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."
And unlike earlier times, most of these organizations are no longer reliant on (or controlled by) large conservative foundations. A review of the biggest conservative foundations' grant-making reports found that they were responsible for about only $50 million of the $2 billion pulled in by the groups reviewed by the Phoenix.
Not incidentally, all of this is helping push the conservative base further to the fringe of American politics, and almost certainly damaging the Republican Party. But if you think that bothers the right-wing merchants, you've got it backward. If anything, they are incentivized to help the GOP lose: Democrats in power give them a foe to rally the ideologues against (and a growing pool of disaffected Americans if the economy, or anything else, goes badly). The ascension of Obama and the Democrats was a financial godsend that repowered the gravy train — it was the best thing to happen to them since the Clinton era, when conservative talk-radio listenership tripled, and much of this industry was born.
So are these organizations run by true believers, or cynical parasites? That's ultimately a moot point. It's like asking whether fast-food CEOs eat their companies' food, or if tobacco executives smoke. In a consumer market, the consumer will get what they want from someone, whether it's chicken nuggets, Marlboros, or the most reactionary, extremist fear-mongering.
"If you want to do well in that marketplace, they expect red meat," says Zelizer, speaking of the conservative customer base. "They don't want moderates — that's not what sells."
Palin is red meat, atop red Naughty Monkey heels. She will sell.
Building an empire
Plus, she has an army waiting to follow her — even here in liberal Massachusetts.
"I believe that, whatever she chooses to do, she would be terrific at it," says Sandi Martinez of Chelmsford, a Republican activist and unsuccessful candidate for State Senate, who adds, "I see Sarah almost as a female Ronald Reagan."