Levin on the Palin Phenomenon

As the election becomes more a matter of history than immediate emotion, it is a good time for sober analysis of what went on in the 2008 election. Yuval Levin has a very good analysis in Commentary Magazine of the phenomenon that was Sarah Palin’s candidacy. In framing the controversy he makes an interesting distinction:

In American politics, the distinction between populism and elitism is further 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 “people against the powerful,” but tend to look down on those people’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.

Addressing how Palin’s candidacy turned this cultural fact into a firestorm, he says:

Palin’s cultural populism put her at odds with the foe that did her the most serious damage: the nation’s intellectual elite, whose initial suspicion of her deepened into outright loathing as the campaign progressed. Her inability in interviews to offer coherent answers about the Bush Doctrine, regulatory reform, and the Supreme Court’s case history, together with her unexceptional academic record and the fact that she had spent almost no time abroad, were offered as evidence that Palin represented a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism on the Right.

She was, the Left-leaning Christopher Hitchens insisted, “a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus.” The Right-leaning David Brooks called Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican party” because her inclination “is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely.”

Palin never actually boasted of ignorance or explicitly scorned learning or ideas. Rather, the implicit charge was that Palin’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 elite’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 life’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 instead—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 intelligence—she is, clearly, highly intelligent—but rather the particular set of assumptions, references, and attitudes inculcated by America’s top twenty universities and transmitted by the nation’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 Palin’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. They see lower-middle-class populists like Palin and their supporters as profoundly ill-suited for governance, because they lack the accoutrements required for its employment—especially in foreign policy, which, even more than domestic affairs, is thought to be an intellectual exercise. It is for this reason that Barack Obama, who actually has far less experience in executive governance than Palin, was not dismissed as unprepared for the presidency. Palin may have been elected governor of Alaska, but his peers in Cambridge had elected Obama editor of the Harvard Law Review. He is thoroughly fluent in the parlance of the college town, and in the eyes of the new American elite, Washington is the ultimate college town.

And his final analysis is, I think, key to the failure of the McCain campaign (to the extent that it can be isolated from the unprecedented event of the economy going into freefall during a presidential election):

The sense of potential that accompanied Palin’s introduction, and the feeling that she might really reverse the momentum of the campaign, were not illusory. For two weeks or so, the polls moved markedly in McCain’s direction, as it seemed that his running mate was something genuinely new in American politics: a lower-middle-class woman who spoke the language of the country’s ordinary voters and had a profound personal understanding of the hopes and worries of a vast swath of the public. She really did seize the attention of swing voters, as McCain’s team had hoped she might. Her convention speech, her interviews, and her debate performance drew unprecedented audiences.

But having finally gotten voters to listen, neither Palin nor McCain could think of anything to say to them. Palin’s reformism, like McCain’s, was essentially an attitude devoid of substance. Both Republican candidates told us they hated corruption and would cut excess and waste. But separately and together, they offered no overarching vision of America, no consistent view of the role of government, no clear description of what a free society should look like, and no coherent policy ideas that might actually address the concerns of American families and offer solutions to the serious problems of the moment. Palin’s populism was not her weakness, but her strength. Her weakness was that she failed to tie her populism to anything deeper. A successful conservative reformism has to draw on cultural populism, but it has also to draw on a worldview, on ideas about society and government, and on a policy agenda. This would make it more intellectual, but not necessarily less populist.

McCain’s advisers were right about Palin: she was a mirror image of John McCain. She was not a visionary politician, or a programmatic politician, but an attitude politician with an appealing biography. In the end, she was no more able than McCain to offer a coherent rationale for his presidency.

If Palin has a future in national politics, it would be on the basis of having come up with an intellectual worldview and agenda which gave direction to the populist forces that she’s clearly capable of summoning. I have no idea if she can do that, only that if she can’t a Palin 2012 or 2016 campaign will never get off the ground.

On a more sober note, it strikes me that the cultural elitism (and it’s increasing revulsion and paranoia in regards to the rest of the country) is probably a symptom of the gradual solidification of cultural strata in the US — as it becomes a mature (and not merely in the good senses of the term) nation like those in Europe. I hope that we can hold the complete ossification of cultural layers off as long as possible, but it seems to be a common feature of nations at a certain point in their arc from eager young growth to aged fecklessness.

