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What Sarah Palin’s Return to Politics Says About How Politics Changed in the Past Decade

When Sarah Palin gave up the governorship of Alaska in 2009, 18 months before the natural end of her first term, it seemed the last thing she would ever want to do again was serve in public office.

What would be the point? In the previous year, as a reporter covering the presidential race for the Boston Globe, I had watched Palin rocket from obscure small-state politician to vice-presidential nominee and polarizing national celebrity. When she resigned as governor, she told the Alaska press that she was stepping down because a string of ethics investigations against her were too costly for the state and her family. But when she launched a reality TV show a year later, it seemed clear that she was finished with oil royalties and wolf-hunting regulations and administrative home state matters. Now, it was time to be a star.

It says something, perhaps, about the success of that experiment that Palin is back in electoral politics again, entering the crowded race for Alaska’s sole congressional seat, generating a media buzz that may be out of proportion to her ability to win. Her return to politics doesn’t necessarily mean Palin has discovered a new love for the minutiae of legislating or the gruntwork of constituent services. Instead, it suggests that national political office has changed to better suit her real ambitions.

Since Palin first seized national attention in 2008, there are even more TV channels, more social media platforms, a million different ways to burnish viral stardom. And there are plenty of politicians who have used Palin’s playbook to build fame out of political office, rather than the other way around. Republican House members like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, and Lauren Boebert have learned that freshmen members of Congress can command outsized attention — and that outrageous statements are a ticket, if not to policy success, then at least to the kind of attention and fundraising prowess that keeps a career alive. Politicians on the left have used media stardom to draw attention to their causes, building their own brands, and bypassing the traditional route of rising through the ranks.

Indeed, it may be that Congress today is at least as efficient — if not better — as a platform for launching celebrity than it is for productive governing. And that’s in no small part due to the woman who branded herself a “mama grizzly,” then created a media persona to fit the name. Palin didn’t invent the interplay between politics and fame. But she helped to create an arena that rewards showboating as a means to an end — and a crop of politicians for whom attention is the end goal in itself.

Celebrity politicians are nothing new, but for the most part, the trajectory has gone in the opposite direction. Stars like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger — and, later, former President Donald Trump and Volodomyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine — have run for office as fully-formed public figures and figured out how to deploy their brands in service to an ideology. Every once in a while, though, a politician becomes a media darling in reverse, based on unusual charisma and an ability to connect to the public imagination. Before Palin was plucked from near-obscurity to join John McCain’s presidential ticket in 2008, both Republicans and Democrats from the Hillary Clinton camp had complained that the media was treating then-Senator Barack Obama like a rock star. (And, post-presidency, Obama has become a media mogul of his own, with a multi-year Netflix production deal.)

Palin was different from Obama in 2008: Less pedigreed, less polished, and perhaps less aware of her own power and potential. Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s campaign when Palin was plucked for the ticket, remembers talking to Palin before she officially joined the campaign, as she headed into a one-on-one talk with McCain. “I said to her: Your life will change forever if you say ‘yes,’ because you soon will be one of the most famous people in the world,” Schmidt told me this week. When fame struck as predicted, “she loved it,” Schmidt says. “She was intoxicated by it. She was enthralled by it.”

But fame had a different meaning, at the time, in the political arena, Schmidt says. “The highest goal in society was not being famous to be famous. Politics made you famous for sure, but fame was secondary for the pursuit of power, which is what politics until that moment was all about. She became a politician who said: I don’t want the power, I can take the fame.”

It didn’t hurt that Palin had an undeniable natural talent for the public arena, says Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University whose book, Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership explores the complexities of political celebrity. Brown recalled Palin’s introduction to the general public: an electrifying speech at the Republican National Convention. Her stinging line about Obama’s political history — “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities” — encapsulated her attacks against elites, her sense of grievance against the media, and her ability to tap into an anti-establishment mood. “It wasn’t until after that,” Brown says, “that the Democrats completely got worried, because the poll numbers started to move.”

Palin undermined that start almost immediately, after a string of disastrous press appearances, a stinging impression by Tiny Fey on “Saturday Night Live,” and a scrutiny that, some would argue, wasn’t entirely fair. As Brown points out, the point Palin was making when she told ABC’s Charles Gibson that some parts of Russia were visible from the coast of an Alaskan island — which Fey condensed into the memorable-but-fictional line “I can see Russia from my house!” — wasn’t far from what a Texas or California governor might say about having the chance to engage in international relations based on a proximity to Mexico.

On the other hand, Palin’s infamous interview with Katie Couric, in which she fumbled policy questions and couldn’t describe her media diet, revealed that she wasn’t disciplined or willing to subsume her image to the campaign’s needs.

“At that point in time, her own hubris — that she could keep mastering life on the national stage — got the better of her and she didn’t do what she needed to do,” Brown says. “She needed to get to work and study. … She needed to get serious, and she didn’t.”

Instead, Palin absorbed the media attacks, spun them into resentment, and turned that into the brand. This happened to fit into the ever-fracturing media landscape. At the time of Palin’s rise, the iPhone and Twitter were brand new, but cable news had already become a place for taking sides: Fox News was merging right-wing politics with broad entertainment, and Keith Olbermann was declaring someone the “worst person in the world” in a daily segment on his MSNBC show. Palin was good for left-wing media at the time in the same way that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is good for right-wing media today — an obsessive topic that draws eyeballs. And she embraced that role with an unprecedented shamelessness: In The Atlantic at the time, Andrew Sullivan documented her falsehoods about her own record in Alaska, when the facts didn’t serve her current right-wing image.

It worked, in all of the expected ways, and some ways that no one had anticipated. Palin parlayed her persona into a million-a-year Fox News contract. But she also cleared the path for politicians to enter an entirely new realm of entertainment.

