I want to like Sarah Palin. But to borrow a title from Hitchcock, I feel like The Man Who Knew Too Much—about The Woman Who Knew Too Little. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care that Palin is not a policy wonk. In some ways, that’s a plus.
It is her strengths that concern me. For example, is Palin’s populism real or imagined? Or perhaps real but compromised? And, as the mother of a son on active duty, why is she so enthusiastic about unwinnable wars? Where is that famous common sense when it comes to minding our own business?
If I were the only one with such doubts, she would be in a much more formidable position to win the presidency in 2012. The obstacles would still be great, of course, and elite opposition would rise in proportion to her actual populism, but her base would be much wider.
Palin’s very presence on the national stage elicits a visceral reaction. Love her or hate her. Why such emotional polarization? All of the criticism and praise revolves around populism, the ideology that places democracy at the forefront of political values. It is her weakness and strength. Whatever else you say about her, she is in many ways a quintessential American. She is not the only legitimate type, and her story is not the only American story, but the roots do go deep.
Liberals and Democrats have a host of articulated complaints about Palin. She’s dumb. She’s out of her league. She’s divisive. She’s got a wacko religion. She’s dishonest. She’s a quitter. She’s an animal killer. She’s just a pretty face. Conservatives respond that the ranting of liberals is just a petty farce, but some of the criticisms are worth considering for what they say about both Sarah Palin and modern American liberalism.
The most damaging accusation is that Palin is ignorant. Liberals, and some conservatives, tell us that she is short on knowledge, if not intelligence. Exhibit A is the infamous Katie Couric interview. Palin’s new book,Going Rogue, does not provide a convincing explanation of the debacle. Palin lovers have blamed bias: The Liberal Media. There’s some truth to this. It’s doubtful Couric cast a vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. But she was mostly pitching softballs. When asked, “What magazines and newspapers do you read?” the best Palin could do was, “All of them.” The fact that Sarah Barracuda could not hold her own against Katie the Perky was a serious defeat for Palin.
Still, we cannot assume the woman is stupid. An idiot would not be twice elected to her hometown city council, twice more as mayor, and then chosen to be president of the state conference of mayors. She was elected governor of Alaska, defeating the incumbent in the primary and a former governor in the general election. She made history as the state’s youngest and first female chief executive. A Bush or Kennedy might be able to gain such positions with little brains or gravitas, but not a Palin.
Perhaps she was suitable for the town of Wasilla or state of Alaska, but many are skeptical of her abilities on a bigger stage. Maybe she’s too common. After Palin was tapped to be the veep candidate, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “She’s One of the Folks (And that’s the problem).” But what did she expect? Katie Couric, Evan Thomas, Walter Isaacson, Tom Friedman, and other respected journalists are not voices of the Left. Mainstream media writers and executives are mouthpieces for a decidedly centrist Power Elite. This is a loose-knit conglomeration of movers and shakers that used to be known as the Eastern Establishment. Today, it is bicoastal, with outposts in the metropolitan centers in between. Its members often disagree with one another about means but usually agree about ends. There is an elitist consensus in favor of wealth and power.
Sarah Palin does not fit into this consensus. Her biography seems so pedestrian before she became a sideshow freak during the presidential campaign. By her own account, she had a typical middle-class upbringing: “The Brady Bunch,”
4-H, Girl Scouts, basketball jock. She attended four colleges, half of which were community colleges (Can you imagine?!), and her terminal degree—a mere bachelor’s—was from the University of Idaho. Yes, Potato U. All of these social faux pas led to her embarrassing boast—on national television of all places!—of being a hockey mom. But the lack of prep schools, the absence of a Harvard degree, the paucity of vacations in France and Italy are what endear Sarah Palin to a portion of the 99 percent of Americans who share her background.
Many Republicans fear Palin’s presidential candidacy because they are convinced she is unelectable in 2012. They may be right, but electability can be elusive. In 1976, 1992, 1996, and 2008, pragmatic GOP leaders nominated tired old hacks as a way of rewarding Washington insiders for years of compromise. They all lost. Whatever else Palin may be, she is not a Washington insider. Governor Reagan would have beat Carter in 1976 while President Ford lost.
The most serious criticism comes from conservatives in the Taft-Buchanan-Ron Paul tradition. Possessing a sense of history and a respect for the Constitution, they advocate the traditional foreign policy of neutrality—“peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none,” as Jefferson put it. It was the default foreign policy of the U.S. until it was set aside by avaricious Republicans in the 1890s and covered with a gloss of idealism by Democrats throughout the 20th century.
