Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In defense of all my fellow intellectual elites

Yuval Levin has a good article on Sarah Palin. I disagree with much of it, but it's reasonably argued and nearly persuasive. The gist is: Palin was killed by cultural elitism.

I'll agree with Levin that a lot of the social issue stuff about Palin was exaggerated, and that she was never the "Christianist" that Andrew Sullivan claimed she was. But her lack of political experience--and, more importantly, of engagement with the issues--was and is significant. Her personal style, which included a willingness to abuse official power to settle scores against certain ex-brothers in law, was and is significant. And I think it's very hard to say that Palin was Biden's equal at the debate--polls at the time and common sense can only lead to the conclusion that Biden easily won the debate, and that Palin only managed to avoid getting booted off the ticket.

Perhaps Levin's most contentious point is the cultural elitism point. I won't deny that there was an element of this--hell, maybe it was a prime mover of Palin criticism--but I think he overplays his hand here. Palin was not lower middle class in any economic sense of the term. And the notion that she just fell into the culture war debates is disingenuous, being as her convention speech was basically a rehashing of all that garbage. She courted culture war conflict nearly from day one, and she got it. But saying that expecting potential presidents to go to (one) good university is elitism is just wrong: getting into good schools (not necessarily Ivies) is predictive of one's drive, motivation, and future achievement. It tells just how hard you are willing to work. If expecting well-educated hard workers to assume the presidency is elitism, then the very concept of expecting achievement out of our public officials is dead. I actually think this tells us a lot: over her years as a politician, Palin seemed to be uninterested in doing the intellectual spadework needed to be a serious political figure, and as a result was revealed as an ignorant boob on national television. This is not an aberration, it is part of her character.

Palin was part of Steve Schmidt's scheme to work the refs and delegitimize the media's criticisms of his candidate. Fair enough. But when that is the goal from the outset it seems a bit rich to cry about poor treatment from the media. How is the media supposed to react when your candidate cannot answer the simplest questions on foreign policy? How is the media supposed to react when your candidate keeps repeating the same lies even after they're being disproven? The Bridge to Nowhere scandal wasn't the result of a simple mixup, but rather a deliberate attempt to game the media to see if they would bark. They did. While some element of elitism might have permeated all of her bad coverage (hey, even Beltway types have feelings and probably don't like being insulted all the time), it's hardly the only plausible explanation here, and when there are simpler explanations (like her poor command of the issues and combative political style), why immediately suspect a conspiracy? Then again, paranoia is a deliberate suppression of Occam's Razor.

Some of Levin's other critiques miss the mark as well. Palin's feminist critics opposed her largely for her issue positions rather than because of her cultural heritage. Or maybe they didn't, but, once again, one can choose to take people at their word or one can believe that they are acting out of bad faith. And Levin doesn't really convince here. He acts as though one could only oppose Palin out of cultural snobbery and that there isn't a case to be made for expecting, you know, achievement out of our leaders. Instead, Levin seems to think that life experience is sufficient. Now, I think that life experience really is important in leaders, but Levin is unfortunately forced to argue that it is all that a leader needs, which means that virtually anyone in the United States is qualified to be president. This is clearly not the case. Not that a degree from an elite institution is a predictor of success in and of itself--George W. Bush, after all, received degrees from two of our finest schools. But Levin's task isn't to provoke an honest discussion of the importance of raw knowledge in our leaders, but rather to defend Sarah Palin, regardless of what the implications of his arguments are. I suspect if the Republicans had put up an intellectual force like Mitt Romney and the Dems had picked someone with quite a bit less intellectual firepower like, say, Loretta Sanchez for president, Levin would be singing an entirely different tune. Maybe, maybe not, but the effectiveness his defense of Palin relies upon one believing in some sort of systemic liberal bias, the irrelevance of higher education to elected officials, and so on, which is to say that one cannot believe the argument unless you share the biases and worldview of someone like Levin. Which is all well and good, but it doesn't persuade. It's just more campaign agitprop.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.