Earlier this year, I ran the numbers on Sarah Palin’s entertainment career, which includes pretty strong book sales, and fairly weak television ratings, both for Palin herself, and for the various reality shows her family members have tried to use as launching pads. I’ve joked in the past that Palin’s various television efforts constitute a sort of subsidy of her by the entertainment industry. It’s an expenditure that makes sense in part because Palin does have a real, built-in fanbase. But hiring her is a convenient form of political cover for an industry that gets whacked like a piñata as part of the so-called “liberal media.” But in a strange way, the news yesterday that Palin has just signed a gig to host a new show on the Sportsman Channel called Amazing America With Sarah Palin left me rooting for her to succeed.
One of the greatest things about the rise of a niche culture, in which networks and outlets like Netflix can make money by catering to small numbers of highly dedicated consumers, is that everyone can get their needs served, and–unless you are a cultural critic–you can afford to ignore the things that are happening in niches you are uninterested in. I’m actually very sympathetic to cultural conservatives who are distressed that there are very few media offerings that reflect their values and priorities, for dual reasons of self-interest. I’m always curious to see good, non-didactic, un-clumsy portrayals of worldviews that aren’t my own–it’s just another way to be transported. And if other folks’ needs are met, that also means they’re less likely to expend a lot of energy and influence trying to water down or limit access to culture that reflects values that aren’t their own. It’s a pressure valve.
This includes people who are fans of Sarah Palin’s. I may not count myself among them, but there is clearly some market for content featuring her, and I’m hardly one to suggest that we should suspend the rules of capitalism simply to make Palin go away. Palin may want to keep a foot planted in politics for the same reason that it would be good for her to withdraw from the realm–because it keeps liberals riled up about her, and thus makes her seem more threatening, which preserves her fundraising ability, and guarantees her a steady stream of speaking invitations. But Glenn Beck’s stint as a new media entrepreneur, which includes everything from a subscription-only website, to a fictional web series, and a fashion line seems instructive: withdrawing somewhat from mainstream media and serving your base’s cultural needs can be exceptionally lucrative and withdrawal from an unhealthy and unending political conflict.
And it would be a terrific thing for liberals if Sarah Palin became a niche entertainment figure, and receded from political spaces. She seems unlikely to go away entirely, particularly not with reports of good turnout on her current book tour. And so if she became primarily an entertainer, her fans would continue to get new products featuring her, but Palin would also be spending her time talking about, for example, the American outdoors, rather than public policy.
If Palin’s known primarily as an entertainer, that’s also a role that’s consummate with her actual position in American public life. I find Palin’s politics exceedingly distasteful, but the reason outbursts against her like Martin Bashir’s are so stupid is not just that they’re ugly, sexist, unforced errors, but that they’re entirely out of proportion to Palin’s real standing.
Palin says any number of things that I find unattractive and objectionable, and it’s absolutely worth marginalizing her ideas. But as a political figure, she primarily functions as part of the outrage machine. Palin is someone who other people in public life periodically can’t resist saying deeply terrible things about, after which she magnanimously accepts their apologies, gaining stature in exchange. But it’s not as if she uses that stature to any actual significant political end. Yes, Palin will turn out in support of some Tea Party candidates, and disperse some money in support of them. But I would place a fair amount of money on the bet that Palin herself will never run for office or serve in any party or government office again. Everything she’s done since resigning the Alaska governorship suggests she’s far more interested in building a media career than doing the hard work of governing.
Aligning Palin’s job titles, then, with her actual employment, would put her in the company of activist celebrities across the political spectrum. She might be an activist celebrity with unusually deep political connections or more money available for contributions than her peers. But recognizing her as such would reduce the temptation to treat Palin as a powerful political figure who needs to be torn down, with invective, as necessary. It would diminish the mandate to pay attention to her, which seems like it would be helpful for certain representatives of America’s political commentariat, and for the blood pressure of many others. One of the great gifts of niche culture is not just that it serves needs that were underserved in the era of mass audiences, but that it gives us permission to ignore things that aren’t relevant to our interests. If Sarah Palin could finally establish a real, niche television career, we could take full advantage of that license.