Palin and the democratic ideal

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In an heroic effort to mount a modest defense of Sarah Palin today, fresh-baked NYT columnist Ross Douthat avers:

In a recent Pew poll,
44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more
had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of
independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

last statistic is a crucial one. Palin’s popularity has as much to do
with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the
perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the
meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to
attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American
success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that
anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from
Columbia and Harvard.

Palinpoll.gifNow wait just a minute. As of last October, equal proportions of those without a college education and those with at least a B.A. supported Palin. (Since then, she’s gained seven points with the no-college crowd.) That’s nothing to hang a class-based analysis on–especially when all these numbers are in the 40s. But look at ideology, and what you find are huge numbers for her among conservative and white evangelical Republicans. Her popularity does not have as much to do with class as it does with ideology.

And as for which ideal she represents, let’s not forget that the meritocratic ideal is the democratic ideal: You make your way forward on the basis not of family ties or wealth but by your natural abilities. What Palin represents is something else, call it the populist ideal. It’s found in the title of the song Huey Long made his slogan: “Every Man a King.” The song begins:

Why weep or slumber America
Land of brave and true
With castles and clothing and food for all
All belongs to you

Ev’ry man a king, ev’ry man a king
For you can be a milionnaire

It’s a dream of meritless success. You go, girl!

Oh and by the way, on the faith front, Douthat says that among the lessons to be drawn from the Palin experience for any politician sharing her background and sex is that “[y]our religion will be mocked and misrepresented.” Now, Mike Huckabee may not share Palin’s sex, but he came as close as any of last year’s GOP presidential aspirants to sharing her religious background. And his religion was not mocked during the campaign.

Was this because Palin isn’t a Baptist but a Pentecostal? Who knew, really, what her religion was? She’d switched churches, denied she belonged to any church, and declined to identify with with any but the most generic “faith in God” sentiments. Everyone, including her most fervent supporters, thought they knew where she stood. But she never made the slightest effort to define herself religiously. Maybe there’s a lesson from her campaign in that. 

  • Emily

    It’s a dream of meritless success. You go, girl!
    That’s an excellent statement of the “populist ideal”. It reminds me, rather, of an incisive statement Jon Stewart made about the way candidates attempt to present themselves as non-elitist average Joes and Janes: “If you don’t think you’re better than the rest of us, why the Hell are you running for President?!”; he then suggested the campaign slogan: “Vote for me, I’m just an average guy and would probably be a lousy President.”
    Was this because Palin isn’t a Baptist but a Pentecostal? Who knew, really, what her religion was?
    It always seemed to me that Palin focused mostly on the “real-world” moral aspects of her faith, such as “family values”, instead of her theological/spiritual views– which are less relevant to governing but something people want to know about anyway. She made it clear that she had strong faith in God, without making it clear just what that faith meant. This vagueness caused people to cling on to the slightest detail about her beliefs, especially if it indicated extremism– like an alleged comment indicating that she is a Young Earth Creationist who believes dinosaurs and humans lived together. And more recently, this downright bizarre statement from that Vanity Fair article:
    When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”
    I’m not sure what the lesson is in all this– define your beliefs before someone else does? Make sure you not only practice what you preach but know what you’re (apparently) preaching in the first place?

  • Mark Silk

    Your reference to Jon Stewart reminds me of a crack then Mass. state senate president Billy Bulger made at Elliott Richardson’s expense at one of his (Bulger’s) famous St. Patrick’s day roasts. The very Brahmin Richardson was then running for governor and Bulger proposed this campaign slogan: “Vote for Elliott. He’s better than you are.” Of course, Richardson lost.
    As for Palin’s religion, I’m persuaded (on the basis of various pieces of evidence) that the church she belonged to until she decided to run for statewide office (the Wasilla Assembly of God) was indeed pretty out there, in terms premillenialist convictions. Clearly she was prepared to distance herself from it for the sake of her career. What that says about what she really believes, I don’t pretend to say.