Streetwise Professor

September 14, 2008

Tell Me What You See

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 10:21 pm

Commentor Timothy Post takes me to task (surprise) for my post on Sarah Palin, complete with a bonus, unsolicited repetition of the slur about Trig’s parentage. The ironic thing about this is that my post was addressing a very narrow issue–the insinuation by Tom Broke-jaw and David Gregory that Palin didn’t know the responsibilities of the Vice President–and did not address in any way Palin’s qualifications for office. But, I stand accused of drinking the Go Sarah Go Kool Aid nonetheless.

But Timothy’s Pavlovian response to anything not brutally critical of Palin is very revealing. It encapsulates the most important dynamic of this election, post-Palin: the intense, visceral, hatred that Sarah Palin triggers among liberals and Democrats, and the almost as intensely rapturous response she engenders from her supporters. In a phrase, Sarah Palin is a national Rorschach Test.

It all boils down to the fact that Sarah Palin is the most purely Jacksonian major party nominee since James K. Polk in 1844. (For an entertaining bio of Polk, skip Wikipedia, and check out this catchy biographical tune by They Might Be Giants.) And since the time of Old Hickory himself, Jacksonians have driven America’s political and social elites into apoplexy. In Jackson’s day, cultured New Englanders scorned Jackson and the his great mob of unwashed followers. Today’s Coastal Crowd takes a similarly dim view of anyone hailing from a background like Sarah Palin’s: evangelical Christian, rural, and traditionalist. (It is hard to imagine a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger sitting in Harvard Yard writing encomiums to Jackson.)

Indeed, “take a dim view” hardly captures the sputtering rage that Palin incites. I have never witnessed this intensity of invective–personal, hurtful–directed at any political figure (Bush and Clinton included). To me, it seems that this hatred–and that is not too strong a word for it–is not aimed at Palin herself so much as what she represents. The response to Palin is like that directed against someone who has broken a taboo. To the progressive “elite” in this country (and Europe), Palin is a transgressive figure who violates the well established boundaries of what is, and what is not, acceptable for a major political figure. As an embodiment of The Other, she is a challenge to the established order of things–and must be not merely stopped, but destroyed. If Sarah Palin can ascend the heights of political power anybody can do it–and we just can’t have that now can we? Just as Jackson was a challenge to the established order, so is Palin. Just as Jackson appealed to vast numbers of Americans outside the accepted power structures, so does Palin. As such, because of what she represents, she is a threat.

The irony of all this is that the more the self-defined elites attack her, the more sympathy and support she will generate. Palin, like Obama, embodies the aspirations of many previously marginalized in the political process. Many of those who identify with her take the attacks on her personally–as attacks on themselves. The attacks will therefore, most likely, boomerang against those making them. Rather than driving people away from Palin towards Obama, they will only increase the breadth and intensity of support for Palin–and McCain.

This matters because, as I have opined before, it is the Jacksonians in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri that will decide this election. They make up the key swing constituency that will determine who is inaugurated on 20 January, 2009. Obama has always struggled with this group. Biden did–and does–nothing to offset that. McCain was already more naturally appealing to these folks, with his Scotch-Irish, military background, but years in Washington have attenuated that connection. Palin forges a bond with, if not a silent majority ignored by the coastal elites, a pivotal constituency essential to assemble a constitutional majority. And every attack, every insult, every slur, every condescending interview will only strengthen that bond. These assaults are triggering a tribal response to defend one’s own that lends an intensity to McCain’s support that he never could have engendered on his own. Moreover, Palin has united the heretofore fissiparous tribes of the Republican party, in essence overcoming fissures that John McCain himself largely created.

I am agnostic as to Palin’s qualifications and merits; her resume is thin (though not as thin as Obama’s), but she has done a lot in a short period of time as governor. I find the signs of an incipient Palin personality cult as creepy as I find Obama’s full-blown one.

But the point is that her qualifications are irrelevant. Her candidacy is as symbolic in its own way as Obama’s. Indeed, her symbolism is far more demotic than Obama’s, his appealing to a self-identified, highly self-conscious, and highly politicized elite, hers to a heretofore politically marginal and un-self-conscious constituency. And Timothy, every time you or one of your tribe attack her, slur her, condescend to her, you are cutting your own political throats. So, by all means, carry on.

[Aside: Palin is a Jacksonian, no doubt. But what are those who oppose her so viscerally? Certainly not Hamiltonians. Not Jeffersonians either. Wilsonian is the closest, but even that doesn’t quite match (especially on foreign policy questions, though Wilsonian Progressivism on domestic matters is an element of the coastal elite’s political thinking. ) No, I think that Palin clearly reveals a fault line between Jacksonians, and a European progressive mindset that is outside traditional American political categories, but which is firmly ensconced among the self-perceived elites on the coasts.]

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  1. Professor:

    You are correct, Sarah Palin may be a national Rorschach Test. You are also correct that America is divided between what you call the “elites” and what you call the “Jacksonian mob.” However, you miss a critical point.

    The “elites” are not characterized by their viewpoints nor their positions. No, there are elites in both the Republican party and the Democratic party. There are elite Conservatives and elites Liberals. What defines someone as elite is that s/he tends to be well-educated, intellectual, and curious about policies and issues. In fact, Professor, protest as you might, you are an elite (that’s a compliment by the way).

    Now don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an elite. Nor is there anything wrong with being a member of the Jacksonian mob. The problem occurs when members of the elite (in this case Karl Rove and company) pander to the Jacksonian mob by nominating one of their own. Sarah Palin is quite uninformed on what the important policy questions facing this country today, let alone having thoughtful answers to those questions (Yes, Mrs. Palin Alaska is a neighbor with Russia. No, Mrs. Palin, this fact isn’t relevant).

