I knew it was too good to be true. True/Slant contributor Mark Stricherz and I rarely agree on anything, but a few days ago, I had to throw some props his way for his clear-eyed post Palin Was Undone By Ignorance (Duh). Refraining from the whiny victimization and excuse-making of Palin advocates, he put the blame squarely where it ought to be: on Sarah Palin’s own stupidity. But then, seeing that The Grand High Poobah of the Culture Wars, Ross Douthat, had come to a different conclusion, Stricherz pulled one of the most remarkable 180’s I’ve ever seen. Basically throwing his entire thesis from the previous day in the toilet, Mark rejected the idea that Palin’s ignorance was the most important cause of her undoing. No, it was that perennial conservative boogeyman: THE CULTURAL ELITE. Boo!
Actually, he takes an [out-of-context] page from author Nicholas Lemann and dubs them Mandarins, but otherwise it’s the same right-wing refrain we’ve been hearing since forever. To wit: a cabal of effete Eastern establishment snobs is pulling the levers of culture and power, all the while looking down their nose at Joe SixPack and his Bible and his music and his food. I’ll come back to this later and poke some holes in it, but I’d like to address one of his other points first. Namely, that she received unusual treatment for typical ignorance:
Many national politicians display less than total command of the issues and interest in the intricacies of politics and government. I’m thinking of Ross Perot and his presentation of NAFTA; Gen. Wesley Clark and his explanation of the nation’s abortion laws; and George W. Bush and his 2000 explanation of the Social Security system. Yet none of these candidates was undone by their ignorance.
I’ll agree Perot was not ready for prime-time, but how was he not “undone” by his buffoonery? He was a folksy reformer who turned out to be much less than advertised when he dropped out for bizarre reasons, citing ridiculous conspiracy theories of shadowy enemies who were out to get him and his family. Sound familiar? He went from leading in the polls before he dropped out to 18 percent and no electoral college votes in the end. Perot was hopelessly out of his depth, and so is Palin.
I won’t dignify the comparison to Wesley Clark, but the Bush mention is telling. It’s true, Bush wasn’t “undone” by his ignorance, but the country nearly was, and a large part of Palin’s unpopularity was due to our collective memory of what happens when you install an utter idiot in the White House. And Palin made Bush look like a gentleman scholar, so of course Americans weren’t going to line up for the same thing, but worse.
Moving onto Mark’s point that these shadowy Mandarins hastened her downfall exclusively, I want to take issue specifically with his contention that black leaders “did not work to crush Palin”. The wording is so slanted as to be meaningless, but the idea that blacks and/or black leaders were indifferent to Palin is ludicrous on its face. Representative John Lewis compared her infamously unhinged rallies to George Wallace’s, and several other black Congressmen went on the record denouncing her rhetoric as racist. I worked at BET during the election cycle, and the videos of those disturbing rallies were passed around day after day in unbelieving horror. Obviously, McCain was never going to make much of a dent in the black vote against Obama, but Palin sure didn’t help.
But you don’t even have to bring race into it to show how silly the idea is that Palin was brought down by a Mandarin Elite Liberal conspiracy. You know who else didn’t like Palin? Nearly everyone else. One of the few “accomplishments” Sarah Palin can point to is being perhaps the only VP in history to have such a detrimental effect on the top of the ticket. She was a net positive for the Republicans only among white evangelicals, and, in fact, this series of graphs seem to point to her having a greater negative effect for McCain than his handling of the economy. John McCain made an incredibly stupid mistake in picking such an incredibly stupid person to be second-in-command, and the American people punished him for it.
It’s hard to take Stricherz seriously when he not only contradicts his position from the previous day, he contradicts himself within the same post:
The group that helped undo Palin is not an economic class or racial cohort. It’s a path. It’s a group defined by the route it takes to the top of the pecking order. As author-journalist Nicholas Lemann pointed out, this group is the Mandarins: an elite who made it based on academic achievement in general and high scores on the SAT in particular.
He goes on to quote Lemann at length about how the Mandarin path runs through the Ivy League. But wait!
Many of the anti-Palins mandarins attended elite universities; Olbermann graduated from Cornell and Maddow from Stanford, for example. But most did not. Their hatred of Palin is based less on her lack of academic credentials than the fact that she does not share their worldview.
So, the people most dead-set against Palin are a bunch of Ivy Leaguers. Except when they’re not. Which is most of the time, apparently. But Palin’s opponents have an, uh, Mandarin mindset – apparently defined by not sharing Sarah Palin’s worldview. So, he’s basically saying Sarah Palin’s opponents were people who disagreed with how Sarah Palin saw the world. That is a stunning insight.
He continues his diatribe against this vague, nefarious elite by saying they don’t view Palin’s accomplishments as legitimate. What accomplishments, you might ask? Mark’s list is a lovely example of what Bush I called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
“The fact that she raised five children” – As Chris Rock said, you’re s’posed to raise your kids! You don’t get a cookie for that! Are we going to start handing out medals when people don’t dump their offspring in a dumpster? That’s an amazingly low bar for her to be credited for jumping.
“elected the first female governor of the state” – That might mean something if her first term hadn’t been scandal-ridden, mediocre, and you know, incomplete.
“raised taxes on oil companies” OK, sure. The one actual accomplishment a conservative can name for her is that she raised taxes on an industry that can’t up and leave the state. But I’ll give you that.
Why is Stricherz so determined to concoct this elaborate conspiracy theory of an all-powerful elite that held her down? Why can’t he (and Douthhat) realize what nearly everyone else in the country – and now Alaska – has understood about Sarah Palin? Namely, that she’s a demonstrably ignorant person of poor character with grandiose ambitions that far exceed her limited abilities. That’s it. No overarching theories or poor man’s sociology required.
Perhaps it’s force of habit for conservatives. Since Nixon figured out to divide the country and walk away with the bigger half, Republicans have been much more adept at sowing discord and winning elections than the boring work of actual governing. And a major reason they were able to win those elections was by muddying the waters of social and economic class.
It’s a deft act of legerdemain – the tangible, real-world, life-and-death effects of economic inequities are brushed aside while the subjective – and many times, concocted – injuries of cultural difference are brought to the fore. To the extent that conservatives aren’t manufacturing cultural division instead of merely exploiting it, they’re offering political solutions to personal insecurities – possibly the least conservative notion one could possibly imagine. Of course, since there aren’t actually ‘solutions’ to social anxieties, they’re never assuaged – all the better for those who want to keep running on them. It’s a never-ending racket, an Ouroboros of outrage and insecurity with no real endpoint – except the election of another conservative. Or at least it used to work that way, till the country ran into the hard wall of reality and wised up.
The sight of Stricherz’s fave columnist Ross Douthat – born in Yale’s backyard and educated at Harvard – bemoaning the snobbery and elitism of Palin’s critics is rich. But I guess it’s no different than New Canaan Coulter mocking Kerry’s patrician ways or George W. Bush trying to shed his Eastern Establishment background into the brush piles of Texas. There’s clearly some self-loathing going on in the conservative soul – an awareness of the vast disconnect between their millionaire-friendly policies and their populist politicking – that leads them to worship such faux-folksy half-wits like Palin. But the rest of us don’t have anything like that to work through, so we’ll take a pass, thank you very much.