Alright, we have Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement and, of course, both of them are easy targets because they both seem so vacuous or empty. This seems especially true of Palin who strikes me as someone who was, as an undergraduate, about as empty-headed as they come.
But, still, here is a question that is troubling, at least to me: What is it about our current political situation and our political order that makes these two phenomena so appealing? That is, they are appealing, even to relatively large numbers of people. Of course, it is all-too-easy to write these people off as ignoramuses or worse. But if we resist that temptation, what does the popularity of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement tell us about our political order? Most generally, the message is, of course, that our political system is dysfunctional. That is, it isn't working and so those who seem to be, according to conventional standards, less than competent or simply incompetent are appealing. Years ago, when my son was agitated about the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota, I tried to calm him by pointing out that his election was an indication of just how screwed up our political system had become, because people were willing to elect a type that according to older standards seemed irrational.
In fact, it can be argued that the dysfunctional character of our political system has been evident for some time in the results of our elections. Sure, a lot of those elected seem to fit the conventional model of a "good politician," educated, focused on issues and conversant in those issues, relatively "well-off", articulate, and even sophisticated. But we seem to have been searching over the past few decades for a new model, even while we reject some of those we have chosen, e.g., Jimmy Carter. After Watergate, it was not surprising that we would seek a new model, settling first on Carter and then on Ronald Reagan. Papa Bush was a throw back, one could argue, having made his name through government service in the national government, just as Richard Nixon had done. But we were done with him in one term and turned to an apparent "outsider," even an inexperienced outsider, Bill Clinton, who as a governor of a small state could be seen as a new model as well. After Clinton, we went with Shrub [the little Bush] who had even less governmental experience than Clinton, and none at all at the national level. And after Shrub, we went with another new model, Obama, who even looks like a new model in the most apparent way. You just can't miss his "newness." And still we are looking, apparently desperately so, for another model. Perhaps it is time to spend some time looking at our political order for its defects, rather than seeking a "savior" in the form of a new kind of president. That is to say, perhaps it is the presidency itself that is defective and not so much the people we elect to fill that office. Could our dissatisfaction be so simple to explain but so difficult to "fix?"