As the race for the Republican presidential nomination starts heating up (as it well should–after all, we’re within 17 months of Election Day now!), a lot of focus continues to fall on Sarah Palin, who continues to tantalize constituents and the media by positioning herself as a candidate but equivocating on whether she will actually declare as one. And, as they have been doing ever since 2008, many conservative Christians seem to be fawning over her, or at the very least eyeing her candidacy with interest. This has always deeply disturbed me, and although it seems highly unlikely that she could ever actually win (though stranger things have happened), I wanted to finally try to put the reason why into a nutshell, in case she does declare her candidacy and I find myself compelled to comment.
I won’t concern myself with her policies. While I’m happy with her pro-life stance, my agreement pretty much stops there, and I find many of her viewpoints, particularly on foreign policy, downright frightful. But that’s not the core of the problem. The problem is that Palin embodies all that is worst about the American political process–that politicians today are celebrities and demagogues, purveyors of image and slogans, rather than experience and thoughtful ideas. Palin is as it were the reductio ad absurdum of the politician-as-celebrity, abandoning the very minimal political experience she had midstream in order to pursue a career of unabashed high-profile politicking, inviting the media spotlight and guaranteeing political exposure by making unfounded and polarizing assertions. But even that isn’t the root of the problem (although her carelessness with the truth is even worse than that which we have come to expect of politicians in this day and age).
What concerns me most is how self-consciously she taps into the peculiarly American sentiment of anti-intellectualism. Americans like to think of themselves as no-nonsense, down-to-earth people: all you need is common sense, not a bunch of academic mumbo-jumbo. We think that anyone who tries to add intellectual complexity to a problem is simply trying to obscure something that should be black and white–to hell with their Harvard degrees, we know the American dream when we see it, and we know socialism when we see it!
This is the American attitude, and one that has long had a destructive influence on the American church, where fundamentalism has tended to glory in a sort of least-common-denominator, de-theologized Christianity. Oddly enough, many of the same Christians who are so quick to decry this anti-intellectualism in the Church cheer for it when it comes to politics–this, they say, is Palin’s strongest suit: the fact that she’s so genuine and down-to-earth and black-and-white, so free of the suspicious obfuscating intellectualism that we identify with “the Left,” and which Obama exemplifies. We decry such “elitism” and vote for the candidate who claims to represent the no-nonsense common man.
Palin not only claims to do that, but she actually does, because she’s really not all that bright, or at any rate really doesn’t seem to understand politics much at all. And to us, that’s a virtue. But the problem is that politics is an extraordinarily complicated business, especially in this day and age. Plato thought that no one could govern rightly unless they were a philosopher…others since have realized that was impossible, but have still felt that the ideal ruler was the most wise, the most educated. You can’t simply take charge of the most wealthy and most powerful nation on earth with nothing but a dose of common-sense and a conviction that everything is more or less black and white. You would either destroy the nation in no time, or perhaps worse, given Palin’s fiercely nationalistic rhetoric, go about destroying other nations in no time.
Now, Palin’s defendants might be likely to retort that of course she wouldn’t govern alone, but would surround herself with people who know what they’re doing. That’s even more scary, it seems to me. Because the intellectuals, the insiders who’ve been around the block a few times, and know their way around Washington, have agendas of their own, and if the person in charge of the show isn’t extremely shrewd and extremely knowledgeable, they’ll run circles round her and turn her into a pawn. After all, these people didn’t last so long in Washington by being nice people, but by having no scruples, and knowing how to play the game of realpolitik. My view is that this is what happened to Bush, who I think was probably fairly well-intentioned, naive, and relatively uncorrupt by politicians’ standards, when he took Rumsfeld and Cheney on board, who then quickly turned his presidency to their own sinister ends.
Admittedly, there aren’t many politicians today with enough brains, experience, and grit to hold their ground against these characters, but if anyone can do it, it’s certainly not going to be anyone as naive and impressionable as Palin seems to be.