The perils of “Palin fatigue”

Even with growing anti-Palin sentiment, she is still a threat to the left.

Since resigning the governorship of Alaska, Sarah Palin has not disappeared from the public domain. Her autobiography sold more than two million copies in 2009. Her second book reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list in its second week. She provides political commentary on Fox News and has hosted her own reality show, Sarah Palin's Alaska. Palin is also seen as a darling of the Tea Party movement, several of whose members she endorsed in the recent midterm elections.

But despite her visibility, there are big questions about how much power Palin holds – and whether she has any chance of securing the Republican nomination to run against Barack Obama in 2012. So is it time for the Democrats to stop invoking her as a hate figure? Is the left giving her more coverage – and therefore credibility – than she really deserves?

Several journalists, including CNN's Gloria Berger, have spoken of "Palin fatigue". On the American news programme Morning Joe, the presenter Mika Brzezinski pointed out: "I don't want to overemphasise her news value . . . I mean, OK, you ran for vice-president, it was a huge failure. At what point do you not become news? At what point do we just ignore?"

So, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank begins a month-long Palin moratorium and urges fellow journalists to stand with him, when should the media stop trailing Palin to every book signing/town-hall meeting/Tea Party conference, or dissecting every new tweet and Facebook post?

Not yet, I think.

In November last year the former Alaskan governor announced in an interview with New York Times Magazine that she was considering running for the presidency, and to that end "was having that discussion with her family".

Following that, a poll by Ramussen detailing the views of 1,000 likely Republican primary voters in the 2012 presidential elections placed Ms Palin, with 19 per cent of the vote, second only to the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Then again, Palin trailed in fourth in a straw poll of the Republican state committee in the "kingmaker state" of New Hampshire. She was behind not only Romney, the serious contender, but also the Texas congressman Ron Paul and the former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

That straw poll listed 21 possible Republican nominees, perhaps highlighting the continuing uncertainty surrounding the GOP nomination. The Washington Post, however, sees the results as an indication that even with the rise of Tea Party, the party machine is likely to back an establishment candidate in 2012.

According to a recent Gallup poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Ms Palin has a net favourable rating of 22 per cent. Those who placed higher than her in the New Hampshire straw poll – Romney, Paul and Pawlenty – scored 23, 18 and 13 per cent respectively. Interestingly, Palin's fellow Fox News pundit Mick Huckabee, who came 12th in the New Hampshire poll, had the highest net favourability rating of 30 per cent.

Judging by these early indicators, the Republican ticket remains very much unwritten. There is a marked absence of any declared runner providing a rallying point for Republican attention, or the attention of the wider press.

The Gallup poll found that Palin was the most recognisable Republican, which if nothing else demonstrates her capacity to grab the attention of potential primary voters more successfully than her Republican competitors.

Her recognition rating of 95 per cent was 11 points ahead of Romney's. It remains important that those on the left maintain their focus, however fatiguing, on the obviously frenetic Ms Palin.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia