When earlier this month Sarah Palin abruptly announced her intention to resign as governor of Alaska — barely
midway through her four-year term — the political punditry was left puzzling over what she could possibly do next. If Palin was not in office, nor actively campaigning for election, how could she remain relevant, influential, and, of course, paid?
Those confused commenters have no clue as to the opportunities that await Palin — because few understand the extraordinary, multi-billion-dollar marketplace that has developed for movement conservatives.
The Phoenix reviewed the most recently available financial reports of some 250 conservative-advocacy groups and political-action committees; their combined gross revenues totaled more than $2 billion. And that's only the major players, in just the nonprofit portion of the industry.
No wonder the father of Palin's grandchild, Levi Johnston, told reporters that the governor is quitting "to take some of this money people had been offering."
Palin is poised to be the hottest brand to ever hit that market. And her entry is beautifully timed.
Thanks to the election of Barack Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress, the conservative industry is, despite the recession, experiencing boom times. Books declaring that Democrats are unleashing "statism" and "socialism" — by Mark R. Levin and Dick Morris, respectively — have dominated the bestseller lists. Rush Limbaugh is enjoying record listenership. Over the past three months, every one of the 10 most-watched daily programs on cable news belonged to the right-wing Fox News Channel (FNC). Political interest usually peaks during a presidential campaign year, but FNC has actually improved its ratings this year — in part by playing more directly to the right wing, by ditching Sean Hannity's liberal co-anchor, and by adding froth-mouthed Glenn Beck to its daily line-up.
"The idea that politics or the presidency is [Palin's] only aim is wrong," says Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University who studies the conservative movement. "Rush Limbaugh doesn't run for office."
There are at least 10 million people who could be called true "movement conservatives" in America today — perhaps twice that number, including conservative and libertarian independents, along with "base" Republicans. They are not only reading and tuning in — they are contributing to conservative nonprofit organizations and political-action committees; they are attending conferences; they are buying paraphernalia; and they are signing up for e-mail newsletters and online publications.
But the analysts, thinking only of Palin's presidential prospects, are missing all of this. They are accustomed to paying attention to how people vote, not how they spend.
"We tend to think of the Republican conservative electorate," says Zelizer. "There's also this vibrant marketplace that's been built up over the past 30 years, and it can be quite lucrative."
Put another way, "There are people on the right who have learned how to milk the right wing for all it's worth," says Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at the liberal People for the American Way. "They have yet to find the bottom of this well of right-wing money that drives the creation of all these right-wing organizations."