Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Meritocratic vs. Democratic, ctd.

Ta-Nehisi weighs in with an interesting take on Ross Douthat's idea that Barack Obama represents the meritocratic ideal and Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal. It's a good look at the racial implications of Ross's formulation.

Personally, I don't think that Douthat has a leg to stand on. Palin isn't the democratic ideal--she's the democratic nightmare. Palin might well represent the idea that anyone could become president, but I mean that not in the sense of this being something that we should be proud of, but rather in the sense that this is a bad thing. I think it was Clarence Darrow who said, "When I was growing up, people told me that anyone could get elected president. Now, I'm starting to believe it." He might have been talking about Harding, I don't remember. But the point is that one of the reasons that the Founding Fathers set up such a ridiculously cumbersome system of government was that they were deeply worried about mob rule--of the sort of whimsical, ignorant rabble of which Palin is the tribune. I think those fears are overstated (and I favor a rather extensive reworking of the federal government, which I feel inhibits good government by diffusing responsibility to too great an extent), but I do feel that Palin is exactly the sort that the framers were worried about. Palin's more extreme followers are people who, deep down, despise so much of our liberal inheritance, from the judicial system to the free press to freedom of speech. She's basically said variants of all of these things, and it's not like you have to go far to find similar sentiments among prominent movement conservatives (i.e. just visit The Corner). They'd give it all up immediately, just for the chance to adore Queen Sarah up on high, because then all the confusion of modern life would go away. We'd be back to the premodern, to royalism, to the divine right of kings. This scares the hell out of me, and I know that there are lots of conservatives who either don't agree with this vision, or haven't thought it through to its natural conclusion. Probably most of them. But, nevertheless, here we are. As Lyndon Johnson said, these are the stakes.

I don't personally think that Palin's an evil person, but rather a flawed person with some pretty deep character flaws--pride, narcissism, and an abiding will to power. Something that the neocons never get (perhaps because they avoid Niebuhr like the plague) is that good and evil aren't separable commodities. Nietzsche made this point, of course, in Beyond Good And Evil and Niebuhr expands on it. Not only can we be defeated by our flaws, but it's interesting how our flaws, despite our admirable components, can often be the channel through which evil flows. The only way out of this is some combination of deep self-knowledge and humility. Palin has the opposite, as did McCain, as did Bush. Hell, as did Clinton, for that matter. It's not like this is only a Republican thing. Only Obama and Reagan strike me as modern people who were even close to recognizing these problems, and the fact that we keep electing exceptionally arrogant and ignorant people to office suggests something really wrong about our political situation.

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.