Skip to content

Sarah Palin, Elitism vs Widsom and the Political Crisis of the 2008 Election

October 2, 2008

Is Governance a closed shop for the elite?

John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin for VP has ignited one of the most intense and revealing reactions in the media in my lifetime. Although the financial crisis has overtaken some of the focus on Palin, I’ve really been intrigued by some of the broader issues her candidacy has brought into sharp relief. Not only does she seem personify some kind of full-frontal assault on the cultural elites and the media,  in a wider sense she illuminates the deep discomfort between the ruling class and the people they purport to defend. She is the embodiment of the crisis of Democracy we face today in America

The first step down my thinking along this road was Steven Hayward’s piece in the Weekly Standard. He states:

Lurking just below the surface of the second-guessing about Sarah Palin’s fitness to be president is the serious question of whether we still believe in the American people’s capacity for self-government, what we mean when we affirm that all American citizens are equal, and whether we tacitly believe there are distinct classes of citizens and that American government at the highest levels is an elite occupation.

It is incomplete to view the controversy over Palin’s suitability for high office just in ideological or cultural terms, as most of the commentary has done. Doubts about Palin have come not just from the left but from across the political spectrum, some of them from conservatives like David Frum, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will. Nor is this a new question. To the contrary, Palin’s ascent revives issues and arguments about self-government that raged at the time of the American founding and before. Indeed, the basic problems of the few and the many, and the sources of wisdom and virtue in politics, stretch back to antiquity.

He continues:

The issue is not whether the establishment would let such a person as Palin cross the bar into the certified political class, but whether regular citizens of this republic have the skill and ability to control the levers of government without having first joined the certified political class. But this begs an even more troublesome question: If we implicitly think uncertified citizens are unfit for the highest offices, why do we trust those same citizens to select our highest officers through free elections?

I encourage my few readers to really spend some time with this piece and to really grapple with the issues it raises.

A final point from this piece for those too lazy to click through:

Part of what bothers the establishment about Palin is her seeming insouciance toward public office. Her success with voters, and in national office, would be n affront and a reproach to establishment self-importance. Anyone who affects making it look easy surely lacks gravitas and must not grasp the complexity or depth of modern political problems. Partly this is the self-justification for establishment institutions and attitudes, but partly it represents the substantive view that the size and complexity of modern government require a level of expertise beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. Some of the doubts about Palin are doubts about self-government itself.

Ao far no one has picked up on the significance of Palin’s invocation of Harry Truman in her convention speech. Her reference was more than just a bridge to a heartland-versus-Beltway theme. Truman, recall, was the only president of the 20th century who was not a college graduate. Less than two months after abruptly taking over from FDR with no preparation, Truman wrote his wife Bess describing his quick progress in taking the reins:

It won’t be long before I can sit back and study the whole picture and tell ’em what is to be done in each department. When things come to that stage there’ll be no more to this job than there was to running Jackson County and not any more worry.

In retrospect it is clear that Truman “got it.” He didn’t need any more “experience” to master the job. “Well I’m facing another tall day as usual,” he ended that letter to Bess; “But I like ’em that way.”

There is a tedious pedantry to the criticism of Palin, as evidenced in recent comments here; comments that are serious and worthy of discussion. But underneath it I think is this elitist anxiety (for lack of a better term) which is understandable, but for me strangely enough, not a big issue.

What is Wisdom?

I have chosen not to defend myself against charges of partisanship (in fact I think I have intentionally given fuel to the fire on that account), but really I like to deal with life in a human way. Yes I have ideas and a philosophy in progress that guides my politics, but ultimately I am not persuaded by fancy talkers or fancy book learners but what I consider to be common sense, based on my perceptions of human nature and reality.

Some call this wisdom. Whether you think my wisdom is wisdom or not is up for you to decide.

Victor Davis Hanson has recently delved into this question, and again I invite you to read both of these pieces: Elitism, the Culture Wars, and the Campaign and Palin and Obama—What Really is Wisdom?
Hanson is a fascinating character: Stanford  Classicist, Military Historian and… farmer. Interestingly, he is often accused of being an elitist himself, especially by those unable to argue with him. He writes:

(E)litism is a state of mind. It is a world view in which one’s refinements from the commons—whether they are natural or acquired tastes and interests, whether they be intellectual, musical, artistic, architectural, or simply social—are seen as exclusive rather than inclusive.

This resonates with me deeply.  Although it may seem counter-intuitve, I now see Liberalism as extremely exclusive, and Conservatism as the truly inclusive political world-view. ( This is because in the upside down, black is white, Benson is Hedges world we live in, all political terms are losing or inverting their historical meanings. But I digress. )

This translates into my personal life as well. From the music I promoted at the concert series I sponsored for 4 years to the friends I keep and neihgborhood I live in, I know that I truly have a diverse social milieu. A little too diverse actually – no fun being the minority all the time frankly – but at least I have made friends with a large number of people across social, economic and racial lines. That includes and is facilitated by my membership in Presbyterian and Anglican churches over the years. I have met and cared for people I would never meet normally.

