In a headline story, Vanity Fair reported today that Roger Ailes of Fox News stated that Sarah Palin could remain employed at the network as long as she remained attractive and popular. In the last four months, Palin has generated publicity for her call for President Obama’s impeachment, her criticism of the administration’s plans for battling ISIS, and even for an alleged brawl at a social event. If Ailes bases his employment of Palin on her ability to attract attention, then she will be an enduring fixture at Fox News.
Every semester, I start my classes by asking my college students about political leaders they admire. For some students, the question causes them much grief as they cannot generate any names, while others give predictable, if partisan, responses. My liberal students cite President Obama and Hillary Clinton and my conservative students typically split their responses between a number of Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016–Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush. These are predictable responses because their names are in the news and, with the exception of President Obama, they are all campaigning for president in 2016. The name that continues to surprise me is that Sarah Palin often gets mentioned more than almost everyone else with the exception of President Obama.
If I were to ask friends around my age–conservative and liberal–about political leaders they admired, I dare say Sarah Palin would not register. I suspect that most people over the age of thirty would reflect the findings of the August Public Policy Polling survey of Alaska citizens that gave Sarah Palin a 26 percent approval rating. This split between younger and older citizens, although now scientifically validated, is interesting to me and I have several observations about why this exists.
1. Younger citizens don’t distinguish between entertainers and political leaders. Palin has long since become an entertainer for most in my age group, not just because of her appearance in a reality television show in 2012. She does not need to prove herself as legitimate in the political world–this from students who know nothing or very little of her work as governor of Alaska and were 12 or 13 years old when she ran as John McCain’s running mate.
2. It is not about age or appearance to the millennials. Sarah Palin is not considered by 20-year olds to be a young politician. Although my students wouldn’t consider her to be worthy of a place in the Smithsonian, they comment about her being a grandmother. They also do not consider her physical appearance to be particularly noteworthy. As one of my conservative students said: “For an old politician, she ain’t bad.”
3. For many young people, Sarah Palin’s enduring popularity is because she represents qualities they see in themselves. They see her as a political pundit, reality show star, multi-tasking mother and grandmother, and self-promoter. Millennials view themselves as the ultimate multi-taskers who view change as expected.
In many ways Sarah Palin continues to be a political Rorschach Test for all Americans. Roger Ailes sees her as a ratings tool for Fox News, political elites see her as an object of ridicule, and the nation’s youth see her as a model for how they want to live their lives.