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From America's heartland, Sarah Palin is here to stay

Europeans who care about health insurance for Americans more than Americans themselves do, love Barack Obama. They love Obama for the kind of America he represents: liberal, tolerant, diverse, says Volker Depkat.

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Volker Depkat is professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria.

Obama's America is also the Europeans' America. Europeans, and particularly Germans, who were taught democracy by the Americans after 1945 and have learned their lesson well, do not like Sarah Palin. They do not like Palin because she appears to betray all the promises that America holds in store for Europeans.

For them, the former beauty queen turned politician is simple and superficial, ostentatiously anti-intellectual, openly religious and dangerously parochial. In their eyes, Palin's conspicuous moralism is too much to bear, only veiling her greed, vanity and personal ambition.

As Palin is denying all their ideals of America, European commentators have been busy relegating her to America's lunatic fringe ever since she burst onto the political stage in 2008, when Republican John McCain chose her as his running-mate to mobilize the right-wing electorate for his presidential campaign. After initially seeing Palin as only a puppet in the hands of McCain's spin doctors, European observers moved to describe her as shrill, outlandish, and exotic.

Nobody expected the Sarah Palin phenomenon to last. Too strange did the former Governor of Alaska, who goes fishing, hunts for deer and takes her family to the shooting-range for weekend entertainment, appear to European eyes. Today, Europeans stand in wonder how Palin is still there, becoming one of the most important voices of conservative America. However, there is nothing to wonder about.

What most Europeans fail to understand is that Sarah Palin is just as much a part of America as Obama is. Palin holds a firm base in the midst of the affluent and mostly white middle classes of America's heartland. These circles have above-average education, profiting most from the conservative ideology that has been hegemonic in America since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Like their great idol Reagan, these middle classes from rural and small town America believe that government is not the solution to social and economic problems but that government is the problem. American conservatism is based on the contempt of government, and this contempt of government is deeply ingrained in the nation's political culture.

Compassionate Conservatism

It began with the American Revolution, which started as a conflict over taxes but did not stop there, quickly developing into a debate over what governments are there for. On July 4, 1776, the American Founding Fathers declared that all human beings were endowed with a set of inalienable rights defining their freedom, and that the sole function of government was to protect these individual rights. The revolutionary mindset held that centralized power was destructive to liberty, which is why from the late 18th century onwards, Americans were convinced that only a government that governed least, governed best. This belief prevailed until the Great Depression shook the foundations of America's order in the 1930s.

America's response to the economic disaster was not - like in Germany - the destruction of democracy, but the foundation of the welfare state under the auspices of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Under him, American democracy adapted to the realities of the industrialized world, and this went hand in hand with a deep change in the understanding of a government's relationship with society. The "New Deal consensus" favored government activity to compensate the hardships and injustices of industrial life. This take on government reigned in America well into the 1960s.

Then, however, a conservative rebellion against the welfare state consensus set in. It began with Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, picked up momentum in the 1970s and reached completion with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Reagan's election pushed the center of political gravity to the right of center, where it has been ever since. Reagan wanted to give America back to the, in his eyes, 'true' Americans. For Reagan, these were the Americans that believed in rugged individualism and the ethos of self-help, Americans that lived in intact families based on heterosexual love, being tightly integrated into functioning neighborhoods carried by a community spirit that made all government unnecessary.

Palin's politics

In this reading, the welfare state not only was foreign to America's political culture, but also it numbed all the forces that made America great and powerful. It is this conservatism that also carries Sarah Palin. Like the Great Communicator Reagan, Palin also believes that everything that happened politically in America between 1930 and 1980 was one big mistake.

There is another aspect that gives Sarah Palin a firm foundation in America's conservative heartland: the nostalgic longing for a simpler, less diverse and less-fragmented America. This nostalgia is an immediate response to the experience of rapid social and cultural changes, which, over the last 30 years, have expanded the degree of self-determination and the range of individual choices in America enormously.

These developments were accompanied by fierce debates over moral issues like premarital sex, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality, in the course of which Americans struggled to define which lifestyles were right or wrong, legitimate or illegitimate, 'American' or 'Un-American.' These "culture wars," unimaginable in Europe's consensus culture, have torn American society apart.

Sarah Palin stands as a manifestation of both the hegemony of conservative ideas and the cultural splits that currently deeply divide the nation's society. While Palin most likely will not be America's next president, as she is too radical for the moderates in the middle of America's political spectrum, she will not vanish anytime soon.

Author: Volker Depkat
Editor: Rob Mudge