12 Responses to Levin on the Palin Phenomenon

  1. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    But she’s winkin’ at you, DC, as she holds that hard-metal, big semi.

  2. Matt McDonald says:

    It’s an interesting article. I would argue that there is not one flavor of economic populism… when it comes to taxation for example, low taxes are populist aren’t they? Being unfettered by excessive government regulation is populist isn’t it?

    I would definitely agree that the deep philosophical underpinnings to modern US conservatism, sadly have been little expounded of late.

  3. Gerard E. says:

    In retrospect, she was too soon, too late. The McCain campaign was trucking along on its own speed- designed to become as moderate and milktoast as possible when she joined the team. Then September 15- the Sunday that triggered the Great Financial Sector Meltdown. Any incumbent party would have also melted down. The vicious, borderline insane attacks by Chattering Class members should be saved by her upcoming campaign and used for political literature three years hence. Meanwhile she looks better and better each day. More tax troubles for Obamaites. Senate hearings into nomination of Rep. Hilda Solis for Labor Secretary cancelled. This after US Today reported Solis’ businessperson hubbo just settled with various gummint agencies for about 16 years worth of tax liens. Mindful of complaint by Casey Stengel when the Ol’ Perfesser managed woeful 1962 NY Mets- “can’t anybody here play this game?” As though there was conspiracy within DNC to bring our Sarah to forefront. Or more like vetting of Cabinet officials consists of rubber stamp use.

  4. Eric Brown says:

    Interviews hurt her image — at least, I became less impressed.

  5. I would argue that there is not one flavor of economic populism… when it comes to taxation for example, low taxes are populist aren’t they? Being unfettered by excessive government regulation is populist isn’t it?

    Agreed. And note, the Democrats have in turn grabbed on to “tax cuts” for “most Americans” as well.

    Actually, I doubt one could define economic populism very clearly because it’s fairly contradictory.

  6. Matt McDonald says:


    maybe it’s easier to define what is NOT economic populism:

    – taxpayer funding of large corporations
    – taxpayer funding of activities that most people find objectionable (abortion)
    – taxpayer funding activities that most people find of little value (the arts)

  7. I’d agree with that.

    And I think the following are probably populist as well:

    -Keep American jobs from going overseas.
    -Tax the rich but leave money in “ordinary people’s” pockets.
    -Reign in “Wall Street” up help “Main Street”
    -Generously fund “worthy” programs but never “waste”

  8. Matt McDonald says:


    populism is sometimes right, as in my example, and sometimes wrong as in yours (except maybe the first one)… in my opinion anyway.

  9. Donna V. says:

    But having finally gotten voters to listen, neither Palin nor McCain could think of anything to say to them.

    And is that because Palin actually had nothing to say or because she was horribly mismanaged by the McCain campaign? We really don’t know yet. I agree with DarwinCatholic that if she can present the nation with a coherent worldview and vision her national career is far from over, despite the disdain of the elites. I have a sneaking suspicion that the elites won’t be looking so good 4 years down the road. Heck, we’re barely into The One’s first term and they’re not looking so hot right now. Palin is supposedly dumb and Nancy (“500 million unemployed”) Pelosi is a rocket scientist? The Dems love taxes, but apparently actually paying them is for the little people. When Andrew Sullivan’s obsessions with Palin’s uterus and Keith Olberman’s goofy swooning over The One qualify them for membership in the “cultural elite,” it’s pretty clear that the bar is set pretty low.

  10. Donald R. McClarey says:

    My wife and daughter are members of Team Sarah, as is my mother-in-law, a life-long Democrat. I think Palin has a bright political future, especially if, as I think likely, the Obama administration crashes and burns.
    Even she couldn’t save McCain, who, after the convention, faced an economic collapse combined with a dithering campaign to tranform him into last year’s Bob Dole. In 2012 or 2016 Palin will be able to run her own type of campaign and I think she will prove a formidable candidate.

  11. Matt,



    There should be one on the second sentence of the article. (Though I’d originally failed to provide it and added it a few minutes after publishing.) Sorry about that…

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