Even the more belligerent new nationalism of Goldwater, which in the 1960s largely supplanted the old nationalism of Taft within the mainstream conservative movement, was based on defense of our nation, not on attempting to control the entire planet as a favor to foreign governments or for the sake of reputed ideals. This utopian and resentment-provoking policy is actually a variant of internationalism. Neoconservatism, an ideology neither new nor conservative, is a product of Wilsonian Democrats with a dash of Trotskyite Communism. The neocon founders were with FDR and Truman against Taft in the ’40s and with LBJ against Goldwater in the ’60s. Neoconservatives have always been deeply and unalterably committed to two of the most deadly -isms of all: militarism and imperialism. This is the foreign policy that Sarah Palin has chosen to adopt. As a result, her pro-life ethic excludes humans involved in any war sanctioned by the federal government.
There is a difference between being simple-minded and being simplistic. Simplistic thinkers need not be stupid. Sarah Palin is not stupid, but she is simplistic. She probably imagines this flaw to be a virtue. Maybe she’s an individual of action, a choleric, who acts with self-confidence to get things done. Such volition has little perceived need for intellectual reflection because it already knows it’s right and it needs to go straight to the action. Maybe she’s confusing the childlike faith encouraged by Christ with simplistic thought.
Ironically, simplism of this sort produces a very unchildlike result: uninquisitive rather than curious, close-minded rather than absorbent, arrogant rather than humble. It’s unfortunate, especially when applied to foreign policy. From her correct and populist intuition that loyalty and patriotism are good, she moves dogmatically to an embrace of propaganda and jingoism. She does not realize that most wars are imperial and aggressive in nature, hence the opposite of the national defense she cherishes. Neoconservatives exploit this confusion, in Palin and millions of other well-meaning Americans.
Does ambition or ignorance, coupled with simplistic thinking, explain Palin’s willingness to ally herself with neoconservatives? Possibly, but do not discount the influence of theology. Palin was raised in a type of evangelical Protestantism that sees Jesus as the Prince of War more than the Prince of Peace. Instead of pursuing spiritual warfare, as the apostle Paul urged, these Christians endorse worldly weapons against flesh and blood. This approach sanctifies secular policies no matter how far removed from the spirit of Christ.
Despite all of the criticism, Sarah Palin receives her share of praise as well. For many admirers, she reaches near mythic proportions of folklore. A cross between Queen Esther and Annie Oakley. Religious but gun-wielding. Pretty but spunky. Sarah’s “You betcha” colloquialisms and “Fargo” accent provide a touch of the exotic yet are also rooted in the American tradition. Even the unusual names of the Palin children add to the aura. In her book, she explains the meaning of the name given to her daughter Piper Indi Grace Palin. She was named after Todd’s airplane, independence, and the gift of God’s unmerited favor. So you have a combination of the personal, the libertarian, and the spiritual. It’s the whole package for many conservatives.
Palin’s biggest political asset is her populism, which is why the choice initially buoyed Paul-style Republicans. She was a reputed Pat Buchanan supporter in the 1990s. Buchanan himself went on television and claimed Sarah as one of his own, “a rebel reformer.” The McCain camp immediately threw cold water on that notion. Oh no, Palin was never a Buchanan radical! She may have been photographed in July 1999 wearing a Buchanan button, but that was only as a courtesy to welcome a visiting candidate.
He had won the Alaska presidential caucuses in 1996, and in some ways, Palin has followed in his footsteps. The frontier character has given her political opportunities that would not have been possible in more stratified and established states. Not only is Alaska less settled and more independent than most states, but it is friendly territory for Christian populists. Leading Republicans and Democrats in the state had been in the pocket of Big Oil for years. Palin upset the apple cart. As governor, she took on ExxonMobil and the other two giant oil companies. With the help of reform Democrats, Palin was successful in enacting legislation that curbed the power and exploitative position of crony capitalism.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the fathers of American populism, included himself among the party of “Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them” and who believe that “the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail,” whose maxim is “Equal rights to all, special privileges for none.” Is Palin faithful to the Jefferson tradition? At first glance, she seems like a feminine equivalent of Andrew Jackson—a backwoods rabble-rouser of humble origins who takes on the special interests with plain speakin’. Or William Jennings Bryan, whose mantle Matthew Continetti suggests Palin ought to retrieve, refashioning the Great Commoner’s message into “You shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of Goldman Sachs.” Frank Rich of the New York Times frets, “If Obama can’t tamp down that rage across the political map, Palin will at the very least pave the way for a demagogue with less baggage to pick up her torch.” For me, that’s all to the good.
But here’s where we get back to Hitchcock. Like many conservatives, I want to like Sarah Palin, but I don’t want to live in a fool’s paradise. As Machiavelli observed, most people “judge more by sight than by touch,” which is exactly why they are easy to manipulate. Continetti writes for the The Weekly Standard, a publication just as elitist as the Wall Street Journal and one that was owned by the same man until recently. If Sarah Palin gains national power, for whom will she be working? The many or the few? The voters or the pundits? How will she fill her campaign treasury? Like Ron Paul or John McCain? Is her populism one of style or substance?
