Back to the Future: Sarah Palin's Restoration

Revolution or reformation? How Palin's restoration message fuels our most essential debate

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

"We have it in our power to begin the world all over again," proclaimed Thomas Paine, the lyricist of the American Revolution, and his melody has underscored our politics ever since. From the New World to the New Deal and the New Frontier, American progressives have rejected ancestor worship in favor of faith in a better future — a faith, they argue, that gives the U.S. an edge over old Europe and binds together a nation with no common ethnic or religious bonds.

But every so often — actually, at fairly regular intervals — there comes a call to look back. Too much of that Hopey Changey Thing yields a desire for restoration, to move forward by turning back. What's striking about the current revival is that it's led by our most emphatically modern master of the cross-platform political-celebrity mashup, Sarah Palin, as she calls for "not transformation but restoration with a 'Great Awakening' that we already feel emerging across America."

The pedigree of Palin's message is impeccable. Democrats have generally favored the transformation theme, given their faith in the power of government to make the world better. There is a natural foreign policy corollary: those who see America as a work in progress are less likely to view it as exceptional. Those who invoke restoration, on the other hand, echo Richard Land, author of The Divided States of America?: "America hasn't been perfect, but God help the world if it had not been for the United States in the 20th century." Transformers view the Constitution as a supple, living document; restorers view it as sacred text and must, as the new GOP Pledge to America affirms, "honor its original intent" — not that we've ever agreed on what that is.

Politicians, however, being political, reserve the right to strike the chords that suit them. George W. Bush's humble foreign policy became a vow to transform the Middle East into a cradle of democracy, even as he expanded entitlements and created the biggest new government bureaucracy since Lyndon Johnson. Democrats spent much of the past decade promising to "take back America," as they called their 2006 agenda, with the implied "from the GOP."

But candidate Obama fed the fires of the restoration/transformation debate, promising to "remake this world as it should be" and telling rapturous crowds that "we are the change that we seek." It was a little much, even for people who hoped that beneath all that ecstasy was a clear-eyed pragmatist. When the transformational prelude turned into practice — with huge spending bills to save the economy, a health care overhaul, financial reregulation — it threw open the door for the restorationists, and no one has charged into the fray with as much brio as Palin.

This was her message at Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally in August, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (one of the greatest calls for transformation in the nation's history), and she has sounded it steadily since. The country needs "a restoration of all that's good and exceptional about America," she told Fox News' Sean Hannity on Nov. 22, "vs. the transformation of America that presently we see coming out of the Oval Office." Restoration. Exceptional. Not transformation.

She's certainly riding a wave: after the midterms, 47% of Americans said they feel the country's best days are in the past — roughly the same percentage who said, just before Obama's Inauguration, that the best was yet to come. Obama has paid a price for failing to offer a coherent vision of the future he sees and what will be required to get there. But the restorers need to be clear about which parts of the past they'd restore — presumably not segregation or rampant pollution or child labor — and which changes to the Constitution they can live with, like the one making it possible for a woman to vote for a woman running for President.

Of course, one or the other is a false choice: managing change wisely depends on honoring the best that has gone before. The most talented politicians are the ones who weave the themes into a seamless web of patriotic promise. What would that look like? One presidential candidate who quoted Paine in his acceptance speech understood: "They say that the United States has had its day in the sun ... that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities. My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view. The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backward ourselves." Then he quoted FDR, envisioning a "rendezvous with destiny."

That was Ronald Reagan, in 1980.