Blogs > HNN > Puzzled by Palin's Popularity with Millions?

Oct 11, 2008 11:11 pm

Puzzled by Palin's Popularity with Millions?

Mr. Shenkman, the author of the new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008), is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and editor of the university's History News Network.

The shock with which the media establishment greeted Sarah Palin’s selection was wholly understandable given her brief resume. But that the pundits have been shocked by her popularity is inexcusable. The last few decades have proven that the American voter often places a higher priority on a candidate’s pleasing personality and panache than his/her resume. Expertise in foreign affairs is almost never considered a prerequisite. Of the last six elected presidents only two had substantial foreign policy experience prior to their election. Few voters seemed to mind.

Many claim to be disturbed by Palin’s popularity in the face of ever-more evidence that she is out of her depth in discussing world affairs. If they truly are it means they haven’t been paying attention. Surveys over the last half century have consistently demonstrated that voters simply do not know much about politics nor care about it. A majority of Americans cannot name the three branches of the federal government. Only one in five know we have 100 United States senators. Most think a president’s veto of legislation is final and that the Congress cannot override it. A near-majority—49 percent—believe the president can legally suspend the Constitution.

As citizens of our 21st-century consumer’s republic they know the price of a gallon of gas or the cost of a fast-food pizza. And they are experts in pop culture. While only one in four can name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, a majority can name at least two members of the cartoon Simpson’s family. If I may: We need more Lisa Simpsons, the brainy one in the cartoon bunch, and fewer Homers. Alas, just as Lisa is outnumbered by the lovable dolts in her family, so are well-informed voters in the real world.

How important a factor is a candidate’s personality? For millions of voters it’s just one among many of the variables that affect voting behavior. For these voters party identification, ideology, attendance at church, and cultural resentments all affect the way they cast a ballot. But for millions of others, often the millions who are the key to victory or defeat, personality is a central concern.

What the voters who fall into this group are looking for is to have an affinity with the candidate. Elections aren’t quite like high school contests for class president where the kid with the most pleasing personality wins. Sarah Palin’s luck is that a lot of people seem to identify with her, or at least with the image she has thus far projected on television. They see in her a little bit of themselves, giving them a comfort level they lack with many other politicians whose resumes are more compelling.

What’s particularly galling is that many of the same pundits who claim to be puzzled by Palin’s popularity work in television, the very medium that has done the most to place an emphasis on personality in politics. Television has played a leading role in the decline of the party system and is responsible for the superficiality that marks so much of modern American politics. After contributing to the dumbing down of American politics the media now are in the position of expressing shock—shock!—that a person with Palin’s thin resume but enticing personality goes over well with the American public. This is the height of hypocrisy. Perhaps if they stopped focusing on the candidates’ personalities the voters would too.

Ultimately, you get the media you deserve. And the media are merely reflecting the concerns of the public. If the public wanted to discuss issues we’d be discussing issues all the time.

Many liberals have expressed shock that women who backed Hillary Clinton in the spring are now supporting Palin. They have to get over their rational approach to politics. It’s a definite liability.

Remember when Hillary shed a tear—or seemed to well up at least—back in the New Hampshire primary? That humanized her and gave many voters a reason to identify with her and vote for her, leading perhaps to her upset victory over Barack Obama. I don’t recall many of Clinton’s supporters complaining back then that voters were acting irrationally. Admittedly, Obama and Clinton shared a similar political agenda. But reason, pure reason, seemed to have little to do with her come-from-behind victory.

Why do we find it hard to confront the truth about the often-ignorant and irrational American voter? Because we all have a stake in democracy and want it to succeed we find it difficult to admit that the voters aren’t the fountain of wisdom. But maybe it’s time we admit that. The alternative, living in a fantasy world in which voters make rational choices, makes us look rather foolish. And who needs that?

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Lou McDade - 11/11/2008

Mr. Shenkman,
You state: "Elections aren’t quite like high school contests for class president where the kid with the most pleasing personality wins."

The popularity resides in two camps: Camp #1 - Overall likeability. Camp #2 - The likeability or agreement on the candidate's / voter's issue(s).

I am incredibly dumbfounded that Sarah Palin still makes the news. But some would even be dumbfounded by my dumbfoundedness. Any rational person would understand the "titillation" that Sarah Palin brings to network news. I still find the commentary engaging because I'm sincerely trying to comprehend how people with brains believe that she is a viable candidate for future office.

Just yesterday, I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C. They make it a point of displaying, inside and outside, front pages from the world's newspapers. You would be somewhat amazed at the small clusters of visitors pausing by Sarah Palin being depicted on the front page.

I digress...

The woman has the grammatical syntax of a nine year old. She has yet to master the english language and she truly has shown "NO" sincere interest of national or international affairs. The woman could not tell Katie Couric one periodical that influnces her American and/or world view? Not one?! The litmus test for gubernatorial control of the state of Alaska must be of an extremly low quality. Some might consider this comment "eliltism". For me, it's plain old common sense. "Wink."

It is quite embarrassing to have this person represent ANY particular party for the second highest position of power in our country.

Finally, I think the reason that the networks still find her newsworthy is because the pundits and policy / campaign wonks are truly entertained by all of the infighting and backbiting. Those in control of the networks and advertising are too savvy to ignore this.

Jack Fitzgerald - 11/2/2008

Yes, I'd have to agree that Rick's article is a badly garbled thesis. I just watched him with Brian Lamb on CSpan. Brian and i both were trying to make heads or tails of Rick's garbled overall message. Rick makes sense one minute and then he plays an off-note key and confuses us. All i can say is that Rick reminds me of my Aunt Elsie. Her Obama was my Uncle Martin. Everytime she complained about him and you found yourself agreeing with her, she'd shoot you down. I never knew where i stood so I just ended up dialing her and Uncle Martin out. I think Brian did that too. I have a humorous novel coming out soon about the quicksand of our national stupidity but unlike Rick you'll know exactly where i stand on any given page. Contrary to Rick, I am not an enigma who is trying to sit on two stools at the same time. At least my Aunt Elsie taught me (even if she didn't know it) that if i wanted people to understand my thesis, i couldn't talk out of both sides of my mouth at the same time. Right string, Rick, but wrong yo yo. I hope you will read my book when it comes out. As far as Palin goes, I don't think you (like your sometime venue Huffington Post) went any further than the Charlie Gibson and Caty Couric interviews in which both were guilty of playing the old TV game of "do I look better if I make you look bad?" In your article, you made it seem that the media were fawning all over her. God forbid I ever get such fawning as she has. The media have ranted and ragged on her as though she had invented the plague. With your vast writing pedigree, Rick, I would have at least expected you to attempt to set yourself apart from the TV folks who are trying to tell us what to think and how not to trust our lying eyes and ears.
Jack Fitzgerald

Randll Reese Besch - 10/18/2008

Our whole system for getting and choosing candidates makes sure we don't have a real choice in the matter. If you don't have the money you can't influence the candidate of your choice. And it had better be lots of money.

Obama is the lesser of two evils, Kucinich was the agent of change which we saw how he was dealt with. I have seen enough of Obama to know I don't really know him and can't trust just what agenda he is part of.

John R. Maass - 10/17/2008


Bill Heuisler - 10/17/2008

Mr. Shenkman,
Nice talking with you again after so long. I've missed the HNN stimulus.

Obama's been running for National office for three years - if you include his Senate race. He did not know the role of the Joint Chiefs just two months ago and wasn't sure of the size of Iran in August. He cannot grasp the logistical nightmare of prosecuting a war in Afghanistan after pulling out of Iraq; he spoke of 57 states and told a Canadian politician he would unilaterally terminate NAFTA in spite of the fact the treaty was Senate ratified. This ineptitude is not lack of experience, as you alluded, it is quite obviously a severe inability to learn geography or the role of a President.

Sarah Palin had been VP candidate for less than 5 weeks when she met the condescending Charlie. Are you saying she is too stupid to begin with, or that she doesn't have the experience and can't learn? Whatever your take, all you accomplish with such a weak premise is draw attention to yourself and the very real possibility you are underestimating Palin due to her sex.
Best, Bill

HNN - 10/16/2008

I for one repeatedly drew attention to John Edwards's lack of qualifications and his indifference to substance. I noted that the journalist Charles Peters had once asked Edwards about the Israeli leader Rabin. Edwards didn't know who he was. I found this shocking.

HNN - 10/16/2008

Let's take just one of your points.

Had Palin turned to Gibson and said that the Bush Doctrine is a malleable thing and means different thing to different people and that it had evolved, she would have deserved to be thought knowledgeable.

But she seemed not to know any of the definitions variously ascribed to the Bush Doctrine. That suggested she had given little thought to foreign policy over the years. I am sure she is intelligent enough to understand the making of foreign policy. But should we be putting into high office someone who hasn't given much thought to it?

Say what you will about Obama's lack of experience--and I have written plenty on the subject as readers of HNN know--he at least has evinced a broad and deep knowledge of public affairs, both domestic and foreign. I find that reassuring.

John R. Maass - 10/16/2008

Interesting the reaction against Palin as being out of her league, unqualified, etc. Somehow this country's leftists, as they fawned all over John Edwards, never seemed to have a problem with the fact that he was a one time elected offical with no other experience than sweet talking juries to get money from insurance companies. Did he have foreign policy experience? He couldn't even see Russia from NC!

Bill Heuisler - 10/15/2008

Thanks for your insightful remarks. I've read both of Obama's books and 2 of Ayers' (because I'm interested in the truth with a possible President). Both by Beacon Press, "Fugitive Days" in 2001 and "Kind & Just Parent" in 1997. Read the second, the first is boring for the first 200 oages.

Read "Kind and Just" and then read Obama's first. Ayers tends to lyrical description and wordy expositions of a type eerily similar to Obama. The prose is constructed, parsed and punctuated with the same very telling idiosyncracies.
You should know that for the past twenty five years a small, but lucrative, part of my business has been forensic analysis of writing and prose construction for civil and criminal trials.
The style similarities of Ayers and Obama are so striking as to prompt me to wonder why the prolific Mr. Ayers didn't produce books the two years Mr. Obama did.
Read "kind & Just Parent" about the detritus of Chicago's Juvenile Courts and then tell me about loony-land.
BTW, I don't take my talking and my thinking points from magazines. Rather than worrying about being dismissed, why not think for yourself.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/15/2008

Bill, You're even further off in looney-land than you were the last time I read your comments. The "evidence" that Ayers ghost-wrote Obama's book is so superficial that the argument for it is being dismissed as nutter-territory even at The Corner.

Raul A Garcia - 10/15/2008

With the head must go some heart. Every day there are more examples of products of higher education and wealth in this country, who engage in criminal acts and do not give much hope to just pure intelligence. I found the same provincial myopia in Europe and Africa while there- in the latter Iraq was always discussed but the Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe were ignored. The media there, as here, steered the ebb and flow of focus. I think that intelligence without morality or common sense is more dangerous than being corny.

Bill Heuisler - 10/14/2008

Mr. Shenkman,
Your comments follow the premise that Palin is popular & Palin is unworthy.
You wrote, "she is out of her depth in discussing world affairs" with no foundation except Couric and Gibson interviews. The Bush Doctrine query has been discussed here on HNN and has been found to have many answers since there were four Bush Doctrines and Gibson wasn't aware of this fact.
Who was out of depth? Gibson was.

As to Couric, her question about the Supreme Court decisions with which Palin disagrees - and Palin's seeming lack of an answer - begs the fact that Governor Palin was involved in a Supreme Court decision affecting oil companies in her own State eight months ago. Perhaps she was confused or did not wish to answer, but your thesis shouldn't rest on one minute in a severely edited 4-hour interviw.

You should recall how the Biden/Palin debate showed Palin's effectiveness and Biden's ineptitude (from his 2000% inflation of Iraq costs through his incomprehension of Lebanon's history to the inanity of citing frequent meals at a restaurant that had closed 20 years ago).

Out of depth?
Partisanship has blinded you to truth.
Obama has never accomplished anything of note except lawyering for ACORN and whose last book was ghost written by Ayers. Biden is an embarrassment and the Pelosi/Reid "Leadership" is travesty in burlesque.

Mr. Shenkman, you should choose your gnostic targets more carefully, lest you become a parody yourself.
Bill Heuisler

Lorraine Paul - 10/13/2008

Not wishing to be arrogant or rude, the rest of the world is well aware of the grounds which have led Americans to be arguably the least politicised and most ill-informed of first world countries.

They have been encouraged to look inward rather than outward to the rest of the world. It is an 'island mentality' in a country which borders others.

Clare Lois Spark - 10/13/2008

Rick, please periodize the alleged (?) deterioration of the American electorate. From Jefferson on, our most democratic and intelligent statesmen and intellectuals have called for an excellent popular science-grounded education for all. Can you suggest structural and/or political reasons why this has never come about?
I have my own suspicions based upon the failure of Reconstruction and the fall of the Radical Republicans, but this is only a working hypothesis that may not hold up.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/13/2008

Al Gore failed to recognize a bust of Benjamin Franklin. Barack Obama doesn't know how many states are in the union. Jimmy Carter was worried about "lust in his heart." Biden said Obama should have picked Hillary.
Mondale said, "I will raise your taxes." Goldwater said, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." Whoops! What's that one doing in there?

William Lever - 10/13/2008

I am staggered by how ignorant, stupid & apathetic the American voter is--it's absolutely mind-blowing.

There are no words to describe just how disgusted I am with the state of the State--I sometimes think "to Hell with it all, American's deserve every awful thing that happens to them".

Grant W Jones - 10/13/2008

"The last few decades have proven that the American voter often places a higher priority on a candidate’s pleasing personality and panache than his/her resume. Expertise in foreign affairs is almost never considered a prerequisite ... Why do we find it hard to confront the truth about the often-ignorant and irrational American voter?"

Thanks for explaining why the media, academia and you support the man with no resume: Obama.

When you call the American people stupid, don't forget to include those who are most responsible, educators. Give my regards to education professor and "reformer" William Ayers.