by Robert B. Reich

No prospective Republican candidate so sharply embodies the anger of America's middle class as does Sarah Palin. And none is channeling that anger nearly as effectively -- even though her prescription will make things worse.

The anxiety began three decades ago when the median male wage that had been rising for three decades began to stagnate. Families responded by sending wives and mothers into the paid workforce, working longer hours, and then, finally, going deep into debt.

But now that the Great Recession has eliminated the last coping mechanism, economic insecurities have soared. A recent Washington Post poll showed 53 percent of homeowners worried about meeting their mortgage payments.

While the unemployment rate among college grads (most of whom are professionals or managers) is around 5 percent, the average unemployment rate for people with only a high school degree or less (blue-collar, pink-collar, clerical) is almost 20 percent.

All of this is spawning a new and more virulent politics of anger.

According to the right-wing narrative, the calamity that's befallen the middle class is due to the cultural and intellectual elites who run the mainstream media, direct the government, dispense benefits to the undeserving (immigrants and poor blacks), advocate multiculturalism, and dominate popular culture (supporting abortion and gay marriage).

Sarah Palin avoids the bilious rants of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk. But her cheerfulness isn't sunny; she doesn't promise Morning in America. She offers pure snark, and promises revenge. Over and over again she tells the same snide, sarcastic inside joke, in different words: "We know something they don't (wink, wink). Their days are numbered. We're gonna take America back from them."

Palin's presidential strategy is to circumvent the Republican establishment. That's why her path to the GOP nomination is a celebrity game. It's a snark-fest with the nation's angry middle class. Buy my book and we'll show the know-it-all coastal elites a real book directed at real people! Tune into my reality show and we'll show the real America -- far from the urban centers with immigrants and blacks and fancy city slickers! Vote for Bristol's dancing and we'll show the media establishment how powerful we are!

She will threaten the GOP establishment: Deny her the nomination and she'll run as an independent. This will split off much of the middle class and guarantee defeat of the Republican establishment candidate. It will also result in her defeat in 2012, but that's a small price to pay for gaining the credibility and power to demand the nomination in 2016.

Palin is betting that the economic prospects of most Americans won't improve by 2012, or even by 2016 and beyond.

Sadly, this is likely to be the case. Last week the Fed issued a gloomy prognosis. Even if the U.S. economy began to grow at a rate more typical of recoveries than the current anemic 2.5 percent, unemployment won't drop to its pre-recession level for five to seven years. A minority of the Fed thought this too optimistic.

In reality, the bad economy is likely to continue for most Americans beyond seven years -- maybe for 10 or more -- because of a chronic lack of aggregate demand. So much income and wealth have now concentrated at the top that the broad middle and working class no longer has the buying power to get the economy going again.

Japan lost more than a decade of economic growth after its real estate bubble exploded. The United States could easily suffer the same fate. The real problem lies in our economic structure: the yawning gap between Wall Street and Main Street, the incentives operating on large corporations to pare American payrolls and expand abroad, and the demand for short-term profits over better jobs and wages for most Americans.

The real solution lies in changing that structure: making the taxes more progressive, investing in education and infrastructure, and having a national economic strategy for good jobs and wages.

But none of this is in the cards. The GOP won't give the president any votes. And he seems unable or unwilling to explain to America what's happened and what needs to be done.

Enter Sarah Palin. Her war on the nation's cultural and intellectual elites will only divide America. But in the absence of any other voice that speaks to the anger the middle class and offers real solutions, it may win her the presidency.


Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the new book "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future."


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