by Victor Davis Hanson
The AP supposedly hired 11 fact-checkers to discredit Ms. Palin’s memoir (Did Fox News hire 11 to question the very questionable things found in the two Obama memoirs?)
Bloggers post on Palin’s live interviews minute by minute; few, if any, opponents of Barack Obama do the same.
Every statement she makes is parsed, to prove she is ignorant or parochial — though most of her so-called lapses are the sort of things Biden and Obama are accustomed to committing weekly.
The list could go on, but two fundamental questions arise:
1) What drives this fear and loathing?
2) How does one, then, assess the Palin phenomenon?
Why Does Palin Create Hysteria?
Question one is easy, and we can be systematic in our exegeses:
i). Feminists are enraged that her can-do, have a Down’s Syndrome child in her 40s, shoot-moose persona will be used as a paradigm of a liberated women. She is quite attractive, fertile, and married to a Jack-Armstrong 19th-century man.
Her success as an independent female, who was an up-from-the-bootstraps small-town council member, mayor, state regulator and governor, is antithetical to doctrinaire feminism. The latter devolved into a political and grievance-based creed. It is often whiny, and increasingly dominated by single, childless shrill elites. Many try to equate their own unhappiness in matters of family and sex into some sort of cosmic complaint against male patriarchy — as a way of leveraging influence, access, money, and power or simply justifying now regrettable life choices made in their 20’s and 30’s.
Feminism is not about ensuring that Dorothy at K-Mart is not fired because she is female. It is more about an upper-middle-class Dedi Wilson-Reynolds getting to the top of the university food chain, law firm, or government bureaucracy, on the assumption that her gender deserves compensation, in the manner of being non-white or foreign-born or non-Christian.
In such a climate, here comes snazzy, breezy, winking Sarah — happy, good-looking, a mom, and in no need of a rich husband or well-connected dad (in the manner of her critics like a Andrea Mitchell, Sally Quinn, Nancy Pelosi, etc). She inherently exposes feminism as a liberal advocacy movement rather than a bipartisan effort to ensure equal opportunity for women in the workplace and society at large.
ii). Liberal elites are, well, deemed elites because they predicate their stature on things such as where they went to school, where they live, how much money they have access to, where their children attend university, and whom they know — all done in a sort of understated, coded fashion. The best snobbery is the least stated.
When a Wasilla, you betcha, no abortion, Christian PTA mom comes on the scene with an Idaho BA, then red flags go up. Poor Sarah — had her mom only been a Colombian aristocrat, she might have at least pulled it off as Sarah Maria Dias-Palin, and compromised some of the furor. Poor Sarah, if she could only speak through nose. Poor Sarah, if she could only show up at her Wellesley reunion.
Moreover, Palin does not have Audrey Hepburn/Jackie Kennedy boney looks, or even superficial John Edwards blow-dry smugness: she comes across as real, earthy, and warm, unaffected, the sort of wife most men prefer to a Maureen Dowd or Barbara Boxer shrewish whine.
iii). Right-wing populism also scares the left since grassroots movements are supposed to reflect democracy and the instant expression of popular will. And that is supposed to be good all the time. Yet average Joes listen to Rush Limbaugh in their cars, not Air America, and watch Bill O’Reilly, not MSNBC. Barack Obama was supposed to be a populist phenomenon, by virtue of being an African-American organizer, and we were to like him for his supposed ease with hoi polloi. But we surely cannot be consistent, and extend that notion of authenticity to a Christian, moose-hunter from the snow-bound, wacko far north who talks like the clerk at Wal-Mart — and draws crowds as large as Obama’s.
Where Does It All Lead?
Palin faces many of the same problems that sunk Reagan in 1976: the moderate Republicans think she is a shallow, superficial head-nodder, the way they wrote Reagan off in his quest to dethrone Ford. She earns as much resistance from Republican Old Guarders as she does the Obamians. In the elite center-right way of thinking, she knows little of foreign affairs and is not wonkish about domestic issues.
Her supporters’ argument is that any woman who can have five kids, pull herself out of Wasilla to the national political scene, juggle job, husband, family, and press, and take on the old boy Republicans in Alaska while being an anathema to the liberal elite, must have brains and guts. Such experience will easily allow her, given the proper time and campaigning, to master the issues every bit as well as do Barack Obama or Joe Biden.
Yet since many conservative elites imagine that a Harvard Kennedy School degree is superior to multifaceted knowledge of .357 Magnums, chain-sawing, skinning game, and fishing, they will judge her only in terms of a traditionalcursus honorum — spiced up with invective about creationism and Christian fundamentalism. (I have some experience with such snobbishness: when I used to speak before hostile university audiences, I was often introduced along these lines: “Mr. Hanson is a raisin farmer from Fresno State of Jerry Tarkanian fame.” [and therefore, presto, must be an idiot].)
