Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

02/07/2009 (11:15 am)

The Meaning of Sarah Palin

Yuval Levin has written a brilliant analysis of the Sarah Palin phenomenon in the 2008 election over at Commentary. If you’ve got about 20 minutes, it’s worth reading.

A few nuggets:

Palin became the embodiment of every dark fantasy the Left had ever held about the views of evangelical Christians and women who do not associate themselves with contemporary feminism, and all concern for clarity and truthfulness was left at the door…

The reaction to Palin revealed a deep and intense cultural paranoia on the Left: an inclination to see retrograde reaction around every corner, and to respond to it with vile anger. A confident, happy, and politically effective woman who was also a social conservative was evidently too much to bear.


Meanwhile, on the Right, Palin was the cause of a manic episode of a different sort. The governor’s touching life story, her folksy way of speaking, and her gut-level appeal to the culture of the lower middle class exercised tremendous power over many conservatives, which inclined them to fill the sizable blanks in Palin’s political profile with their own wishful assumptions, and to make flustered excuses for her shortcomings…

Palin did not merit her instantaneous conversion into the Joan of Arc of the American Right, just as she did not deserve the opprobrium that was heaped upon her by the Left.


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…

The reaction of the intellectual elite to Sarah Palin was far more provincial than Palin herself ever has been, and those who reacted so viscerally against her evinced little or no appreciation for an essential premise of democracy: that practical wisdom matters at least as much as formal education, and that leadership can emerge from utterly unexpected places. The presumption that the only road to power passes through the Ivy League and its tributaries is neither democratic nor sensible, and is, moreover, a sharp and wrongheaded break from the American tradition of citizen governance.


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.

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February 7, 2009 @ 5:48 pm #

Makes sense to my ear. Even the critical remarks– and I like Palin. But on the populism being tied to nothing deeper: Obama did much the same did he not? . . . unless you want to call the word ‘change’ deep.

February 7, 2009 @ 8:23 pm #

*Palin supporter disclaimer – the following is written by a professional Sarah supporter – do not try this at home*

Hi, Phil

I read this article with interest earlier in the week. There was a parallel conversation going on at the Contentions blog which was fun.

If I could, I’d like to repeat one of the posts for you here:

The youtube of her State of the State address is here:


The litmus test for a viable run for the White House in 2012 is her performance as the Governor of Alaska, contrasted against Mr. Obama’s performance in the White House. Does she successfully steer the ship of state through what must look like one of those big storms in the Bering Sea on Deadliest Catch? Can she keep the cargo hold balanced as not to capsize the ship? (My use of all these stupid nautical metaphors may lead you to believe that Bill Ayers wrote this reply, not me.)

Take notice of the contrast in press coverage between Palin and Obama. The press dredged up all manner of faux scandals in Alaska that were utterly baseless (and pathetically easy to disprove even for a knucklehead like me) while Mr. Obama, promising everything short of eternal life, is mired in a quagmire of disgraceful appointments, naive political mistakes such as “I won” (and the Congressmen that you were speaking to lost their elections?) and so on. Honestly, how long before the “500 million people” that lost their jobs last month figure out that the guy whose new job is to make sure you pay your taxes is a tax cheat himself? The press chocks it up to growing pains or whatever rationalization comes to mind – no criticism.

I believe that any shortcomings that Sarah demonstrated during the campaign are skills that can be developed over time. She can work with a media coach and will be all the more ready for the Courics and Gibsons of the media next time around. She can spend an hour a day right here at Contentions and learn a hell of a lot about foreign affairs, etc. She can write a book along the same lines of Obama, outlining her journey and her vision. Unfortunately, there too, she will, again, work with a good speech coach to, really, rid herself of those colloquialisms in her speech, you betcha. Too bad, they are quirky and sometimes annoying but thoroughly authentic.

My point is this, the next presidential election will get underway in two year’s time. According to Mrs. Pelosi’s math, there will be somewhere around “11 billion” Americans out of work. (I’m not sure if she counts all “57″ states, though) Give the Democrats two years to rape and pillage the republic and Mrs. Palin’s message of fiscal conservatism and smaller government will strike a much different tone in political discourse.

February 8, 2009 @ 3:15 am #

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February 9, 2009 @ 1:25 pm #

I do like Gov. Palin, at least what I have seen so far. I think there is a lot to be said though about having a vision and a plan for what the government is supposed to do.

History would tend to bear this thesis out. In 1980 and ’84 Reagan’s optomistic and detailed plan for what the problems with government were (too much of it) and what it should do (provide for defense, and stay the heck out of people’s way) led the way for the two most overwhelming electoral victories we have had in modern times.

Similarly in 1994 when Republicans actually articulated what they were going to do: The contract with America, it allowed people to see that they were not just sniping at what the other guy was doing wrong but what they were going to do right.

That is why it is so important for us not to simply turn into the same type of adversaries the Democrats have been the last 8 years. We need to not only point out what they are doing wrong, but have our own solutions.

I know some people are worried that the Dems will then preempt these ideas, but most of them: Tax cuts, limited government, strong defense, are so antithetical to modern liberals that they won’t/can’t do that. Most of these people are not Bill Clinton.

February 9, 2009 @ 1:46 pm #


For God’s sake, if the Dems want to preempt our ideas and triangulate, let them! The ideas they’re driving instead are going to send our economy over a cliff, expose us to the attacks of foreign enemies, remove most of our essential liberties, and entice troublemakers from other countries to bring their bad behavior here on the government’s tab. I’d rather they take credit for our good ideas than they sink our nation with their horrible ideas.

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