Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Douthat, Palin, and American Meritocracy

In the thread below Steve’s link to the WSJ’s excellent column on the Sarah Palin resignation, Kate--quite rightly--links to another fine column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Douthat argues that--in retrospect--Palin, when asked to run with McCain, should have said "no." I think this is certainly right. And his description of the events that followed because she said "yes" is illuminating and ought to be more chastening than they are likely to be to those who jumped on the anti-Palin bandwagon.

But this is democratic politics we’re talking about and there has never been any danger of that exercise turning into something one could describe as "fair" to all participants. Still, one can’t help but be a bit disgusted at the reflection of ourselves that the Palin trashing has given us. Douthat does a pretty fair job of detailing all the ugly threads of bias and unthinking dismissal that it has exposed in our collective "discourse." But I think it is probably fair to conclude that in the future, sane potential politicians (especially female ones with young children still at home) will be (and certainly should be) chastened by what happened to Palin and by the choices she made in light of it.

It is too late for Palin to undo the choices she made and it may be too late for her to change the trajectory of her political career (though, maybe not)--but her story does point to some timeless facts about nature, human nature, and problems of earthly realities that no modern ideology can extinguish. None of this is to suggest that we are forever bound like rocks by these realities or that there is no working around them to make life more satisfactory and fulfilling for all parties. A woman’s nature has competing realities, after all. I would never argue (it would be absurd for me to argue) that women and mothers should not enter into politics--especially in today’s world. But pretending that these essential differences don’t exist or, worse, that they don’t exist "for me" is a dangerous game. The limitations they impose on (or, to be more positive, the possibilities that they suggest for) any particular woman will be as varied as the women themselves. But, again, ignoring these things is just silly.

Douthat’s column is excellent. But I detect in him a little more surprise at how it turned out and an injection of more meaning in it than I have given it or would give it. For example, does this really mean "that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president" might not actually be true? And is there necessarily a distinction between what he calls a meritocratic and that democratic ideal? Note this paragraph:

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.

Is any of this really true? One of my biggest problems with the whole Palin phenomenon was the apparent distinction that so many wanted to draw between a populist American hero from the backwoods and the intelligent and reflective Ivy-League sophisticate competing for the affections of the American people. For those looking for a ready-made Hollywood script about American politics, Palin and Obama seemed to play out those roles to a tee. Admittedly, Obama had the added benefit of being able to claim he had a toe in both camps. But so much of what goes on in Hollywood--to say nothing of American history and politics--is not what it seems. In a real democratic meritocracy, the questions before voters would not be "What is your background?" or "What schools did you attend?" or "With what partition of the American electorate do you most identify?" The real questions of merit have to do with how one understands the nature and purpose of the American Republic and one’s ability and fortitude in executing that understanding within the Constitutional limits of the Presidency.

Sadly, we didn’t get to that part of the movie with the cast we had in the last election.

Discussions - 25 Comments

AD: I won't pretend to speak for Mr. Douthat, but I read that sentence more as a description of public perception than as a description of Douthat's own thinking.

I think one of the more important themes of the WSJ editorial is that Palin could have more easily overcome the (real) bigotry that she faced if she had championed a real policy agenda and showed mastery of the issues. Most of that isn't her fault. The McCain campaign was hollow and cynical when it came to domestic policy (Example: The Cuomo kid for SEC chair. Why? Why not!). It wasn't fair to have expected her to come up with one of her own during the campaign. But her spat with Letterman hasn't helped her develop a serious persona.

We also should not underrate how partisanship and ideology played into the coverage of Palin. If she had been a liberal Democrat of similar class and region, I doubt she gets treated quite that way. The problem wasn't just that she was a rural politician, it was that she was marked as a rural, white conservative politician, and lots of people in the media think know what they should think about those kinds of people.

I find it interesting that Ponzi has no understanding of how Palin thinks or her motives in the action she has taken. It is as if Ponzi has a set of DC rules and if they don't apply exactly then she will just make them fit Palin's actions. How about honesty and altruism? Her state over her political future? Douthat and Ponzi are both limited thinkers and so used to political slime that they have no experience to draw from.

@ inspectorudy: I fail to see in Ponzi's write-up here where she was ever intending to address how Palin thinks or her motives in the action she has taken. More do I see Ponzi dissecting Douthat's column -- the reality of politics and womanhood, meritocracy & democracy, etc.

Not every piece on Palin should be on her intended motives; I believe that to be especially true given the blinding effects of the 24 hour news cycle in which often naive reporters speaking off-the-cuff and flamboyantly hope to make some sort of attention grabbing call -- when they in fact have little context or powers to perceive what is happening.

In fact, by going through both Douthat's and Ponzi's readings, it seems evident to me that both writers hold a high standard for public officeholders and hold no pretenses about those covered in so-called "political slime."

My first thought after Palin was selected was that she should have said, "No, no thank you." I told my girlfriend this, and she looked at me and said, "Do you really believe anyone in her position could possibly say 'No'"? Not only no to a living American hero, but no to a historic opportunity for the United States and Ms. Palin herself.

