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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

I really didn’t want to spend the Fourth of July weekend thinking about the personal-slash-political saga of Sarah Palin. But the thing about Palin, whether you adore or despise her, is that she forces you to deal with her–which, when you think about it, is a quintessentially American trait.

The reasons for her resignation, whatever they turn out to be, will matter to the present and unfolding story, but not to her larger fate. The fact that Palin resigned now–no less the elliptical and sometimes eerie way she announced her intentions–likely signals the end of her career as a national politician to be taken seriously and the start of her transformation into a political novelty. Yet Palin’s personal saga will continue to attract attention and garner headlines. Maybe she’ll become a television personality, a career she pursued at one point in her life. So, yes, we may still have to deal with Sarah and all that she represents.

Why? What is it about Palin that we find so compelling, even fascinating? Why is her every move scrutinized? Why can we not look away?

The short answer may be that she is a late-stage warrior in a culture war that, while still ongoing, has diminished into something more of a skirmish. Abortion aside, many of the polarizing issues of the past two generations–Vietnam, race, sexual mores, feminism, popular culture–have lost a lot of their capacity to galvanize and divide us. For those still fighting that war, in 2008 Palin emerged as an icon and a vessel for restoration; for those who had grown tired of that war she was like a political burr, an uncomfortable reminder of a political time thought to be happily put behind us.

The longer answer has to do with the fact that she is young and a woman, which only magnifies sentiments on both sides of the Palin divide. It was easy to dismiss with a polite smile or a roll of the eyeballs the late-stage career grumblings of Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond; you knew their days were numbered, that they were walking anachronisms slated to join other curiosities in the museum of post-war American politics.

Not so with Sarah. She is younger than Barack Obama, after all. She is attractive. (I stopped counting how many women have mentioned to me, unsolicited and unprompted, Palin’s cheekbone structure.) And so we have in her a woman cheerily and cheekily railing against the Great Society even though she was still in diapers the day Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. As colleague Phil Klinkner and I have argued, the 2008 coalition that beat her and John McCain was in many ways LBJ’s revenge for the politics that devoured his presidency by 1968 and set into motion the culture war that dominated American politics for the next 40 years. All of which makes Palin the oddest of political hybrids: the spritely scold, the young curmudgeon.

I don’t like to talk about politics at social functions with family and friends, especially during holidays. But of course Palin’s name was on many lips this weekend. Hearing people speak at length about her for the first time since last autumn, I was reminded just how strongly people feel about her. Other than perhaps Ted Kennedy, I cannot think of another living politician who generates such passionate, unambivalent opinions. (And yes, I include George W. Bush and Barack Obama in that accounting.) It’s cliche to say so, but she really is a one-woman American political Rorschach test. And just as I find it painfully difficult to converse with Palinites, I can see them looking back at me like I’m some alien as I explain why she so offends me.

Palin’s decision to resign may push her off the presidential election stage, but not out of our collective consciousness. She will soon become an asterisk in presidential politics, even as her grip on the national psyche persists.

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