I have not commented on Sarah Palin, though the phenomenon of her candidacy on the McCain ticket deserves some study. Yuval Levin’s “The Meaning of Sarah Palin” in Commentary Magazine is the most thoughtful essay on Palin that I have so far seen. I highly recommend it for its analysis of Palin’s place in the election and for its examination of American political attitudes. Here is a section about the role of populism and elitism in the reaction toward Palin:
In American politics, the distinction between populism and elitism is further subdivided into cultural and economic populism and elitism. And for at least the last forty years, the two parties have broken down distinctly along this double axis. The Republican party has been the party of cultural populism and economic elitism, and the Democrats have been the party of cultural elitism and economic populism. Republicans tend to identify with the traditional values, unabashedly patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan, non-nuanced Joe Sixpack, even as they pursue an economic policy that aims at elite investor-driven growth. Democrats identify with the mistreated, underpaid, overworked, crushed-by-the-corporation “people against the powerful,” but tend to look down on those people’s religion, education, and way of life. Republicans tend to believe the dynamism of the market is for the best but that cultural change can be dangerously disruptive; Democrats tend to believe dynamic social change stretches the boundaries of inclusion for the better but that economic dynamism is often ruinous and unjust.
Both economic and cultural populism are politically potent, but in America, unlike in Europe, cultural populism has always been much more powerful. Americans do not resent the success of others, but they do resent arrogance, and especially intellectual arrogance. Even the poor in our country tend to be moved more by cultural than by economic appeals. It was this sense, this feeling, that Sarah Palin channeled so effectively. Her appearance on the scene unleashed populist energies that McCain had not tapped, and she both fed them and fed off them. She spent the bulk of her time at Republican rallies assailing the cultural radicalism of Barack Obama and his latte-sipping followers, who, she occasionally suggested, were not part of the “the real America” she saw in the adoring throngs standing before her. Palin channeled these cultural energies more by what she was than by what she said or did, which contributed mightily to the odd disjunction between her professional resume and her campaign presence and impact.
Palin’s cultural populism put her at odds with the foe that did her the most serious damage: the nation’s intellectual elite, whose initial suspicion of her deepened into outright loathing as the campaign progressed. Her inability in interviews to offer coherent answers about the Bush Doctrine, regulatory reform, and the Supreme Court’s case history, together with her unexceptional academic record and the fact that she had spent almost no time abroad, were offered as evidence that Palin represented a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism on the Right.
She was, the Left-leaning Christopher Hitchens insisted, “a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus.” The Right-leaning David Brooks called Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican party” because her inclination “is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely.”
Palin never actually boasted of ignorance or explicitly scorned learning or ideas. Rather, the implicit charge was that Palin’s failure to speak the language and to share the common points of reference of the educated upper tier of American society essentially rendered her unfit for high office.
I have much experience in the demographic camps that Levin describes. Having been raised as a West Sider in Cincinnati and then having lived in exile among the Washingtonian policy set for some time, I can personally testify of the wide cultural chasm between middle class, inland, generally religious conservatives and the professional, coastal, generally irreligious Leftists. However, I do not feel particularly at home in either camp. Besides my general misanthropic shortcomings, I have been ill educated for society; for philosophy tends to make its disciples aliens wherever they live. Yet, to use Lewis’ image, I find the Ivy educated men without chests much more harmful to civilization than the provincial ignorant workers of my own background. They both have their vices, but the latter merely carry the perennial afflictions of mankind in their unquestioning slavishness to convention and familiarity. Human society can, and perhaps must, survive in such intellectual twilight. The former group, however, are the more condemned because they, even in their purported conviction in relativism (the ridiculousness of such a thing speaks for itself), hold themselves to be educated and wise. The fool who knows himself to be a fool is less dangerous to himself and to others than he who wrongly thinks himself another Aristotle. Furthermore, traditional stupidity has stood the tests of time, whereas the idiocies of recent world view mutations have not proven their fitness—they may not be able to ensure the survival of a society that adopts them. Such a realization leads one of a Buckley frame of mind to trust the masses more with political power than university professors. Though an unapologetic elitist myself, I find American populism, for all its deficiencies, much less destructive for us than the social engineering Leftist intellectuals who have plagued the West for generations.