Palin is not the new Pauline
Here we go again. Sarah Palin's recent decision to resign as governor of Alaska has provided more ammunition for late-night comedians and left-wing partisans all across the world. Airhead, lightweight, ditz, simpleton - all of these barbs were levelled at last year's Republican vice-presidential candidate, and having resurfaced they are bound to proliferate in the run-up to the 2012 US presidential election.
The last time I can recall this degree of condescension among the keepers of left-liberal received wisdom was in Australia during the mid-to-late 1990s. Pauline Hanson was as much of a hate figure in the staff cafeterias at Fairfax and the ABC as Palin is in the editorial offices of the Guardian and the New York Times.
At first glance, the outgoing Alaskan governor and the former One Nation leader have a lot in common. They are the most divisive figures in recent American and Australian history; there was almost no middle ground between those who have loved them and those who believe they were the devil incarnate. Both are right-wing populists who activated hot-button issues in American and Australian politics: for Palin, it's abortion and gun rights; for Hanson, it was immigration and protectionism. Both have lacked policy detail and philosophical substance in their political outlooks. Both had their fair share of scandals, bad interviews and self-pitying monologues. Both are attractive mothers (Palin has five children while Hanson has four). Both arrived on the political scene from relative obscurity; Palin was a small-town mayor and governor of a sparsely populated and faraway state, while Hanson was a fish-and-chip shop owner and disendorsed Liberal candidate for a federal seat in Queensland.
Both have been mocked and marked as apostates by the high priests and priestesses of their nation's media establishment. Indeed, try going on the ABC's Q&A and say even nuanced things about Hanson or Palin, as I did about the latter last year. You will see the audience wailing and whining like a Greek chorus because Palin, like Hanson, is a boo-word in Western politics, shorthand for ignoramus, reactionary and xenophobe.
But that's where the similarities end. For Hanson and Palin are very different political figures. Hanson was a protectionist and agrarian socialist who opposed virtually all market-oriented economic reforms; Palin is a fiscal conservative, free trader and genuine reformer. Hanson embraced race-based policies, epitomised by her repugnant views on Asian immigration; no evidence suggests that Palin has flirted with racism. Hanson has always been a marginalised character Down Under; Palin still stands a chance of being the GOP nominee in 2012. Hanson represented the peculiar Australian historical circumstances of her time; Palin reflects the conservative political mood of a significant segment of working- and lower-middle-class folks in Middle America.
But just as Hanson did not represent the future of Australia, nor does Palin indicate a guide post for the US.
Hansonism, far from posing a threat to our democratic way of life, represented a protest vote against decades of dramatic economic and social change. And while it was as much a reaction against Paul Keating's rights-based cultural agenda as an isolationist backlash against our integration with Asia, comparable movements had developed in New Zealand, North America and Western Europe. This was hardly surprising, since every nation that undergoes a process of rapid change and modernisation has experienced a similar reaction to the dislocation and, as Joseph Schumpeter famously put it, creative destruction resulted.
And yet for all the criticism that John Howard had bowed to the Queensland populist during his almost 12 years in power, and for all the talk that Hansonism has undermined the social fabric of Australia, the political landscape does not bear One Nation's imprint. On a wide range of issues - from legal immigration to Asian engagement to economic reform - Hanson failed to change the direction of Australia. Today we maintain a large-scale, non-discriminatory immigration policy, we are very much engaged with both south and north Asia, and on economics Hanson's agenda contained a greater overlap with the protectionist and interventionist Left than the latter ever liked to admit.
In the US, Palin's appeal to certain electoral groups has little to do with the same historical factors that helped explain the rise of Hanson here. Palin, perhaps more than any other political figure since George Wallace, exposed the age-old tension between populism and elitism in American public life, and her candidacy represented red meat for cultural populists and a lightning rod for the Joe Six-Packs who detest intellectual elites. However plausible such qualities may be on the campaign stump, they are diminished by Palin's lack of policy substance, philosophical rigour and political experience. Besides, a genuine presidential campaign requires the articulation of a broader vision for American families, freedom, prosperity and American security.
In fact, Hanson's equivalent in the US was more likely Pat Buchanan. The former Nixon-Reagan adviser who ran in the Republican presidential primaries in the 1990s was admittedly a smarter, more sophisticated and better-read firebrand than Hanson. But they nonetheless represented similar moods and causes. Indeed, Hansonism was Old Australia just as Buchananism was Old America. Opposition to globalisation and economic rationalism and support for a protectionist trade policy and restricted, discriminatory immigration levels reflected the conventional wisdom in post-war Australia and America. And just as Buchanan's campaign failed to register with the feelings of the great mass of American voters, so did Hanson's agenda of racial divisiveness and economic isolationism eventually collapse.
As her latest campaign to re-enter Queensland politics earlier this year showed, Hanson is damaged goods and finished politically. But Palin is not out yet, notwithstanding the many doubts among even leading conservative columnists such as George Will, David Brooks and Peggy Noonan. The consensus among these leading lights of the US Right is that Republicans are playing with fire if they assume Palin is their warrior princess in shining armour.
So Palin is no Pauline. Still, these two firebrands do share one overriding trait: they represent the dead end of American and Australian politics.