Yuval Levin, in Commentary, reflects on Sarah Palin’s candidacy and what it revealed about class and politics in contemporary America.
In American politics, the distinction between populism and elitism is… 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 â€œpeople against the powerful,â€ but tend to look down on those peopleâ€™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 â€œthe real Americaâ€ 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 never actually boasted of ignorance or explicitly scorned learning or ideas. Rather, the implicit charge was that Palinâ€™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.
This form of intellectual elitism is actually fairly new in America, though it has been a dominant feature of European society since World War II. It is not as exclusive or as anti-democratic as cultural elitism is in other countries, because entry to the American intellectual elite is, in principle, open to all who pursue it. And pursuing it is not as difficult as it once was, at least for the middle class. Indeed, most of this eliteâ€™s prominent members hail from middle-class origins and not from traditional bastions of American privilege and wealth. They can speak of growing up in Scranton, even as they raise their noses at dirty coal and hunting season.
Nor is membership in the intellectual upper class determined by diplomas hanging on the wall. Palin could have gained entrance easily, despite the fact that she holds a mere degree in journalism from the University of Idaho. Although the intellectual elite is deeply shaped by our leading institutions of higher learning, belonging to it is more the result of shared assumptions and attitudes. It is more cultural than academic, more NPR than PhD. In Washington, many politicians who have not risen through the best of universities work hard for years to master the language and the suppositions of this upper tier, and to live carefully within the bounds prescribed by its view of the world.
Applied to politics, the worldview of the intellectual elite begins from an unstated assumption that governing is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and verbal fluency more than for prudence born of lifeâ€™s hard lessons.
Sarah Palin embodied a very different notion of politics, in which sound instincts and valuable life experiences are considered sources of knowledge at least the equal of book learning. She is the product of an America in which explicit displays of pride in intellect are considered unseemly, and where physical prowess and moral constancy are given a higher place than intellectual achievement. She was in the habit of stressing these faculties insteadâ€”a habit that struck many in Washington as brutishness.
This is why Palin was seen as anti-intellectual when, properly speaking, she was simply non-intellectual. What she lacked was not intelligenceâ€”she is, clearly, highly intelligentâ€”but rather the particular set of assumptions, references, and attitudes inculcated by Americaâ€™s top twenty universities and transmitted by the nationâ€™s elite cultural organs.
Many of those (including especially those on the Right) who reacted badly to Palin on intellectual grounds understand themselves to be advancing the interests of lower-middle-class families similar to Palinâ€™s own family and to many of those in attendance at her rallies who greeted her arrival on the scene as a kind of deliverance. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that while these members of the intellectual elite want the government to serve the interests of such people first and foremost, they do not want those people to hold the levers of power.
Read the whole thing.
Hat tip to Bird Dog‘s Best Essays of the Year.