Hanson continues:

Second, elitism is the deliberate deprecation, in active or passive fashion, of the other world of physicality and pragmatism. The true elitist values his books, his music, his refined taste in furniture, food, and fashion to the neglect of how one makes a book, to the absolute uninterest in the construction of a violin, a chair, a fig, or a pair of pants. The elitist always fails to appreciate, (1) that his existence, and his much cherished rarified world, are impossible without others that are as smart and as skilled as he, and thus due commensurate thanks and acknowledgment, and (2) that in the zero-sum game of life, hours spent at the piano, Smyth’s Greek grammar, the Sunday morning opera, or the Guggenheim Museum are a tragic trade-off in which one forfeits commensurate time invested in the physical challenge of chain-sawing limbs, the aesthetic sense of accomplishment in weeding an overgrown garden, or the satisfaction of re-roofing a house. The elitist, in contrast, simply cannot imagine that such tasks are as necessary as his own, or that such muscular experience can reflect upon character and knowledge as much as those interests of his own softer and more sophisticated world. Again, knowing how to chain-saw or hammer may be more valuable in dealing with Chavez or Putin than distinguishing Virgil from Horace.

Third, the elitist, by his very nature, proves overreaching. That is, he seems in anti-Platonic fashion, to think his expertise in one field is instantly transferable to another. The good tractor mechanic may, with dirty nails and the odor of diesel, instinctively sense  that he has shorted rhetoric and diction, and so has to prepare and tread carefully when  dealing with the probate lawyer, county assessor, or local professor at night school.

All this I’m sure seems crazy when talking about the President of the United States (Vice-president, actually) but rembember, this idea of ordinary citizens having access to government is a foundational concept of our country. If a degreee from Harvard was required, it wasn’t mentioned.

Hanson concludes:

I am not calling for yokelism, or a proponent of false-populism. Rather, I wish to remind everyone that there are two fonts of wisdom: formal education, and the tragic world of physical challenge and ordeal. Both are necessary to be broadly educated. Familiarity with Proust or Kant is impressive, but not more impressive than the ability to wire your house or unclog the labyrinth of pipes beneath it.

In this regard, I think Palin can speak, and reason, and navigate with bureaucrats and lawyers as well as can Obama; but he surely cannot understand hunters, and mechanics and carpenters like she can. And a Putin or a Chavez or a Wall-Street speculator that runs a leverage brokerage house is more a hunter than a professor or community organizer. Harvard Law School is not as valuable  a touchstone to human nature as raising five children in Alaska while going toe-to-toe with pretty tough, hard-nose Alaskan males.

One is certainly free to conclude that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be VP on the merits, but I think reflection on what the merits are is very much in order. Virtually all the criticism of her has been of the philosophical theoretical variety; almost none of it has been of her ACTUAL GOVERNANCE  of the state of Alaska. For a brief pimer, read Beldar’s three points. I like number three:

Gov. Palin broke a multi-year stalemate over the financing and construction of a $40 billion cross-state gas pipeline that will deliver cleaner, cheaper natural gas to Alaska’s own population centers (Alaskans themselves pay some of the nation’s highest energy prices), while also delivering gas to the energy-hungry Lower 48. To do this, she had to break the monopoly power of the big energy companies by opening the project to competitive international bidding. Not only has a development contract with a Canadian company now been signed on better terms than had previously been discussed, but the former monopolists — finally spurred by competition — are cranking up their own plan that would not require any taxpayer investment. How precisely this will shake out remains to be seen, but Gov. Palin’s vigorous action — calling special sessions of the state legislature and injecting herself directly and vigorously into the process — has ended the deadlock in ways that seem certain to benefit consumers. By this accomplishment, Gov. Palin has done more to advance the cause of American energy independence than any other politician — of any party, and at any level of state or federal government — in this century. But the national media have generally ignored this accomplishment.

The Democratic Contradiction

Michael Medved had a astute observation after the Democratic convention: the message of the Democrats is fundamentally a contradiction:

Is the United States a land of limitless horizons, where hard work and big dreams enable people of humble background to scale dizzying heights of privilege and power?

Or is this a society of slammed doors and blocked opportunities, of a trapped middle class and shattered hope, where ordinary people can only provide a better life for their children with the help of an activist government and dramatic new policies?

Call it the “no we can’t” society. Or maybe the “no you can’t” society. Either way, there is an undeniable strain in the Democratic Party, the media and cultural elites and even in some Conservative elites that governance has become too complex for the common man to undertake or even understand.

