What Sarah Palin can teach us about hate


Sarah Palin burst onto the national scene slightly more than a year ago at the Republican National Convention. Since then she has gone from disaster to disaster: she fatally weakened the Republican ticket, committed countless ethical violations, and couldn’t even manage to govern the State of Alaska. Through it all, she has demonstrated herself to be simultaneously a blithering idiot and a confirmed narcissist.

On the eve of publication of her new book, it is worth examining Palin’s one outstanding talent, her ability to incite hatred. The contemporary GOP is a party fueled on hate. Hate is the stock in trade of O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Beck, so it is no small feat that Sarah Palin could claim to be the hater-in-chief. In her rapturously received speech to the Republican convention she gave what amounted to a clinic in inciting hatred. It is worth looking back at that speech and how she did it.

Psychologists have recently published findings on the five steps in the development of collective hate (Making a Virtue of Evil: A Five-Step Social Identity Model of the Development of Collective Hate, Soc Per Psych Compass 2/3 (2008): 1313–1344) and Palin seems to have embraced the model enthusiastically. According to the researchers:

The five steps are: (i) Identification, the construction of an ingroup; (ii) Exclusion, the definition of targets as external to the ingroup; (iii) Threat, the representation of these targets as endangering ingroup identity; (iv) Virtue, the championing of the ingroup as (uniquely) good; and (v) Celebration, embracing the eradication of the outgroup as necessary to the defence of virtue.

Let’s look at how Palin accomplished those aims.

Identification, or I’m just like you: Palin led with a description of her family, proudly proclaiming, “Our family has the same ups and downs as any other … the same challenges and the same joys.” She emphasized her large family size, her family members in the military, her special needs child, her husband’s blue collar job and her parents’ background as farmer and small business person.

Exclusion, defining the other: Palin was quick to claim that her opponent talks one way in Scranton to working people (us) and another way in San Francisco (them, and they’re gay, too) supposedly deriding religion and gun ownership. Palin invokes the Washington elites (them) as if the Republicans didn’t hold the presidency, vice presidency, Supreme Court, and other major positions of power.

The threat: Her opponent supposedly wants to turn his back on victory in Iraq; her opponent wants us to be threatened by oil producing nations; and, worst of all, terrorists are trying to attack us and her opponent still cares about the Constitution.

Virtue: Her group is uniquely good. She implies that they, and they alone, are the people who care about family, about religion, about patriotism, about sacrifice, and she is sure that God cares uniquely about her group.

Celebration: Finally, the call to action, the insistence that the defeat of the other is required to defend the values of family, religion, patriotism and sacrifice.

Not only was the structure of the speech designed to evoke hate, the very words and the delivery were chosen to ridicule, demean and denigrate. She made is quite clear that her opponents are not merely political opponents, they are people unworthy of the basic respect that should be due to any individual, let alone two Senators who have served their country well.

Sarah Palin was perhaps more honest than she intended to be when she described herself as a pit bull with lipstick. She implied that she is vicious, immoral, bred to attack, and fed on misery and hate. The crowd lapped it up. She carefully followed the script for inciting hatred and the audience responded with thunderous applause. It was a virtuoso performance in the art of hate.