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Misoverestimating Palin

I tend to drink Keystone Light, the mother’s milk of my alma mater. I’m not dogmatic about it, though; I’ve considered switching to Natural Light because my doctor says it’s a good source of Vitamin D. After all, as we … Read More

By / November 10, 2008

I tend to drink Keystone Light, the mother’s milk of my alma mater. I’m not dogmatic about it, though; I’ve considered switching to Natural Light because my doctor says it’s a good source of Vitamin D. After all, as we learn in Ecclesiastes 3, “there is a time to cast away stones.” For me, that time may have come.

Allow me to explain. Yesterday, just before sitting down to read a Wall Street Journal piece by Mark Lilla entitled “The Perils of ‘Populist Chic,’” I opened a cube of ’Stones and bagged an elusive “Keystolope.” This, as I hope you’re unaware, is a limited edition orange can depicting a Keystone with antlers.

At first I thought I’d won something, and, in a sense, I had: a bright orange reminder that I have no money and must settle for low-quality goods. See, for me, Keystone isn’t about some kind of weird, condescending faux-populism, like the late great trucker hat, or Fred Thompson. It’s about twelve for eight dollars.

Well, now I’m going to have to shell out for the “good stuff.” You know: Arpeggiator Magic Glockenspiel Doppelbock. Tipsy Terrapin Summer Breeze Hefeweizen. The elitist stuff. (Elitists don’t mind the expense, by the way, because they enjoy it responsibly. You know you’re hanging with an elitist of an evening because he buys a six-pack and means for you to split it. A populist buys a thirty-pack and throws in a fifth of Ancient Age “just in case.”)

But I don’t want to be a populist anymore. I don’t even want to be mistaken for one. And “good” beer is just the beginning. Now instead of girding my guts with pulled pork before hitting Antonio’s Nut House, I’ll be carbo-loading on edamame (no salt, please!) before hitting my Bikram yoga class. And I’ll get there on a bike. And I might even turn off the lights and television before leaving the house.

All because of Sarah.

I wanted so badly to like her. I do like her, I suppose. She is fundamentally good in a way that one might have expected to ensure her some regard or at least civility from the media and general public. I don’t mean kid gloves. I never bought the arguments for her suitability for the presidency, but I was unswayed by the feigned conviction that McCain was likely to croak in office. The nation’s insurance actuaries turn their lonely eyes to those brief few weeks when people cared about what they do.

She was fearless and unashamed, and, though this may be the writer in me talking, she was interesting. She had a story, and a personality, and a pioneer spirit. She was both fierce—dread moose-bane—and profoundly maternal. I had hoped that her principles and personality would be admired even by those who don’t share them. You read that right: who don’t share her principles and who don’t possess anything close to her spark and vigor. The outstanding Tina Fey has more in common with Palin than she does with most of her own female admirers. No wonder it was a perfect match.

Now for the bad news. She really was, as Lilla argues in his essay, both ignorant and provincial. Those flaws can be mended by learning and travel. I’m not among those who imagine that Palin is downright stupid; truly stupid people do not generally give widely-praised speeches or debate U.S. senators. But you wouldn’t pick a very smart layman to engineer a bridge with the expectation that he learn on the job.

All this has been said, and I had no problem with those who said it. I had a problem with their saying it without a modicum of class or mitigating kindness—in short, with their being so elitist about it. I’ll always remember Charlie Gibson looking, as Charles Krauthammer put it, “down his nose and over his glasses with weary disdain” at Palin, like an anthropomorphic New York Times.

But forget I said so, because I’m going elitist. I’ve long considered myself a populist because I respect and value the people who do¬ and produce in American society, and I assume that their abilities lend them insight into the workings of the world. (I also assume that a great number of them are book-smart as well, like the WSJ-loving trucker in John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers.) This may be the case, but I would be no populist at all if I didn’t give a serious hearing to the wishes of Just Folks.

Just Folks have spoken, and it turns out they sounds a lot like Charlie Gibson. They hate Palin just as much as the NPR crowd does. They’ve grown weary of outreach that takes the form of candidates they’d like to have a beer with. Maybe, in fact, they’d like to have a beer with someone smarter than they are—maybe they want to learn something. I’d ask them myself if I hadn’t just decided to stop caring what they think.

It’s hard not to feel chastened by Lilla’s words:

Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.

All true. And if there’s got to be an annoying, condescending, belittling elite, it might as well be a conservative one, right?  

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