Yet Palin won’t quite go away, given her opposition to the two most unpopular institutions in America today: Big Government and High Finance.
The voters are tiring on left-wing, condescending big government. An Eric Holder, Timothy Geithner and Barack Obama are the best reflections of the contradictory urge to redistribute money, and hector the productive upper-middle classes — while at the same time indulging their rarefied tastes and desire for privilege through government administration.
Yet Wall Street elites are no more popular. They are seen as selfish, conniving, and of no political persuasion other than kowtowing to the particular powers that be in Washington. Their creed is not conservatism or liberalism, but rather statism and the marriage of the federal government and high finance. And we now know these one-eyed jacks. Federal regulators (cf. e.g., Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Hank Paulson, Franklin Raines, etc) drift in and out of Wall Street. In exchange for guaranteeing that firms don’t fail and get sweetheart attention, federal officials are promised that during their sabbaticals from Washington they are to be accorded ceremonial jobs with access to near automatic multimillion-dollar bonuses.
Again, Palin is not an inside-the-beltway hack, and has never held federal office. She is honest and won’t go to Goldman Sachs or get a government auditorship over Bank of America. She seems like a fish out of water in New York and Washington. For someone in government for nearly 20 years, she ended up, until the latest book blitz, broke. You can’t serve for two decades in local and state government and be poor — without being perceived as honest.
Her populism is anti-bailout, anti-take-over, anti-federal loan guarantees — and as anti-Wall Street as it is anti-Washington. And for many, that is found appealing: it cuts the legs from under both Rockefeller, beltway Republicans, and high-rolling Kerry-Gore-Edwards-Kenney-Pelosi multimillionaire liberal Democrats.
All of which brings us, again, back to the second question, where does Palinism lead? (It matters little that were she not so attractive, and were she not picked by John McCain, we would not now be discussing her; since were Jack Kennedy not charismatic and the son of a zillionaire, we would not have known him either.)
Palin must have at her fingertips far more elucidating answers than offered by any liberal icon — or what she showed in the 2008 campaign. If Sarah Palin thinks FDR was President in 1929, or that he could speak on non-existent TV, she is through; if Biden says that, it’s “just old Joe again.” If Obama does not know the first thing about our most prestigious medals, the language of Austria, or diplomatic protocol about presidential bowing, it’s because he is deliberately trying to be cool; if Palin did the same, she’s a buffoon hockey mom. That is the way it is, and her supporters should accept it, deal with, and overcome it.
In other words, Palinites should assume that there is no margin of error for her at all. Like it or not, she must, like Reagan, not only communicate, but also be able to draw on abstract concepts about conservatism. It does no good to say the media is biased, or to review the talking points offered above. She must be better than, not as good as, mainstream Democratic and Republican candidates in matters of foreign policy, gotcha recall, and talking points on healthcare, taxes, etc. Specificity, detail, and exactness, not generalities or whines about an unfair press, will make her a serious candidate.
The best thing she can do is to go out and talk, take her licks, promote her book, fend off foes, and gain experience in the arena of ideas — while spending her evenings reading and debating wonks and politicians. The marketplace of politics then will decide her fate, not pundits or political insiders. If she swims in the next year, she’s on her way; if she sinks, she will recede from our memory.
My Own Views?
I am prejudiced because what I learned over years of farming — dealing with California labor, environmental, legal, and tax regulations, pruning, tractor driving, listening to my grandfather, and handling unsavory characters, understanding plant physiology and fruit-production, etc. — I think gave me a different, but in the long run as good an education as a BA/PhD in Classical languages.
I found the former harder to do than the latter, the world of the one rather brutal and existential, of the other sheltered and protected. In other words, I would trust the judgment of someone with Palin’s background on matters of Iran or Honduras or Putin far more than I would someone of Obama’s resume. I would trust my neighbor who farms 180 acres more than I would a chairman of an academic department. I know, I know, there are extreme binaries, but they are reflective of the lack of autonomy and physicality today and the undue emphasis on elite schooling as prerequisites for success. We know now that you can do nothing and still finish as the head of Harvard Law Review, or win a Nobel Prize, but if you miss an antlered moose, or run out of gas in the tundra, or fall overboard on a salmon boat, there is no Norwegian committee or Harvard Law Dean to bail you out.
Such is not an argument for anti-intellectualism or a dismissal of in-depth scholarship and research, but rather a reminder that Palin has led a full life that can be enhanced by more formal investigation. A chatty, rarified Obama misses dearly a concrete past, where he had to succeed or fail on his own merits, in a competitive unkind environment, where the muscular world often conspires against the intellectual.
And boy, it sure shows as we are learning in just 10 months of his uninspired governance.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson