Juan Cole compares Sarah Palin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Historians in the News

Is Sarah Palin America's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The two differ in many key respects, of course, but it is remarkable how similar they are. There are uncanny parallels in their biographies, their domestic politics and the way they present themselves -- even in their rocky relationships with party elders.

Both are former governors of a northwest frontier state with great natural beauty (in Ahmadinejad's case, Ardabil). Both are known for saying things that produce a classic Scooby-Doo double take in their audiences. Both appeal to a sort of wounded nationalism, speaking of the sacrifice of dedicated troops for an often feckless public, and identifying themselves with the common soldier. They are vigilant against foreign designs on their countries and insist on energy and other independence.

But above all, both are populists who claim to represent the little people against wily and unscrupulous elites, and against pampered upper-middle-class yuppies pretending to be the voice of democracy. Together, they tell us something about dangerous competing populisms in an age of globalization...

...An armed citizenry is important to Palin's conception of the republic, and she warned in her farewell address, "You're going to see anti-hunting, anti-Second Amendment circuses from Hollywood ..." She continued, "Stand strong, and remind them patriots will protect our guaranteed, individual right to bear arms ..." By talking about "patriots" "protecting" the individual right to bear arms, Palin skated awfully close to the militia or "patriot" movement on the right-wing American fringe (and not for the first time). Ahmadinejad is not similarly in favor of all citizens having guns, but he comes out of a popular militia, the Basij, which consists of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizen patriots, armed and pledged to defend the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

Right-wing populism, rooted in the religion, culture and aspirations of the lower middle class, is often caricatured as insane by its critics. That judgment is unfair. But it is true that such movements often encourage a political style of exhibitionism, disregard for the facts as understood by the mainstream media, and exaltation of the values of people who feel themselves marginalized by the political system. Not all forms of protest, however, are healthy, even if the protesters have legitimate grievances. Right-wing populism is centered on a theory of media conspiracy, a "my country right or wrong" chauvinism, a fascination with an armed citizenry, an intolerance of dissent and a willingness to declare political opponents mere terrorists. It is cavalier in its disregard of elementary facts and arrogant about the self-evident rightness of its religious and political doctrines. It therefore holds dangers both for the country in which it grows up and for the international community. Palin is polling well at the moment against other Republican front-runners such as Mitt Romney, and so, astonishingly, is a plausible future president. At least Iranians only got Ahmadinejad because of rigged elections, and they had the decency to mount massive protests against the result.

Read entire article at Juan Cole in Salon

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Clare Lois Spark - 8/4/2009

Where is Richard Hofstadter when we need him? Remember his The Age of Reform, when he identified antisemitism as a crucial ingredient of populism?
I remember some New Left historians turning somersaults to try to deny this. Yet as C. Vann Woodward wrote in Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938), a petit bourgeois protest movement can switch from left to right in lightning time.