Sarah Palin's memoir arrives in bookstores this week amid what strikes me as an atmosphere of fear barely disguised as contempt in liberal or Democratic-sympathizing circles. The news that many people ordered the book in advance seems to trouble some observers, but it is a long-established fact that reactionary readers never tire of consuming Republican propaganda. There's usually at least one reactionary screed in the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and over the past year or two you could usually find several there. That was just as true throughout this decade, and it didn't stop Democrats from winning elections. That may mean that liberals and progressives don't need the constant ideological reinforcement their antagonists crave, but I'm sure that some people on either side of the main ideological divide see book sales as some form of voting with money, just as radio ratings are taken to reflect the ideological preferences of the nation as a whole. In short, the fact that Palin's book is a best-seller before it even arrives in stores worries some people and encourages others.
Some skeptics try to dismiss the book's pre-emptive popularity by arguing that the public's interest is prurient and primarily focused on the romance of Palin's daughter. Their hope is that the former governor somehow will have to answer for the disgusting Levi Johnston for the rest of her public career, or at least that his proximity to her in the public imagination will permanently taint Palin with the stink of white trash. But this tactic strikes me as a form of nervous laughter in the face of a looming threat. Like her fellow best-sellers, Palin embodies a threat that seems to weigh more on the "un-American" liberal consciousness than it does on the minds of presumably more traditional reactionaries, yet has long been recognized in the classical political tradition that the reactionaries claim to uphold and accuse liberals of betraying. In liberal eyes, she is a demagogue, a rabble-rouser who manipulates public sentiment, presumably by appealing to base prejudices, to advance her own ambitions, which liberals take to be at odds with the masses' own objective interests. The radio talkers, of course, are also demagogues, as is anyone who affects a populist style for reactionary ends, as liberals see them.
Conservatives by their nature should also be averse to demagogues, but it really depends on which rabble is being roused. For liberals, the rabble are rednecks, "angry white males," etc., while for conservatives the rabble dwell in ghettos and certain immigrant neighborhoods. Some Republicans tried to portray Barack Obama as a demagogue, and according to an older concept of the demagogue his artful rhetoric would fill the bill. But genuine oratorical skill and writerly craftsmanship of the kind Obama best demonstrated in his "More Perfect Union" speech of last year send a mixed signal. To today's reactionary, all that marks the President as an "elitist," while the notoriously inarticulate Palin with her "you betchas" and her jumbled syntax seems the perfect demagogue to liberals because she appears to be speaking the authentic language of the reactionary rabble in a way that not even George W. Bush, who always had an air of affectation about him, can match. Worse, because she's a woman, she suggests "reaction with a human face" compared to the perceived boorishness of Rush Limbaugh and his peers that turns off people who might accept the same message in Palin's honeyed tones.
I see little cause for worry. As I wrote, Palin is just another best-selling reactionary author. As a politician, she now has a possibly unshakable reputation as a quitter. I really don't see her winning a run of primaries or sweeping a convention. I strongly suspect that she'd lose what mojo she has in debates if she's just one of several contenders who might share a stage in the fall of 2011, where she'd most likely be outclassed by more than one person who is also a conservative and can't be written off as a clever elitist. But I doubt I'll convince anyone not to be afraid of her at this time, simply because there are ratings to be earned and money to be made by making people even more scared of her and her plans than they should be.
Update: On the Winfrey show, I learn from news reports, Palin made this cryptic statement: "I'm concentrating on 2010 and making sure that we have issues to tackle." What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that if there aren't any, she'll create them? Or does it mean that she's actually going to start reading the papers to learn what the issues are? Stay tuned....