Take a look at congress. Do we really want to give more power and control over to them? To me it’s a “no-brainer”: a common sense touch is needed to cure congress and restore the faith of ordinary Americans in them.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Timmy C. permalink
    October 2, 2008 4:12 pm

    A couple three quick questions to your argument that to me reads as:

    “Many who hold that Palin is not a credible person to potentially become President – certainly all the pedants who comment here — hold this belief out of elitism, looking down their nose at those not from the privileged educated and political ruling caste. Their views that she is not a credible potential President is due to their misunderstanding of what true wisdom is.”

    Here they are:

    1. Is it possible by definition be an elitist position IF (at this moment anyway) it is a position that 85% of American voters hold?

    2. Isn’t hyperlinking the word “pedantry” to it’s definition itself a bit elitist?

    3. How do you dismiss the comments left as “elitist” without ignoring whole swaths of the comments that I or Ken left….such as the krux of my argument:

    “That type of thoughtful engagement with national and international issues would matter more to me than the time spent in “executive” positions…

    Experience in office is important, but it constitutes at best half of the experience we need to consider in our candidates for high office….

    We need to know whether candidates understand the issues they will face, whether they have demonstrated thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and good judgment in determining their positions on those issues. Maybe someone can memorize a briefing book of answers in a few weeks, but that would be little help in dealing with evolving and metastasizing issues when confronted with them in office.”

    …The krux of which specifically WAS that you don’t need to be (as Lincoln nor Barack nor Palin are all not) a member of some long held political ruling class…you just need to show understanding, and engagement with the issues a President faces.

    Anyway, just some questions that popped to this argument. Enjoy the debates!


  2. David permalink
    October 2, 2008 9:24 pm

    Both articles were an interesting read. Thanks for posting them. I’ve read Hayward before, as I know and have read some of the American Enterprise Institute’s stuff, which is a very conservative ‘free’ market think tank. Talk about elitists. They are big supporters of the failed Neo-Conservative philosophy which has brought this country to a stand-still, (Neo-Con is another elitist philosophy, trying to push democracy throughout the world through invasion and nation building).

    Now onto Palin. Anyone who fights political corruption, cronyism etc is doing the right thing for the American People, we need all of our politicians to follow suit, and I wish they would-but she is not innocent of accepting ear-marks, or her having own scandals (Troopergate). She was for the bridge before she was against, took the money anyway.

    The Hayward comparison of Palin to Truman is reprehensible and highly selective, which shows the bias of his article. A more full comparison between the two should have been disclosed for it to have any meaningful value. After all, I’m a better pianist than Albert Einstein ever was, but compare deeper and all I have is that we lived in the same century (and I am humbled by him).

    Let’s compare: Firstly, Palin is an absolute newcomer, unknown to most of America, who’s been governor for less than two years. Truman, had been in the Senate for 10 years when he became FDR’s running mate, and he was truly a part of the political class when he ran. Truman was well known in the media, and had a lot of experience in national and world politics; when Palin became the VP pick everyone said ‘who?’. Truman had also voted on major national legislation, and he was a WWI vet; no comparison there except that we know Palin can handle a gun. Just because of a couple of Hayward comparisons, it still gives me no confidence that she is ready for the big job.

    Elitism. Elitist is being used in completely the wrong context, thanks to Frank Luntz, the master of word-meaning manipulation. Any group of people can be regarded as elitists if you take conservapedia’s laughable definition ,
    including but not limited to, fundamentalist Christians, atheists, even Fox news. Otherwise check out other definitions that are more accurate. Hanson’s full article is ridiculous to the extreme.

    What is really laughable is the right-wing calling the Democrats elitist. Conservative trickle-down economics is elitist; trickling down from the ones who have superior intellectual, social, or economic status (the definition of elite). Right now, the Democratic platform of better pay for the poor, healthcare for everyone, equal-rights for gays, choice for women, to name a few, which is actually pluralist and inclusive. The abuse and twisting of words, that has been going on at high speed since Rove entered the arena is exhausting and un-American.

    And finally, with my own prejudices illuminated, I am tired of this so called ownership of this country by the religious right-wing. We all live here and not all of us are religious. I fully believe that ultimately the cynical choice of Palin, was to galvanize the conservatives’ religious voting base, because those people where having a hard time with McCain-it sure as hell worked! I mean, banning abortion even after rape and incest, is just disgusting. And supporting someone because of their ‘folksy’ charm; wasn’t that the appeal of the current president, and look where that got us.

  3. David permalink
    October 3, 2008 12:57 pm

    I thought I would send this link to you. Another Palin gaff. She talks about the corruption of Washington (assuming that includes the current admin & the republican majority from 1994 through to 2006). What was the worst thing that Cheney has done……

  4. October 3, 2008 6:00 pm

    That’s it I’m in for Barack! You have proven it conclusively!!!!

  5. David permalink
    October 3, 2008 10:09 pm

    All Sarcasm appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: