Is Palin the next George Wallace?
Jeff Sharlet is a writer, journalist, and contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone magazines. His 2008 book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," a New York Times bestseller, dissects the phenomenon known as "elite fundamentalism" and its gospel of "Biblical capitalism." In 2000 he founded a religion-themed online literary magazine, Killing the Buddha, which has spawned a book of the same title (Free Press, 2004, co-author Peter Manseau) and an anthology called "Believer, Beware" (Beacon Press, 2009).
Sharlet's work has appeared in publications as various as The Washington Post, The Nation, Salon, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His next book, an essay collection called "What They Wanted," is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.
Question: Does Sarah Palin represent a new kind of force in the GOP?
Jeff Sharlet: She's a different story, but an old story. It's the George Wallace story, or maybe she's not as grand as George Wallace; maybe it's the less dramatic story as the lesser George Wallace of Georgia. But it's also part of the whole history of the United States and conservatism with the United States of revival. Now, religious historians look at the United States and say, one of the things that make it sort of unusual is this cyclical religious revival. There's the first great awakening before the United States was formed, there's the second great awakening. There's arguments, are we now in the midst of a third or a fourth great awakening? If it's the fourth, when did the third end? But no one disputes that periodically, throughout American history there's been these great big revivals. These are obviously populace religious movements. And out of them you see leaders like George Wallace, the famous populace sort of left-right Governor of Alabama. Or before him, Huey Long. Again, is he left? Is he right? It's hard to say. He's populace, but certainly both of these guys, in some ways, tended to consolidate power in a way that is very comfortable for elites and elites encouraged this.
Sarah Palin is the latest incarnation of this. I think the question with Sarah Palin is not whether or not we're in this revival moment, I think you look at the tea parties and you look at the schisms within the establishment Republican Party and the broader conservatism movement, there's no doubt we're in a revival moment, the question is, is Sarah Palin going to be the one that's going to be that standard bearer. Does she have the juice to become a George Wallace, or to become a Barry Goldwater, or to become something that, as you said, hasn't existed before? And there is the potential for that too, I think. Because the issues over which the populace movement gets excited are different then they were for Wallace or Long or going back further, Billie Sunday, not in the political sphere, but as a political religious revivalist.
There are different issues at different times. It's possible that these fringe characters who we traditionally understood as "Big Fringe," but they end up pushing the establishment one way or the other. I don't see any third parties coming, but there could be a real massive shift in what establishment means. Sarah Palin may not lead that, but she may just ride the crest of that wave, or maybe she's opened the door for someone who is a little bit of a smoother operator.
Question: Do the current “tea parties” inspire or alarm you?
Jeff Sharlet: I remember a friend of mine, it was in France or Italy, I don't remember, he was sitting in a cafe and someone come running down the streets yelling, "The professors are coming! The professors are coming!" A rampaging mob of professors, which I think liberalism wants to dismiss as extremism. But I prefer—My favorite forgotten President in American history is James Buchanan, who in defending really robust and sharp-elbowed debates said, "I like the noise of democracy. I like the sound of people in the streets making noise." Which is what’s made it actually ironic that so many liberals have rushed to denounce these tea parties, these folks on the street as somehow anti-democratic and mob violence and so on.
Now, I don't agree with these demonstrations at all. But they're doing the work of democracy. They feel that the government's not responding to them. They're correct, and I hope it doesn't, but they're saying, "Look, we're going to make a lot of noise." And there's going to be sharp elbows. We're not going to go out and do this civilly and say, "Well, I disagree with you." That kind of keeping the conversation quiet always favors whoever is holding the power. Whoever is holding the power says, "Yeah, let's keep things civil and quiet." Whoever's outside say's, "No, I'm not going to keep things civil and quiet, I'm going to bang on the door." And I think we may be in this moment—I know we're talking about the future of conservatism, but what's interesting to me also is I think there's a sense in which where maybe, 1964, or 1963, that we could also moving toward a period of radical revival as disillusionment with the Democratic Party sets in and as a generation of folks with just no attachments to the last great radical revival come up and just say, "Look, I'm pissed about this. I don't care if Fox News is going to say I'm a 60's retread because I was born in 1985, so clearly I'm not." I think that moment could be coming.
Question: Are the two parties sustainable as they are, or will we see shakeups?
Jeff Sharlet: I think they are sustainable and when we talk about the future of conservatism, that's it. I mean, these parties are so consolidated now that the idea of a serious third-party challenge is just kind of ridiculous and so on. That's the future of conservatism. The Democratic and Republican parties combined. The Max Baucus approach to healthcare. That's the future of conservatism, a government in the interest of big business, essentially. So, the parties are going to stay put, but that doesn't mean politics are going to be defined by the parties. There's going to be a lot of stuff happening beyond that. On the right, right now there's all this stuff happening.
What I've been interested in, in fact, is the really incredible, just sort of ****-like growth of fundamentalism in the military. That's a faction—that' something in play that hasn't been in play for a long time. It's one thing to have fundamentalist activist, it's another thing to have fundamentalist generals who are armed and to have decided that the time has come to redefine their oath to protect and defend the Constitution.
I don't think we're in danger of any coups, but I talked to enough senior officers who have lost hold of that traditionally pretty solid subordinate relationship between the military and civilian structure. There's no radical movement like that on the left, but there could be and I think a lot of the political action, the political life of America is going to start happening outside of the parties.
Will she be the standard bearer for the religious right?