin ticket, even though he had denounced McCain as a "liberal" only weeks before.
After the market collapsed in the fall of 2008 and the McCain campaign ran off the rails, Palin untethered herself—as her book title has it, she went "rogue"—ignoring McCain's rules on attacking Obama. Instead, she lashed out at candidate Obama in her own distinctive way. "This is a man who launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist," she insisted. "This is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America." With these two lines, apparently uttered without the permission of McCain or his top aides, Palin opened up a deep schism within the campaign, while unleashing a flood of emotions from the depths of the Party faithful.
"Kill him!" a man shouted at a campaign rally in Clearwater, Florida, when Palin linked Obama to terrorism, according to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank.
The next time she mentioned Obama, another man cried out, "Terrorist!" "Treason!"
"Go back to Kenya!" a woman typically screamed during a Palin rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
While Obama entertained visions of a blissful post-partisan, post-racial America, Palin almost single-handedly gave birth to the birthers who would, after his inauguration, dedicate themselves to proving he was not, by birth, an American. By "going rogue," Palin instinctively and craftily propelled her ambitions beyond Election Day, and so anointed herself as the movement's magical helper in the Obama era.
Elevated by yesterday's man, Palin now represents her Party's future—and the greatest danger it faces. Her intimate bond with the Republican grassroots has made her the indispensable woman, even if she provokes a visceral sense of revulsion from many independents and moderates. Other Republican frontrunners like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty have a debilitating problem to face in any race for the presidency: they are viewed as inauthentic candidates by the movement—cardboard men in suits who are only pantomiming appeals to cultural resentment.
Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who understands the nuances of evangelical culture, nonetheless bears the burden of being a 2008 primary loser. At that time, the former governor of Arkansas had a clear field when it came to the religious right, but was unable to expand beyond his Southern bastions of support.
Palin was, after all, chosen. She never lost a primary—and it was McCain who lost the race. If Huckabee sought to run again for the nomination, he might have to compete against her for the allegiance of the evangelical constituency.
Nor can she be easily criticized. Palin is so well positioned as the darling of the movement that any criticism of her would be experienced by believers as a personal attack on them. In this way, their identification with her through the politics of personal crisis is complete. Any Republican primary challenger assailing Palin will be seen as victimizing her, as channeling the attacks of the liberal elites, and possibly as having a secret liberal agenda. On the other hand, to embrace her is to risk losing the great American center.
For the 2010 mid-term elections, Palin's endorsement is already a coveted commodity—as Mark Kirk's desperate bid to secure it demonstrates. The more she is attacked, the more the Republican base adores her. As she sets out on her book tour, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune only propel her forward. Her influence on a party largely devoid of leadership is expanding. If she doesn't prove to be the Party's future queen, she may have positioned herself to be its future king-maker—and potentially its destroyer. You betcha.