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Sarah Palin Superstar
Whether you love her or hate her, it would be hard to argue that Sarah Palin is one of the most fascinating people to arrive in the public arena in some time. When John McCain picked her as his running mate in 2008, it's fair to say that most people outside of Alaska had never heard of her. Now she is a contributor on Fox News, gets a hundred grand for speaking engagements, has a media following that puts her in the spotlight whenever she appears in public, and tops at least some people's list of candidates for the presidency in 2012.
How powerful is this woman? And could she become our next president?
Looking at her sources of power helps illuminate why Sarah Palin became a populist sensation and whether her star will shine brightly in the night sky for a long time to come or whether, like a shooting star, she will fizzle out after a spectacular display of pyrotechnics. Her personal power sources tell much of the story.
Personal Power Sources
Research shows that in America the top three sources of power are character, history, and attraction. Character power is based on people's perceptions of your honesty, integrity, courage, and so on. Here, Palin scores relatively well, despite multiple ethics investigations of her and some members of her staff while she was governor of Alaska. Allegations that she misused her office were never proven, and she emerged from the 2008 presidential campaign with the perception that she is not afraid to speak her mind, that she has the courage to stand up to special interests, and that she is an independent thinker, a maverick who will tell it like it is. Not everyone buys this image of her, but those who do admire her feistiness and pluck. She's certainly not perceived as a paragon of character, like Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama, but on the whole, character is a source of power of Sarah Palin, especially among her supporters.
People who like Palin are likely to agree with my assessment. Those who oppose her may disagree, but then some people who oppose Obama deny that he was born in the U.S., and he's been called everything from a socialist to a Nazi. When we oppose someone, we look for confirmation of our beliefs and are inclined to believe the worst about them, even if it's untrue. The fact is that in 2010, despite everything her detractors did to impugn her character, the most widely held perception today is that she is a person of character. This diagram shows my assessment of character as a source of power for Sarah Palin.
History power is based on how well we know another person. Generally, we grant more power to the people we know best-if we like and trust them. But history can also be virtual. We feel like we know movie stars and other famous people because we are so familiar with them. So they have a virtual history with us. Most people don't know Sarah Palin personally, but because of her fame and high media exposure, we feel like we know her. But do we like and trust her? Here it becomes a matter of personal taste. Clearly, millions of people (especially Republicans and religious conservatives) do like Sarah Palin and would trust her, so her history power with them is high. Millions of others in the country (Democratic and other liberals) don't like her and wouldn't trust her. On balance, I would give Palin a slightly positive edge on history power because she has become so well known.
Attraction power is our ability to cause others to be attracted to us or like us. Attraction is based partly on physical appearance and dress, but it's largely based on personality or feelings of admiration, respect, similarity, or liking other people have toward us. Someone with very high attraction power would be considered charismatic. Attraction is unquestionably Sarah Palin's strong suit, although few people would deem her charismatic. Many people would consider her physically attractive and engaging, and some think she's hot. No doubt part of her appeal to many (mostly male) voters was based on her tight skirts and feminine appeal. It would be easy for her detractors to dismiss this part of her attraction, but that would miss the point that power is not rational or judgmental. It is what it is, and a substantial amount of Sarah Palin's power as a candidate and media star derives from her attractive appearance and personality. Had she been unattractive and had a noxious personality, she would not have developed nearly the power she now has. Whether we like it or not, power plays favorites, and it favors people who are appealing and attractive to others.
Another personal source of power is expressiveness. This is the power we derive from our ability to express ourselves and communicate effectively. People like Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill had extraordinary expressiveness power. In the 2008 American presidential campaign, no one was as eloquent and expressive as Barack Obama (which is part of the reason he was elected). Although not nearly as effective a speaker as Obama, Sarah Palin did moderately well-and she's gotten better. In her speech making since the campaign, she has honed her skills and become an effective speaker, particularly with "down home" crowds who agree with her messages and enjoy her style. She will never have the expressive grace or sophistication of Barack Obama, but she has mastered the art of the sound bite and knows how to engage a crowd of people who already accept her dogma.
Now we come to Sarah Palin's Achilles Heel, and it's a big one. The last of the personal power sources is Knowledge power, which is based on what a person knows or is highly skilled at. This source of power quickly became a liability for Palin and her running mate in the 2008 campaign. Her ludicrous responses to some questions ("I can see Russia from my front porch.") caused many voters to doubt her qualifications for the nation's second-highest office and led some to question John McCain's judgment in choosing her. The now-infamous interview with Katie Couric was the clincher. In that interview, she seemed hopelessly unprepared, parochial, and ignorant of the matters she would have to deal with if she became president. The parodies of her on Saturday Night Live highlighted and reinforced the "know-nothing" image she was projecting, although they did make media stars of both Palin and Tina Fey.
One of the badges of knowledge power is a person's educational background, and Palin's did not help her. In her undistinguished college career, she attended Hawaii Pacific University, North Idaho College, and Matanuska-Susitna College before graduating with a B.S. degree from the University of Idaho in 1987. These may be good institutions of higher learning, but they don't hold a candle to the Ivy League. The overall perception of Palin is that, while she may have some "street smarts," she is not an intellectual powerhouse and may be unqualified to hold significantly higher office.
