Political Celebrity Currency After the Election: Where's Palin Now?

by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

While the House adjusts to the new dichotomous reality, it’s time for us to take a tally of the stars and the has-beens of the midterm election.

Goodbye Blanche Lincoln and goodbye Arlen Specter. Hello Rand Paul, Jerry Brown (again!) and Harry “that was close” Reid. Even with the close saves in the Democratic Party, the GOP grabbed 60 new seats in the House. While the Dems maintain a cold, death-like grip on the Senate, the party was even more devastated by the GOP tsunami than anticipated. And among the winners, no one star shines so brightly as Sarah Palin, whose luster has been exponentially fuelled by each of her endorsed candidate’s wins.

She’s no Bill Clinton, in terms of charisma, but her influence on the outcome of the election is without question, and her leadership on the right is unchallenged. Her opportunistic “SarahPAC” commercial — a hollow caricature of patriotism — released just a day after the Democratic bloodbath intentionally associated Palin with the GOP coup d’etat.

But let’s not forget that Palin actually doesn’t hold political office. And that the Tea Party that continues to support her isn’t a mainstream political party (yet). And that only 15 of Palin’s 34 endorsed House candidates actually won their seats. Sure, Rand Paul secured Kentucky and Michael Grimm toppled New York Democrat Michael McMahon, but consider Palin’s charlatan tag team: Sharron Angle and Christine “dabble into witchcraft” O’Donnell. These candidates were a circus show that Palin supported all the way — and they were highly visible losses.

But the Tea Party, and Palin for that matter, are an idea and a brand and not directly connected to reality. And as in Hollywood, ideas and brands can be, at least in the beginning, far more powerful than substantive. Celebrity, that magical and nebulous quality that makes us fascinated with some people more than others, enables people like Palin to transcend their lack of talent. Let’s not forget that O’Donnell — despite being a totally unqualified candidate — was covered more than any other politician during the campaign season. Our interest hinges on them as people, or on our perceptions of them, rather than on what they’ve actually contributed to the world at large. This is the same phenomenon that occurs when Lindsay Lohan’s face is plastered across every tabloid, even though she hasn’t starred in a good film since Mean Girls (or probably, more accurately, The Parent Trap). The same phenomenon occurs when, despite the fact that Angelina Jolie has won an Oscar, we are still far more interested in her kids eating Cheetos. Oh the banality!

And the same goes for Palin, the political Paris Hilton. Like Paris, Palin is pretty, spouts truly ridiculous utterances and seems rather devoid of critical thinking. Also like Paris, she works incredibly hard to maintain and exploit her celebrity. Palin has used our collective interest in her persona to establish a brand that may take her straight to the head of the GOP ticket. (Which, to be clear, terrifies much of the GOP as much as it horrifies the Democrats). Like Paris, Palin’s genius is not in her substance but in her ability to assign value and influence to her vapidity.

But celebrities in the political realm, like their counterparts in Hollywood, must eventually be backed up with substance. As in Hollywood, celebrity-driven politicians reach the limit of their careers far more rapidly than those with talent. Some, like Christine O’Donnell, become a punch line before voting on Election Day even begins. Others, like Palin, are more strategic and thus are able to extend their influence for a longer time. If Palin is the Paris Hilton of politics, consider O’Donnell the Tara Reid — earnestly trying but ultimately screwing up at every turn.

It is those with talent who reap the ultimate rewards. Jolie, Obama and Clinton may have cults of personality but they are backed up by Oscars and political offices. Celebrity matters but it is insufficient on its own. In Hollywood and politics, the A-list possesses both talent and our attention, but it is the former that sustains their careers in the long term.

The alarming irony is that most of us started paying attention to Palin because we thought her similar to Hilton, Reid (Tara, not Harry) and Lohan: a fascinating yet fleeting train wreck. Yet despite Palin’s perpetual derailments she has managed to keep chugging along, sustaining our interest and threatening to snag the GOP presidential ticket in 2012. But we must hold out hope that given her ratio of talent to celebrity, it’s only a matter of time before we get bored — and when boredom at last sets in, Palin will disappear.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the author of the brand new Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity

. It’s “a breakthrough inquest into the rattletrap culture of fame,” says Graydon Carter! So seriously, check it out.