Saturday, July 18, 2009

Palin, Policy, and Elitism

It's a bit late to be doing a post mortem on Sarah Palin, but a number of comments on her have set some of my gears turning. So I thought I would take the time to explain what I have against her.

It is not that she is a conservative feminist. Yes, many feminists do regard a conservative feminist as an oxymoron and take offense at the concept. They point out, correctly, that feminism began as a liberal-to-left-wing phenomenon, with conservatives strongly opposed. But sooner or later we have to move on beyond the past. The existence of conservative feminism is a mark of just how triumphant feminism has been.

It is not because she is self-made or did not go to an Ivy League college or is not a Washington insider. It is not because she has Red State mores, hunts moose, or has five children. It is not because she did not abort a Down's baby, or because her daughter chose a shotgun marriage and/or single parenthood over abortion.

My problem with Sarah Palin amounts to three closely related complaints. (1) She clearly does not understand any leading national issues. (2) She does not want to understand leading national issues. (3) She equates her ignorance with virtue and knowledge with elitism.

Number one is merely a defect in knowledge, not in temperament, that is by itself remediable. Number two is a permanent disqualification from the Presidency, but it may still be a matter of priority rather than temperament, that leaves her qualified for some lesser office. But to equate ignorance with virtue and treat it as morally superior to knowledge -- that is a flaw in temperament that should disqualify her from any responsible office. It is the same temperamental flaw that was the undoing of George Bush. And it appears to be a large part of her appeal to many of her followers.

An extraordinary example of what this can mean comes from a Ta-Nehisi Coates quote from one of his readers: "[I]f I said, 'The average American voter simply can't understand complicated national issues.' Your response would not be 'You're wrong; Barack Obama understands complicated national issues.' A response like that would make no sense--Obama is is a singularly talented individual; he's not just a representative American voter. In order to have faith in democracy, we have to believe that a majority of us, not simply the best of us, are capable of making the right call."

This is, when you get right down to it, a remarkable statement. It means that the democratic ideal is to elect people with no understanding of complicated national issues because, after all, most average Americans don't understand such issues and we want leaders just like us. How does one answer such an absurd statement?

First of all, although most Americans do not understand complicated national issues that is, after all, not a flaw in temperament, but a matter of priority. Most Americans occupy their lives with other things. But addressing complicated national issues is, after all, what Washington is all about. Wanting our leaders in Washington to have a better understanding of complex national issues than the average American is no more elitist than wanting a doctor with specialized knowlege about the functioning of the body, a mechanic with specialized knowledge of cars, or a programer with specialized knowledge of computers.

Second, although average Americans may not understand complicated national issues, we have at least some ability to judge whether the leaders we send to Washington do. Sarah Palin more than amply demonstrated that she did not.

And third, chosing our leaders is, after all, not the same as choosing a doctor, a mechanic, or a programer. In choosing a doctor, mechanic, or programer, technical skills and professional competence are all that really matter. In choosing our leaders, we want people who share our values, goals and social vision. (All the silly business about Obama's bowling scores and taste in mustard is, in effect, using these as markers of the values he represents). We want people who are honest and play fair with their constituents. We want people who demonstrate overall good judgment. And (let's face it) we want good politicians who know how to make friends and influence people, or they will never get anything done. These, too, are things that ordinary Americans with no particular understanding of the complexities of public policy are qualified to judge.

So, in short, we want to choose leaders who share our values, priorities and goals; leaders of honest, integrity and good judgment; and leaders who know how to get things done. Is it so elitist to say that we also want leaders with a deeper understanding of complex national issues than our own. Yes, this does mean trusting in our leaders to get those complex details right. But if those leaders share our overall objectives and have good judgment, is that so bad? It is certainly better than choosing leaders who share our values but don't understand complex national issues and trusting them to guess.

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