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Irrational Tribalism

As for me, after more than a year of seeing how those “prodigious oratorical and intellectual gifts” have worked themselves out in action, I remain more convinced than ever of the soundness of Buckley’s quip, in the spirit of which I hereby declare that I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama. ~Norman Podhoretz [1]

One might ask why Podhoretz is wasting his and our time rehashing the increasingly irrelevant Palin question, but part of the explanation can be found in the unpersuasive argument on behalf of Palin. Over the last year and a half since Palin emerged as a national figure, we have heard some form of this argument countless times. Each time, we hear about how she inspires irrational loathing and irrational admiration. Instead of recognizing this as a reason to be very careful not to succumb to the latter, a great many conservative writers make a point of declaring themselves as her supporters because of others’ irrational loathing. “Yes, Palin may not know anything, and she may not be qualified, but she is one of ours and she makes those people crazy!” It is hardly news to me that mass politics is primarily tribal. We know that the qualifications of a candidate and policies endorsed during a campaign have little or nothing to do with the responses of most voters. What I cannot quite understand is why people who claim to be “conservative intellectuals” act as if this is perfectly fine.

How can it be a point of pride that one would prefer an ignorant political failure because she happens to say the right things? It may be true that expertise in international affairs is “no guarantee of wise leadership,” but I don’t believe staggering ignorance has ever produced wise leadership. No doubt, Palin’s lack of expertise is extremely useful to national security conservatives who wish to direct her to accept their view of the world, but that is yet another argument against letting Palin occupy a position of important leadership. The second Bush was famously uninformed, incurious and inclined to go with his gut instinct, and his foreign policy record was largely calamitous. The areas where his administration did the least damage and even some good (e.g., relations with India) were those in which the U.S. was least activist and Bush was least directly involved. I don’t expect Palinites to accept this assessment, as they were as foolishly confident in the merits of invading Iraq and provoking Russia as they are now sure that Palin is an acceptable national leader, but it is worth remembering that they rehearsed all of the same defenses for Bush when his critics pointed out that he was clueless about the rest of the world.

Considering the low opinion of Obama most Palinites have, I have often thought it strange that so many of her fans damn her with what they must regard as extremely faint praise: “At least she’s better than Obama!” Leave aside for now how absurd this sort of claim makes them look when one fairly compares the political careers of the two, and just consider what contempt many of her so-called defenders must have for her that all they can bring themselves to say is that she is better than someone they regard as a dangerous incompetent.

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5 Comments To "Irrational Tribalism"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On March 29, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

The woman was sprinkled with campaigning fairy dust at some point. Her most serious problem from my point of view is that she’s surrounded by crazy neocon interventionists.

#2 Comment By tz On March 29, 2010 @ 7:12 pm




The irrationality runs deep.

I shutter to think of it – as in “shutter island”.

(And no one is covering the Hannity scandal – his “charity” is not giving more but a pittance for scholarships for military offsprint, but then they need to Hannitize things before the Robotomy).

#3 Comment By Andreas2254 On March 30, 2010 @ 4:26 am

I think there’s a fairly simple explanation. Conservative intellectuals know, deep in their hearts, that they do not, and never will, understand the huge masses of suburb-dwellers who form the base of the Republican Party. Neither Kristol nor Podhoretz nor any of their ilk has never met anyone who, let’s say, lives in an anonymous suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, owns his own auto-parts franchise, and feels that Rush Limbaugh speaks for him. Except, perhaps, on some fundraising cruise, where the two exchanged a few minutes’ worth of awkward chatter.

Yet for every Norman Podhoretz, there are 100,000 of these other folks out there, and winning their support is key. Conservative intellectuals do their part by heaping insincere praise on the wisdom of the ‘regular folks’ and harping on every instance of perceived ‘liberal elitism’, but they are no more capable of forming a genuine bond of trust and empathy with these folks than, say, Jacques Derrida would have been.

Therefore, when someone like Sarah Palin comes along, they feel the need to study her and praise her. They study her to try to understand her appeal and understand how to appeal to someone like her and, through her, the masses. They praise her so that, by proxy, they can appear to be on the side of the kind of people that she inspires. There’s nothing new about this dynamic; it’s the same one that informs alliances between left-wing intellectuals and factory workers in South America, or that sent thousands of young Russian intellectuals ‘back to the land’ in the 1870s. There are only greater and lesser levels of sincerity.

I’d argue that the conservative-intellectual case involves especially blatant insincerity. An Argentine sociology professor doesn’t have to pretend to share, or even care about, most of the non-political opinions of the factory supervisor with whom he shares a political party. The conservative intellectual, however, is forbidden from invoking even the weakest false consciousness argument. Thus, the conservative intellectual is left with no other choice than overlooking certain…weaknesses in the reasoning power of Sarah Palin, and of the lamentably ignorant, yet assertive and aggrieved lower-middle-class ‘regular folks’ to whom she appeals. So they pinch their noses, chuck whatever intellectual standards they might be able claim to one side, and set themselves to the delicate task of heaping fulsome — but not condescending — praise of the tribune of the plebs.

#4 Comment By Rick Massimo On March 30, 2010 @ 9:06 am

I don’t recall who it was who said that when WFB said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone directory than the faculty of Harvard, he didn’t mean they were the only choices.

#5 Pingback By Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » Around the way girl On March 31, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

[…] And one of the leading lights of what some call “conservative intellectualism” says he “would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama”. […]