A folksy demeanor does not make one a populist. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are folksy. Neither is a populist. Lyndon Johnson was down-to-earth to the point of being crude. It did not stop him from being a willing servant of Wall Street. Richard Nixon’s middle-class resentment of the wealthy was a chip on his shoulder, yet as president he surrounded himself with Rockefeller Republicans and Ivy League graduates. This leads us to Henry Kissinger. One of the pictures in Palin’s book is captioned, “Dad and Mom with Henry Kissinger at the 2008 GOP convention in the Twin Cities. It was an honor for me to meet with Mr. Kissinger a few times, and even after the campaign to return back East for another visit with him.”
Why an honor? Anyone with a sense of conservative history understands who Kissinger is. A liberal Republican. Nelson Rockefeller’s right-hand man and chief foreign policy adviser. Harvard egghead exponent of internationalism. Architect of détente and snubber of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Detested by and a destestor of Sen. Jesse Helms and Gov. Ronald Reagan. In search of wisdom, morality, or conservative values, Palin would have been better off had she returned to Minneapolis to visit with a housewife or to Ohio for a reunion with Joe the Plumber. Novices are more easily flattered and seduced by the famous, professional, wealthy, and powerful. This does not bode well for the purity and consistency of a Palin administration.
As Rod Dreher notes in his review of Going Rogue, “Palin positions herself as a populist, but her populism is entirely cultural. She never misses an opportunity to tell us how weepy she gets when she thinks about our country and its military. She fires the governor’s mansion chef, who is bored because her kids won’t eat his fancypants food. … A little of that goes a long way, and I wouldn’t begrudge Palin a bit of it if her populism had any economic substance. … Sarah Palin is selling a personality, not a platform.” Palin’s efforts against oil companies notwithstanding, she does not have a clear understanding of how her endorsement of conservative think tanks, conservative media, free trade, globalized military, and imperial interventions harm the real American families to which she is sincerely attached.
And yet. Sarah Palin has so many of the right enemies. The snarky comments that her every move engenders. The snobbishness of the elite media. Should we begrudge the fact that she has sought solace in the arms of some neoconservatives? Should we wish additional enemies on her? At least David Brooks calls her “a joke” and “a fatal cancer to the Republican Party.” Doesn’t that count for something, perhaps offsetting Bill Kristol’s affection?
A few months back, blogger Lila Rajiva—not a fan of Palin—examined Vanity Fair’s hit piece. Rajiva closes well: “The real reason why it’s just fine to trash Sarah Palin is because she’s a lower middle-class white Christian from a small town. So here’s what I want to know. What sort of liberalism and what kind of democracy despise the race, religion, and culture of the majority of the people in a country?” Of course, the snobby ideology of most self-proclaimed “liberals” and “progressives” is elitism. Obviously democracy—rule by the people—cannot come from such elitism. Can it come from Sarah Palin?
It is not enough to be a “sincere Christian.” George W. Bush was acclaimed as such and he was an awful president. Traditional conservatives have reason to wonder who would staff a Palin presidency. A group of godless warmongers and greedy pragmatists? Pseudoconservatives and globocop-aspirants like Rove and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz—individuals not even having the virtue of competence? Would a Palin administration be a third term for Bush, as we’re currently experiencing the de facto Clinton third term? That’s a prospect that would yield neither limited government nor traditional values.
Pulling your punches when you’re the running mate of John McCain is one thing. When you’re at someone else’s party, it’s rude to insult the host. But Palin is now an independent operator. Theoretically, she’s her own woman and can do as she pleases. The day of reckoning has come for the eight years of recklessness, for the lies told, lives lost, and liberty shackled. It’s both politically foolish and conservatively apostate to stick to the party line of “All Hail Bush II.”
It is unlikely that Palin will turn against military interventionism. The die seems to be cast. And yet, in recent months, George Will and Pat Robertson have publicly condemned escalation of the Afghan war and urged withdrawal of troops, so we shouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.
If Palin were able to combine her moral and populist appeal with a more consistent stand for liberty, including skepticism toward war, she could keep most of her base and tap into the Ron Paul coalition. There is so much potential, but she would have to be willing to go even more rogue, to leave behind the national Republican establishment as she did at the state level on her way to power in Alaska. To be a truly conservative statesman (or stateswoman), you don’t need to be wonkish, but do you have to be sophisticated enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, the real from the phony.
The contradiction of populism is that the sincere champion of the common people must be better informed, more astute, and more steadfast than the people themselves in order to serve them effectively. Identification with the people must coexist with discernment about the world of power and wealth. Or, as the Galilean said long ago to His disciples, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Spiritually and politically savvy yet true in intention and pure in action. That is a high calling, and it remains to be seen if Sarah Palin has what it takes.
Jeff Taylor is assistant professor of political science at Jacksonville State University.
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