The 2012 Candidates On The Arts: Sarah Palin

With arts and public broadcast issues percolating on the edge of the race for the 2012 presidential race, I thought it made sense to look at where the declared and prospective candidates for president have stood on arts issues throughout their careers. Their views on everything from arts education to support for local artistic traditions say a lot about how they value culture — but also about how they think about the role of government.

The problem with transitioning from governor to national ideological symbol is that American politics don’t line up neatly from the local to the state to the national level. A governor’s appeasement of a key constituent group with a gesture is a national ideological enforcer’s rank betrayal of principal. And so it’s interesting to watch Sarah Palin’s evolving position on the arts as her function moved from semi-pragmatic governor of a small state composed of eclectic constituencies to a symbol of small-government conservative purity. Palin may not be an official candidate for president yet—and she may not run at all in 2012. But she creates so much heat and light in the race that it’s worth looking at her positions anyway.

2007: As a Republican governor, Palin signed a highly standard proclamation designating an Arts Education Month on the grounds that “arts education contributes to increased self-esteem and the development of creative thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. Arts educators strive to improve arts education opportunities for students in the arts and to stimulate interest in the arts among students and teachers.vStudents who study the arts score higher on verbal and math SAT scores than those without arts in the classroom. The arts challenge and extend the human experience, and the cultural arts honor Alaska’s unique heritage.”

That same year, the Anchorage Daily News noted that she appointed Aryne Randall, her Wells Fargo loan officer to the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

2008: Palin signed a bill creating a special labeling program for arts and handicrafts made by Alaska Natives to help promote their sale. Her rationale for the bill? U.S. States News reported she said, “Alaska Native art is admired around the world. This bill is about fairness and respect for our Native culture. I appreciate Senator Stevens and the Native artisans who worked so hard on this bill.” Palin may never have believed that government should subsidize the production of art, but at one point, she appeared to believe that the government should promote the sale of some art if such sales coincided with other interests.

As a vice presidential candidate, Palin ran into one of the disputes between Republican candidates and musicians that happen every cycle: Heart sent a cease-and-desist letter to the campaign over Palin’s use of “Barracuda” on campaign stops. The Republican platform that McCain and Palin ran on included calls for China to obey its World Trade Organization obligations particularly as they applied to intellectual property issues.

2009: After the federal stimulus passed, Palin turned down half the money allocated for Alaska, and cited federal funding for the arts as a cause: “I don’t want to automatically increase federal funding for education program growth, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, at a time when Alaska can’t afford to sustain that increase.”

After her resignation, she took a number of speaking engagements, including one in Hong Kong where she repeated her 2008 campaign themes about China and intellectual property rights.

2010: Palin has proven not to be shy about defending her intellectual property rights. When Gawker published excerpts of her book America By Heart prior to publication, Palin successfully sued to have them removed.

2011: That decision about the stimulus was the moment when Palin found her talking points about federal arts funding. She told Sean Hannity: “NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids. Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut.”

And her concerns about her own intellectual property persisted: earlier this year, Palin and her daughter Bristol successfully trademarked their names.

These kinds of contradictions and shifts, from things particular to Alaskan politics and general to the kind of appeasements governors make to folks who get excited about things like arts education (which has next to no resonance in national politics, but plenty on the local level), to broad statements of governmental should and shouldn’t, are the reason people will always wonder if Palin could be something other than what she’s become. But even though Palin is a singular figure for reasons having to do with her use of media, her personal popularity, and her immunity to mid-level scandal, the actual substance of her shifting position feels rather typical. Unlike, say, Mitt Romney, there are fewer major commitments to limit her, or for her to disavow.