The answer, according to an intriguing new piece from Scott Horton of Harper's, lies in the racially tinged politics of Alabama. And that can only lead to two words--George Wallace.
Horton draws on the work of Jonathan Rauch, of the National Journal, who captures today's Republican Party in succinct, and brilliant, fashion:
The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.
Palin: "Voters are sending a message." Wallace: "Send them a message!"
Palin: "The soul of this movement is the people, everyday Americans, who grow our food and run our small businesses, who teach our kids and fight our wars. . . . The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don't want to hear the message." Wallace: "They've looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They've looked [down] at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker. . . . "
Palin: "We need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern." Wallace: "We have a professor--I'm not talking about all professors, but here's an issue in the campaign--we got these pseudo-theoreticians, and these pseudo-social engineers. . . . They want to tell you how to do."
Palin: "What does he [Obama] actually seek to accomplish . . . ? The answer is to make government bigger; take more of your money; give you more orders from Washington." Wallace: "They say, "We've gotta write a guideline. We've gotta tell you when to get up in the morning. We've gotta tell you when to go to bed at night.'"
Horton says Palin is not the first GOPer to summon the ghost of Alabama's late race-baiting governor:
I am not convinced that Rauch is really describing a new phenomenon, however. Lee Atwater sold Bush père on a Wallace-style appeal to populism in the 1988 campaign, and the same sort of outreach, focused specifically on the religious right, has been right at the center of Karl Rove's strategy. It really didn't take long after 1968 for the G.O.P. to see the George Wallace voter as its natural target, and the reorientation of the G.O.P. into an increasingly white, Evangelical, and Southern party followed.
Does this strategy come with pitfalls? Oh yes, writes Horton:
Rauch says this is the road to ruin for the G.O.P. "By becoming George Wallace's party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today." But the G.O.P. does seem committed to this course, and its highest profile spokesmen--the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becksseem to be pressing it on.
Horton, an Alabama native, says the modern GOP probably has not learned the full lesson of George Wallace's life in politics:
It seems worth noting that Wallace himself was smart enough to recognize that the brand of populist politics he espoused in 1968 would lead straight into a political cul-de-sac. He spent the rest of his career broadening his appeal to blacks, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised, with the result that he became a thorn in the side of the G.O.P. and a new sort of populist. The question in my mind is not whether the G.O.P. is consciously evoking Wallace--Rauch is correct, they are--but whether they have studied Wallace closely enough to identify the aspects of his career that could help them. If they did this, they might quickly come to very different takes on healthcare reform and education, and the nation might move to a much more positive political dialogue in which a broad consensus could be reached on some populist issues.