Is Sarah Palin the New Face of Activism?

Advice for the for the momentarily out­maneuvered opposition

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The following is part of  a series of articles on activism in the United States . For more, read Tea Party Crashers , The New Face of Activism , and Lessons from the Godfather .

Is Sarah Palin the new face of activism?

It’s a question that just a little over a year ago would have been inconceivable. And for some, it’s still difficult not to dismiss the likes of Palin, Fox News’ Glenn Beck, and their caffeinated constituency as comically ignorant, dangerously deluded, and on a fast track to a lunatic fringe formerly reserved for John Birchers and aging skinheads.

Yet even a cautious reading of the political landscape reveals that the virulent opposition to President Obama, both on the ground and in the right-wing media, has altered the public’s perception of his administration and limited the scope and strength of its policy initiatives. Worse, when liberal pundits and politicians do deign to take the Tea Party phenomenon seriously, they tend to panic and mindlessly lash out, stereotyping and simplifying the opposition in a way that further weakens the left’s ability to woo fickle independents or appear sympathetic to working-class concerns.

According to The American Conservative’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, the Tea Party is unlikely to be a factor beyond the November elections, if only because it’s already being usurped by Republican strategists. And yet, as The American Prospect’s Deepak Bhargava observes, since Obama’s landslide victory, the tactics progressives traditionally have used to pressure the system have been usurped and, in some cases, improved upon by these self-proclaimed patriots, who have learned how to hijack the news cycle by staging old-school rallies and protests during town hall meetings, in front of polling places, and on capitol steps from coast to coast.

That’s not necessarily bad news for the momentarily out­maneuvered opposition. A somber analysis of the Tea Party’s successes and failures, coupled with a thorough examination of effective activist campaigns both historical and present-day (the fight for civil rights, for example, or the burgeoning immigrant rights movement), could go a long way toward reshaping strategic thinking among all grassroots organizers, whether they be environmentalists or civil libertarians.

Although health care reform is in the current administration’s rearview mirror, there are a number of equally momentous policy debates on the horizon, from regulating the financial system to patrolling the borders. Our hope is that the sort of creative thinking that’s being employed in the following pages will inform citizens across the political spectrum. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a good fight—just as long as everyone understands the rules.