    That is what I object to in Sarah Palin’s nomination.

    You and I agree on very little but I do think you would agree that you are far more qualified to be McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate than Sarah Palin. Our country is facing a number of serious questions which call for serious debates. That is lacking from this election. I wish there were someone like yourself who would be well educated and thoughtful in his/her positions. I may not agree with many of the assumptions which form the basis of your views but I do respect the seriousness and the intellect behind those positions. The same can not be said of Sarah Palin’s views (even you admit as much above).

    Lastly, Professor, you are correct again in your assertion that the more the Liberal elites object to Sarah Palin the better chance McCain has of winning.

    Karl Rove is a political genius. However, the fiscally conservative “elites” (Milton Friedmanites – yourself included) might want to be careful that they are not creating a political “monster” (i.e. socially conservative mob) who will focus so intently on the social questions (guns, abortion, stem cell research, etc) that they will neglect the important fiscal and international issues facing this country.

    Professor, as they say, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

    Comment by Timothy Post — September 15, 2008 @ 1:53 am

  2. Thanks, Tim, for a thoughtful comment. You are right, we will certainly seldom agree, but as long as we keep it civil and respectful (and I direct that at myself too) we can have some interesting and enlightening debates–even if the enlightenment is primarily in the form of casting fundamental differences of vision into stark relief.

    Re elites. Yeah, guilty as charged when evaluated on objective criteria, but subjectively I fit uneasily in academic and business elite culture. I am instinctively a Jacksonian–something inherited from my maternal grandfather, a Hatfield (of Hatfield-McCoy infamy), who grew up in the most hardscrabble circumstances imaginable in Appalachia but became an embodiment of the American dream, eventually becoming president of a small telephone company in Illinois. From him, I inherited a basically Scotch-Irish temperament and instinctual outlook. He was self-educated, and was one of the most erudite men I ever have had the pleasure of knowing, but you would never peg him as an “elite.” Indeed, he could mix Will Rogers-esque stories with highly analytical disquisitions, and be equally persuasive in either idiom.

    At the same time, however, I am deeply suspicious of populism, and very uneasy with evangelicals (even though my paternal grandmother was one)–but don’t respect the scorn with which secularists look down on evangelicals.

    If I had to characterize myself, I would steal a word from the title of famous historian of Russia Richard Pipes’ autobiography–“non-belonger.” I exist in the borderland between elite and demotic American culture, not fully comfortable in either, seeing virtues and vices in each.

    It is this uneasiness with these competing visions that explains my political (classical) liberalism–in my view, reducing the power of government and the magnitude of the stakes is desirable to reduce the scope for mischief that can arise when anybody has too much power.

    Further re elites. It is no doubt true that there are conservative/libertarian elites in the US, but it is beyond cavil, in my view, that the progressive (and Euro-progressive) vision dominates elite culture in the US. That is the default option in academia, I can assure you. So when I refer to “elites,” and seemingly limit the discussion to the progressive, coastal elite, that is a shorthand statement of dominant tendencies, rather than an exhaustive description.

    It’s funny that you say that I am more qualified to hold high office than Sarah Palin. I think that political “intelligence” is pretty much orthogonal to the analytical intelligence and knowledge that I may possess in some degree. An old joke at the University of Chicago went “Every UC professor thinks that the optimal form of government is an autocracy, with himself/herself as the autocrat.” A very frightening prospect.

    I have a vague recollection of a quote by Richard Posner, famous intellectual, jurist, and controversialist, who when asked about the likelihood of his appointment to the Supreme Court, said (I quote from memory) “I don’t think that my work is comprehensible to the Congressional intellect.” I think that the role of people like me is to bring our critical faculties to bear on the debates, throw our ideas out there, and influence the political debate in that way, rather than engage in the competition to acquire political power. I think I’ve been able to do that in small way in areas related to my professional expertise (e.g., the debate over energy prices and energy speculation), but I know that I am constitutionally and temperamentally unfit for political office–and beside which, I would hate it.

    Re the election, I have never had any illusions that anyone even remotely compatible with my political views has a snowball’s chance of being elected (in this election or any other). It is always a matter of who is worse, rather than who is better. Re your concerns about the prospects that a social issues crusader prevail and impose his/her vision on the rest of us, all I can say is that one of the geniuses of the American political system is its penchant for gridlock and impediments to discontinuous change. That limits the scope for damage than any one individual or party can wreak. That is what gives me solace when I contemplate the prospect of an Obama election.

    There is a good deal of ruin in a country, and due to the robustness of its institutions, that’s more true of the US than just about any other nation. (Hence the repeated–and repeatedly wrong–predictions of an American Decline and Fall.) Regardless of who wins on the first Tuesday of November, the sun will rise in the east the following morning and the inertial character of the American system will cushion the practical effects of the electoral outcome.

    Thanks again for your comment. Let’s do it again sometime.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 15, 2008 @ 3:37 am

  3. Craig:

    This is an interesting op-ed from David Brooks addressing the very topic we have been discussing above.

    Comment by Timothy Post — September 16, 2008 @ 11:29 am

  4. Looking in from the outside, it seems possible that a large part of the explanation for the visceral response to Sarah Palin might be simple fear: for people who are desperate to move away from a Republican Presidency and all that has meant, her obvious public and media appeal is scary.

    Comment by Barry — September 18, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  5. The Jackson/Palin analogy is dead-on. I would submit that the opposite of a Jacksonian is a Whig or an early Republican; on average wealthier, more educated, interested in social transformation or moral uplift, with a tendency towards messianic politics. At worst, they’re paternalistic and self-congratulatory; at best, genuinely idealistic (as in the abolitionist movement). If Lydia Maria Child were alive today, she’d be a Democrat.

    Comment by Sarah Constantin — September 24, 2008 @ 1:48 am

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