“They Are Me”: Going Rogue in the Ozarks
More than any politician in America, Sarah Palin embodies the tradition of conservative populism. Like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater before her, she speaks for a segment of middle America that defines itself over against a liberal establishment of bicoastal elites. Last night Palin took her populist roadshow to the College of the Ozarks, praising the "example it presents" to all of America. Expressing her wish that "elected leaders in D.C. would have studied here at Hard Work U," she identified herself with its core values of faith, freedom, and work. Decrying the elitism of the "lamestream media," Palin celebrated the populist convictions of Bible Belt conservatives. The college's leaders returned the compliment, welcoming her as one of their own. In the words of College of the Ozarks President Jerry Davis, "She could speak to everyday Americans like us." The crowd agreed, greeting Palin with multiple standing ovations. To understand why 5,000 Ozarkers waited in thirty-degree temperatures to hear a political speech, it is important to consider Palin's appeal in the Evangelical Epicenters. What is the basis for this appeal? More than anything, it is Palin's claim to speak for middle America. Last night she repeated the equation, Sarah Palin = Ordinary People = Evangelical Epicenters. After praising the ordinary Americans who live in places like Wasilla, Alaska and Nixa, Missouri, she said, "They are me." Demonstrating a talent for becoming her audience, Palin combined the story of America and the story of the college with her autobiography. Repeatedly referring to ordinary Americans, old-fashioned values, and "Hard Work U," she emphasized the following themes: Small Towns: Noting her "very ordinary background," Palin talked about growing up "in a valley far from Washington, D.C., far from Wall Street." In so doing, she echoed President Davis' introduction highlighting the similarities between Wasilla, Alaska and the rural Ozarks. Last fall I discussed the top 10 reasons why Nixa is like Palin’s hometown. More recently, Nixa Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Sharon Whitehill Gray told Patchwork Nation director Dante Chinni, "We all loved Sarah." The Last Frontier: Palin's previous visit to the Evangelical Epicenters took place at Springfield's Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, celebrating the culture of hunting and fishing that unites Alaskans and Ozarkers. This time Palin stressed her childhood on America's "last frontier," noting she was "blessed to be raised in Alaska." This theme of frontier individualism resonates powerfully with Ozarks conservatives. As Roy Blunt noted on OzarksWatch video magazine, the region was settled by “independent, government should leave me alone, I’ll leave them alone, self-sufficient kind of folks.” Historians have long labeled the Ozarks an "arrested frontier," an identity that is slowly fading away as the region experiences dramatic growth. By proclaiming her support for limited government and frontier values, Palin connected with Ozarks conservatives. God's Signposts: Comfortable with the language of faith and family, Palin has a natural connection to a region that is home to the headquarters of the Assemblies of God, her childhood church. Like her memoir Going Rogue, Palin's address was filled with references to God's providence, stressing the "signposts along the way." Noting that "God has opened some amazing doors," she described her political career as a result of divine guidance, including her recent decision to resign from the governor's office. Palin's mixture of political and providential language was right at home in a convocation that concluded with a prayer asking God to let the American flag wave forever. Patriotism and Citizenship: It is impossible to understand Palin's appeal without paying close attention to the patriotic ceremony that preceded last night's speech. Though Ozarks evangelicals are famously low church, the convocation's tribute to the American military was as formal and dignified as a high mass. The Presentation of Colors, the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Parade of Flags, and the Great American Awards all dramatized the college's commitment to a civil religion of God, country, and service. Honoring the military veterans (including two generals) present last night, Palin fit right in. Arguing that "the good that we have done throughout the world far outweighs our mistakes," she articulated an unapologetic patriotism. When Palin asked whether America needs to apologize to other nations, the crowd responded in unison with a resolute, "No!" What to make of Palin's message? First of all, it has little to do with the political wonkery and policy position papers of official Washington. More comfortable with the poetry of populism than the prose of governing, Palin's gift is an ability to channel the concerns of her conservative base. Second, Palin's claim to embody the values of frontier individualism is a mixture of fact and legend. The daughter of a public school teacher, she was the beneficiary of a state-funded education at the University of Idaho. Far from an impediment to her success, government helped facilitate her movement into the political establishment. Along with government schools, Palin's national ascendancy was made possible by Beltway Boy Fred Barnes and Neo-Conservative William Kristol, Washington insiders who first encountered the Governor on a Weekly Standard cruise to Alaska. The son of New York intellectuals and a graduate of Harvard University, Kristol is a product of the very East Coast elite that Palin speaks so harshly about. Likewise, not everyone at the College of the Ozarks identified with Palin's conservative message. More than one faculty member told me that some professors dreaded Palin's visit. As I have noted before on this blog, the Ozarks contains a significant minority of political progressives, including several C of O faculty. At least one assigns Rob Bell's Jesus Wants to Save Christians, a text that explicitly questions America's military might. Finally, Palin's wealth and fame distance her from the ordinary Ozarkers who came to hear her last night. According to the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, Palin and her husband Todd have over $1 million in assets, including a lake home and a float plane. Though Palin comes from a middle class background, her income is more than four times the American average. In the final analysis, all of this matters little to the middle class conservatives who flocked to Palin's speech at College of the Ozarks. All that mattered last night was Palin's ability to fuse her story with the story of her audience. As the great American filmmaker John Ford told us in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."