Friday, September 12, 2008

The obligatory post on Sarah Palin

The experience argument isn't really what it's about. I don't think she's ready and I don't think this was a natural next step in her political career; and yes, Obama is also inexperienced, but has had many tests of judgement and grasp on the issues since he's been running. But do we actually think McCain is going to drop dead his first week in office?

Of course it's possible. But for many people, this really isn't about the dangers of having a neophyte running the country, because it's not actually imminent. It's about values, culture wars, and most importantly self-representation.

The Left can't stand her not because she's inexperienced but because they can't take her seriously. Obama signaled from the beginning that he was a serious and thoughtful person, and a big part of that for the Left was demonstrated intellectualism and curiosity. I don't see anything wrong with that; those are two qualities I would certainly want in my President. Sarah Palin is not about intellectualism. She's about biography and strategy and working her way up. Again, nothing wrong with that, in large part (for me) because she is in fact very smart--but intelligence is not what her persona is about. It's not how she defines herself.

Now, I keep hearing that Palin exemplifies Red State-ness, and that that's why she makes lefties nuts. Part of it, of course, is because Democrats have seen the last two elections slip away in a manner that was frankly baffling to us: George Bush was simply not a credible candidate, and Gore and Kerry were both smart guys and distinguished public servants. How the fuck, we wondered, could this be possible? There was a serious sense of alienation in our own country for many people who could neither stand nor credit Bush. The second time around, especially, was like a slap in the face: clearly half the country was living in a different world than we were.

I also keep hearing that many conservatives see themselves in her; that "she's just like us," "she's real," "she knows what we go through." Many media and blogger types have made the point that we should not want a President who's just like us; rather we should want a President who is exceptional. Fuck beer, the argument goes; get the smartest person you can for this job.

To be honest, though, here's what I think about that. I think it's the exact same thing on either side. I think a lot of the people who write those things are very smart and furthermore probably think that they wouldn't want to try, but if they had to, they could get a team together and handle being President. If I'm being honest, then yes, I think I am smart enough. Resilient and morally able enough? Perhaps not. Able to win an election, absolutely not. But once sitting there, could I manage to understand these problems and tackle them with the best wisdom available to me? Yes, I viscerally believe I could, no matter how much I try to foster greater humility in myself.

So of course people like me want to see, well, people like us in the White House. We want smart people who turn to their intellects above all else to tackle these massive problems, because that is the way the world makes sense to us and that is what has worked for all of us in our own lives. By the same token, people like Sarah Palin want to see people like them in the White House--people who believe in hard work, who have stories that they recognize, who draw on their culture and background in tackling these problems. (The intellectualist lefty types draw on their culture, too--we just don't admit that that's our culture, not just pure lofty rational thought. That's the difference between rationality and rationalism, see?)

I believe elections, underneath all the hoo-ha and the shitty advertising, are statements about who we are as a country and who and what we value. Within the nation, there are wildly varying views about what each statement really means, but at the very least we as observers interpret elections as such.

This is why the conservative movement began as a political insurgency: it was about resentment (which is not at all unique--if you think current liberals aren't feeling some resentment you are living in a very happy bubble), as Nixon's tactics from college on through Willie Horton demonstrate, and it was about saying that the people it drew on had voices, too. It was about saying that they still mattered even though the discourse had been about someone else for a long time. This is why Bush's elections hurt many of us so much: they said not only do we lefty intellectuals not matter, we're irrelevant and out of touch with the country, and everything we believe about how to make your way in the world (intelligence) is wrong (see: gut).

So the Obama campaign is precious to many as the campaign of an explicitly smart guy who owns his intelligence and has demonstrated its efficacy several times by correctly predicting the course of world affairs (don't go to Iraq; now that you're there, get out; we should really send more troops to Afghanistan; we're probably going to have to make ground strikes in Pakistan). In many ways, his inexperience speaks to us because it says that all you have to do is bring a sharp intellect and ravenous curiosity and do a lot of homework, and you'll be all right. Not just all right--you'll do pretty damn well. In a continuation of the bizarre yin and yang this campaign has turned into, Palin's inexperience appeals to the people who are "just like her" because it says that their ways of making their way through life and succeeding are valid.

Palin twists the knife further in the liberal ribcage because she is stealing our beat. We watch with disbelief as she twists feminism, populism, and concern for working people into shapes we don't recognize. It's like a bad dream where a friend is possessed and you're the only one who knows--beneath that familiar and beloved exterior is something completely different, something that doesn't speak to you; your greatest fear is that other people will take it for the real thing.

Now, this is an unusual amount of Republican empathy for me, and I still believe that a lot of the small number of people actually pulling the levers for the past eight years have been highly disingenuous. I also believe that the lefty brand of authenticity is much easier to possess in reality after spending years in Washington than the conservative brand is--it's just hard to remain working class, un-elite, etc. in that environment. Intellectualism, I believe, is easier to maintain. This may or may not have something to do with liberals' willingness to forgive personal transgressions of liberal politicians: their main qualification, intelligence and judgement that makes sense to us, remains untouched. Family values are more easily compromised, at least in the public eye.

At this point I'm just rambling. But my main point is this: we all vote based on who's just like us. It's just that intellectual types like me and many bloggers and liberals I've known remain convinced that our calculus is purely rational when it is not. If you ask me, it's that more than anything else that makes us vulnerable to elitism--because we pretend we are immune to cultural solidarity.

Oh, yeah, Sarah Palin--I completely disagree with her polital positions. But what this post is really about is this: what bothers me more than anything else about her is the fact that those positions might be approved of by enough people that she and McCain win the election, and I might have to go on living as a stranger in a strange land.

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