Organizational Power Sources
In additional to the personal power sources, there are five sources of organizational power, which people have by virtue of their membership in organizations. The first of these is role power, the power that comes from your position or rank in an organization. Sarah Palin had relatively high role power as governor of Alaska (without that, she would not have been chosen as McCain's running mate). She lost that role power when she resigned as governor, and she hasn't made it up by finding or assuming another powerful role. A related source of organizational power is control of resources, such as money, people, equipment, raw materials, and so on. As governor, Palin controlled state resources, but now all she really controls is her wealth, which is growing but is still not substantial.
Role power will matter if she decides to run for president in2012 and faces an incumbent with significant role and resource power. If she were to run as the Republical nominee, she would have the substantial role and resource power provided by the party, but she doesn't have that now. So for the moment, role and resource are moderate power drains for Palin.
Information is also source of power in organizations. This power comes from your access to and control of information. It is doubtful that Sarah Palin has substantially greater or lesser access to information than most people, so information is probably neither a power source or power drain for her. Another organizational power source is network, which is based on how well connected you are to people in your organization, especially other powerful people. Based on her vice presidential candidacy, as well as her other public and private roles, she is well networked, particularly within the Republican Party and among conservatives. Her network gives her access to some powerful people, which essentially magnifies her power base if, and it's a BIG if, she can gain their support.
The final source of organizational power is reputation. Reputation is based on how you are thought of in your organization or community. People with outstanding reputations gain considerable organizational power as evidenced by the number and loyalty of their followers. For Sarah Palin, this is a decidedly mixed picture. On the one hand, among her followers and fellow conservatives, she is well thought of and seen as a legitimate contender for higher office as well as a victim of the country's mood in the last election and a scapegoat for John McCain's failed presidential bid. On the other hand, she is seen as the fortunate but undeserving recipient of McCain's benevolence in selecting her as his running mate, a role for which she was unsuited. People seem to love her or hate her, admire her or turn the channel when she comes on TV.
On balance, reputation is more of a power drain for her than a power source, especially after she resigned from her governorship mid-term, which led many people to question her staying power and commitment to a public office. As evidence for my judgment, I cite public opinion polls, which show more unfavorable than favorable opinions of her. Moreover, in several recent straw polls of potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012, Palin has consistently performed poorly, finishing a distant third to front-runner Mitt Romney and others and receiving only 13 percent of the votes in one poll. However, the public's view of candidates can shift. As the next presidential election season heats up, the public's view of her will change based on her public performances (and those of her opponents) and her ability to avoid more Katie Couric interview-type gaffes.
The eleventh source of power is will power, which is your drive, determination, and sheer will to be powerful and to exercise power. People with extraordinary will power make things happen for themselves despite all obstacles. It seems clear that Sarah Palin is driven-but to what end? Since the 2008 election, she has become more of a pop celebrity than a serious candidate for public office. She has found fame in the adulation of ardent supporters and the glow of media attention, and fortune in her television contracts and $100,000 speaking engagements.
She appears to be milking her fifteen minutes of fame for all it's worth, although some fellow conservatives are now questioning her motives. Phillip Dennis, Texas state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots and advisor to the National Tea Party Coalition, recently said, "Like anything else that grows into a national phenomenon, the Tea Party has seen some enter the scene with ulterior motives. Generally, the motives center around money. Some have slapped the Tea Party name on their tired political action committees. Others are organizations with political interests and agendas, but foremost are the money-gathering operations. Others are big-name politicians or media personalities like Sarah Palin, who charge up to $100,000 a speech before packing it up and taking their show to another city. They leave little lasting substance, and their words are quickly forgotten." [CNN.com, May 6, 2010]
Does Sarah Palin Have the Power to Become President?
Her stature as a former vice presidential candidate, regard by many conservatives, and recognition by the American electorate certainly position her for a run at the Republican nomination. She has high attraction power with many people, is well networked among some powerful people who can support her if they choose to do so, and is gaining power as a speaker. But her appeal to her conservative supporters is based partly on the barbs she lobs at Obama and the Democratic administration, and although they make good sound bites, they also position her at one far end of the political spectrum, and it's impossible to win the presidency without gaining substantial support from the moderate middle, which she currently does not have.
Her greatest detriment, however, is her significant knowledge power drain. On the public speaking trail, she has masked her knowledge deficit with carefully prepared speeches (no doubt by accomplished speech writers) and sound bites that pass for wit, but if she were to run for higher office, she would be forced into more situations where she wouldn't be able to evade skilled interviewers, and her lack of knowledge and qualification for the office would become increasingly evident. More public unmaskings of her lack of knowledge would likely erode her power, even among conservative Republicans, and generate greater support for her opponents. So the short answer is, no, currently she lacks the power she would need to win the Republican nomination in 2012 or to become president if she were nominated.
Could that picture change? Yes, if she made a concerted effort to develop the knowledge she would need to build a substantive platform, articulate her ideas intelligently, and answer even the toughest questions credibly. However, at the moment that does not seem to be in her personal mission statement. She appears to be blinded by the glow of media attention, the excitement of being so well paid for speaking engagements, and the glory of being the object of so much attention from so many people. So although she's unlikely at this point to lead the nation in the near future, she is a good candidate to join daughter Bristol in appearing on Dancing with the Stars.
Copyright ©2010 by Terry R. Bacon. All rights reserved.
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