When “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” first aired on TLC in 2010, I briefly wondered if she was actually a genius — a politician who understood the power of reality TV as well as the Kennedys had understood the power of still photography.

Produced by Mark Burnett Productions, the company that had already created “The Apprentice,” the show was a supposed inside look at the Palin family’s down-home life in Wasilla, Alaska. It was faux verité, along the lines of “The Osbournes” or “Duck Dynasty,” but calculated to serve not just a commercial brand, but a political one. Marbled into the heartwarming moments was some sneaky us-against-them propaganda, with pointed lines about “Alaska values” and the importance of “teaching kids strong worth ethic and being together and being productive.”

The show lasted only one season — maybe because it got a little dull after the initial mood was set, or maybe because there wasn’t as broad an audience as Burnett or Palin expected for a self-congratulatory Palin family postcard. (Palin and her husband Todd have since divorced.)

Meanwhile, Palin kept hinting vaguely at presidential runs, but never actually entered the arena. And I began to realize that she wasn’t interested in using reality TV as a springboard back into politics, or a kind of enhanced media training for her next gambit on the national political stage. Her TV appearances, and the B-list level fame they brought, were the point.

Over the next next decade, a string of media ventures were announced to great fanfare, but short-lived: a Lifetime docu-reality series stasrring her daughter, Bristol; a subscription internet channel called the Sarah Palin Channel, that folded in a year; a syndicated courtroom reality show that never got off the ground.

By 2020, Palin’s media successes were smaller. She sang “Baby Got Back” on “The Masked Singer,” disguised as an oversized purple bear. She spent part of the pandemic making videos for the celebrity-for-hire service Cameo; her rate for a personal video is $199, which is more than Mark McGrath from the band Sugar Ray, but less than Brian Austin Green from “Beverly Hills 90210.” This is the fate of many early reality stars, from Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag of “The Hills” to Omarosa from “The Apprentice” to various Bachelor and Bachelorette candidates who continued to draft off the franchise. Even if stardom comes in diminished form, tapering into a thin line of work, it still seems more exciting than a regular job.

Still, as political artifacts, Palin’s attempted star tur were noteworthy, because they contained the seeds of today’s communications tactics. Her reality TV confessional moments aren’t so different, at least in format, from Greene’s feverish Instagram selfies. And her efforts to create her own media empire predicted the way many conservative figures would shift from exploiting right-wing media to trying to avoid the media outright. “Are you tired of the media filters? Well, I am,” she said, in the 2014 trailer for the Sarah Palin Channel. “I want to talk directly to you on our channel on my terms and no need to please the powers that be.” It turned out, a different candidate — who knew even better how to harness the power of reality TV — would ride that idea to the presidency.

As Trump was rising, though, Palin felt less bold, and less necessary. In 2015, she lost her Fox News slot — which had already been renegotiated for a lower payout — when the network declined to renew her contract. She remained a big enough right-wing celebrity to keep getting speaking assignments at CPAC through the twenty-teens, spinning plain-spoken language into broad policy statements. (“Oh, the naive Obama State Department. They say we can’t kill our way out of war,” she said in 2015, critiquing the administration’s Middle East policy. “Really? Tell that to the Nazis. Oh wait, you can’t. They’re dead. We killed ‘em.”) Still, over time, observers reported that her speeches were increasingly light on policy, and that her schtick had largely devolved into stand-up comedy. By 2017, Howard Kurtz wrote in the Daily Beast, “the former Alaska governor needed the stage afforded by CPAC more than the conservative gathering needed her box-office appeal.”

In the meantime, a new brand of politician, emboldened by Trump’s success, was going farther than Palin ever had, in terms of both rhetoric and shameless pursuit of fame. Cawthorn announced, upon taking office, that “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”

The white-hot anger these figures have drawn from many on the left and center — and the countervailing excitement from the far right — is, in many ways, a confirmation of their strategy. When Greene spun racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, she was stripped of her committee assignments. “It’s pretty stunning to me how much the incentives have changed,” Brown says. “I mean, Marjorie Taylor Greene was taken off a committee and that has helped her raise money. That was never true before.”

It’s not a coincidence that all of this was taking place as a congressional office appeared to have less and less power to actually make things happen. As party leadership has edged out opportunities for rank-and-file members to contribute to debates and legislation, as polarization has ground debate to a halt and shutdowns over budgetary fights regularly disrupt their work, most lawmakers — particularly those without much seniority — have little power. Social media has partly filled that influence gap. In December 2020, public affairs software firm Quorum wrote about a year of exploding social engagement among lawmakers, paired with an unusually high number of stalled bills. “In 2020,” the report said, “Twitter replaced floor debates.”

There are limits, of course, to how far these trends away from governing and toward pure spotlight-seeking can go. Even Trump’s attempts to create his own social-media platforms and media brands have fizzled. Congress is still overstuffed with the kinds of politicians Brown calls “workhorses,” who toil in the trenches without becoming outsized celebrities. And it’s unclear whether figures like Greene and Cawthorn are harbingers of a trend, or mere curiosities. “There’s no evidence to suggest that anyone beyond the fringes wants more of the fringe,” Schmidt says.

But for a politician who’s aching for fame, Congress does feel like a quick way to cut through the media noise. Already, since announcing her bid, Palin has appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast and on Jesse Watters’ Fox News show, where she asked for a public face-off against AOC: “Oh gosh, I want to debate her.”

That’s unlikely to happen for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Palin isn’t the kind of right-wing figure who gets the most attention today. The surprise is gone, and so is the envelope-pushing. She’s a gentle reality TV star, a retro act on the lecture circuit, a relic of the past. “She’s not the most extreme, she’s not the most ignorant, she’s not the most venal, she’s not the most malice,” Schmidt says. “She’s just kind of the oldest now.”

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