Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sarah Palin and the Democratic Dream

In a recent op-ed column, which has been much referenced, Ross Douthat of the New York Times pondered what the Sarah Palin story means to the true American Dream that anybody, regardless of gender or class, can become President of the U.S. He had this to say:

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
My beef with Douthat here is that he draws a clear line between the meritocratic ideal and the democratic ideal. But why should such a line be drawn? It makes no sense to think that Barack Obama's story represents the meritocratic ideal and not the democratic ideal. As Obama himself says, one of the greatest things about this country and its democratic ideals of freedom, liberty, and all the rest, is that, if one works hard, the opportunity and possibility for success exists. Douthat, in fact, seems to be saying in distinguishing between the democratic ideal and the meritocratic ideal, that the democratic ideal means you can get anything you set your heart on just by setting your heart on it. The democratic ideal doesn't require that you "earn" your success (that would make it "meritocratic"), merely that if you are in the right place at the right time you can stumble into success, and that this is good.

But let's run with the distinction as Douthat does. He continues:
This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.
Now, I agree with Douthat that Palin has botched the "democratic" role he describes. But the reason why she botched it is because she didn't have the skills to represent the American everyman and to keep elites accountable to the Average Joe. In other words, she didn't earn the democratic role that Douthat describes. That role does require leadership. We "ordinary citizens" can't all take on the elites in up-by-your-bootstrap fashion like Andrew Jackson without distinguishing ourselves as capable of leadership in doing so. In other words, even ordinary citizens in a democracy have to earn their leadership props by demonstrating the skills and acumen to serve in that capacity. Sarah Palin botched this democratic role because she simply IS not the "extraordinary" ordinary citizen that Douthat expects can fill it.

Douthat continues:
But it’s also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.
I call B.S. on this. If Sarah Palin had any shred of ability as an ordinary citizen capable of fulfilling the democratic role that Douthat ascribes to her, the "media and political establishments" would have responded to her much, much differently. Douthat seems to be under the delusion that Sarah Palin's "botch job" doesn't merit harsh criticism. He seems to think that the "media and political establishments" just went after Palin because she is from a non-elite class (a claim, by the way, that just doesn't really hold up to any kind of class-based analysis) and because she is a woman. As Douthat must know, there are many women from much more humble backgrounds who have succeeded in fulfilling that democratic role because they earned it through diligence and hard work. And the "media and political establishments" treat such people accordingly. I give Douthat Sonia Sotomayor as a perfect example of this.

More Douthat from later in the article:
All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin’s gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.
Douthat's absolutist claim that the way the "media and political establishments" treated Palin so critically and dismissively had "everything to do with Palin's gender and her social class" is clearly disproved by the way the "media and political establishments" have treated other women from modest class origins who have sought to make a claim on national power and leadership like Sonia Sotomayor. Reminds me of that 1970s TV game show "The Gong Show" (Maybe today's "American Idol" could compare.) Anyone ordinary could get on the "Gong Show"; but only those with some talent and skills would survive it. Sarah Palin got on the show; and the "media and political establishments" (not to mention the larger public) GONGED her. And it wasn't because of her class or gender, but because she didn't earn advancing toward the prize.

Douthat ends with this quippy bit of pseudo-wisdom:
But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even think about it.
To which I'd add: ... if you don't have the talent. And if you don't have the talent, but put yourself on the stage anyway, you don't deserve for people to pretend nicely that you do.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Well, if she's so inept, it's a good thing that she's no longer holding public office, right?

Now if we could just get Obama, who looks to be equally inept, (if not more eloquent in his ineptitude...) to step down as well... well, our nation may just survive.

If anything, what our country should be learning from all this is that the 'meritocratic ideal' we hold is completely warped. Obama and Palin aren't eachother's foils, they are two sides of the same coin: empty cultural eroticism masquerading as substance. You want a candidate who embodies a true meritocratic ideal, elect somebody who has turned around failing companies, or a governer who wiped out drug trafficking in their state. The problem with our modern politicans is that they don't do anything but win political contests, and we consider that meritous.