Of course, my girlfriend was and is right. Any governor in her position would have said yes. Remember, when Palin was asked, the race was pretty much even. The financial crisis was yet to come. McCain looked to sufficiently lead Obama on foreign policy and war. Palin looked to be, and at the time was, only a positive for McCain. Of course, we found out this was not to be for long.

Palin has proven to be a lightweight. If things worked out differently, perhaps she would have been a great American leader in four to eight years. We'll never know. But we do know that, now, she's not what conservatism needs. For her to be a great leader in the future, she would require some political education of a deeper kind since she has been sullied by mainstream politics.

I won't pretend to speak for Mr. Douthat, but I read that sentence more as a description of public perception than as a description of Douthat's own thinking.

Julie, reading it in context, with the sentences that follow it, makes it pretty clear that he was actually speaking for himself:

"But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

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..."

Douthat argues that--in retrospect--Palin, when asked to run with McCain, should have said "no."

I'm unimpressed by "conservative" writers who are granted access to the NYT pages in order to bash conservatives.

Oh, and fuck off, Scanlon.

The real questions of merit have to do with how one understands the nature and purpose of the American Republic

Residency in the "mertiocracy" prohibits one from understanding the "nature and purpose of the American Republic". Ashbrook is a fine example of this, with its bizarre Declarationism and devotion to a proposition nation detached from any actual flesh-and-blood people.

John M, I am a beneficiary of the Ashbrook heritage through the teachers' seminars and the master's program. I think I am flesh and blood and I think I am conservative. I also understand myself as liberal in a very old-fashioned way. In that, I embrace the idea that a Sarah Palin or any American, despite missteps, fumbled speeches, being mishandled or mishandling themselves, because of a meritorious character or even a character that aspires to merit, without being perfect, might rise to high office, prosper there, and prosper us through solid effort in the pursuit of our best happiness.

I don't see how examining conservatives or conservative ideas in the NYT or anywhere really harms conservatism. Since we seem to have a dearth of dynamic leadership (maybe not a bad thing; Obama's carefully staged demagoguery makes me very nervous and would even if he were conservative) then a public discussion of our ideas and ideals is is very good. Maybe all we have is a great conversation about what is good and true in America to take the eyes of Americans off themselves and their acquisition of place and money and comfort. I like the idea of an America where its flesh and blood also have ideals as part of their nature and purpose.

Anyway, Craig, why does Palin have to be perfect?

John M.: The very idea that you could suggest "residency" in a meritocracy demonstrates your confusion. No one is born to it or gets there to "reside" in it. It's a continual process of proving oneself worthy. You can get there and fall, you can work your whole life and never quite make it.

Also, I think you owe Craig S. an apology today. Why do you have to resort to that kind of language and why should anyone take you seriously when you do?

[Thanks, Julie - I'm not really bothered by that kind of thing, but I appreciate your call for civility.]

Comment by pat from texas [E-Mail]

Kate, I think we are two like minds. I can't say I have ever really liked or been impressed by a politican before.

I confess to being a sucker for charm - Kennedy was charming but I did not like him. Clinton is still charming but who needs that kind of charm?

The one political person I admire and is, for me, a true hero - Winston Churchill. I frequently have to remind the Brits that he saved Western civilization and that was enough - he didn't need to be an angel too.

Compared to Roosevelt, Churchill was a kind, sincere, no baloney kind of person. Perhaps that is what I and others see in Sarah Palin. In politics, that has the rarity of a lightning strike.

As for Sarah and McCain - I think she was not politically "simpatico". (Frankly - I hope not, he is a Democrat at heart.) She is strong minded and I have a feeling that is the cause of her problems with the staff.

Still, I think the pundits who rush to count her out, licking their chops as they do, will find themselves eating crow.

I don't think she will run in '12, not if she is smart. She needs to work on her image and get some national experience which she can do if she does much debating-speaking. She will have to study and think more deeply to make that a success.

Pat, I find Churchill charming, but that much-touted quality of the other two politicians you mention escapes me. I don't know why I am obtuse on the point; everybody else likes them. But about Churchill, I quite agree that if you save western civilization, you ought to be forgiven some foibles.

That matter of Palin's sincerity seems to give people on the Left the heebie-jeebies. That is main complaint about her, that if she is sincere, her Christian/conservative nature is just what they fear the most. Such a person might be all right on the PTA, but not in any position of real authority.

Perhaps it was her sincerity that put off the pros on McCain's campaign staff? She thought she was being asked to be his VP on her merits, whereas he was asking her for her image and all sorts of superficial things. McCain should never have asked her. It was a callous use of her. I have never been able to see the "noble, principled warrior" aspect of him that others admired. I do not even know that he is a Democrat in any sincere way. He is himself and thought that would be enough. When it nearly was not, he sought to shore up his weak right flank with Palin.

Maybe in the sense that this has made her a public figure it did her good, but I am not so sure about that. I described that offer by McCain in an earlier post as being taken to a high place and offered the kingdoms of the world. McCain and other political sorts did not much care that whoever and whatever she was and is, she was not ready for the national stage. AS wife and mother, she had too many obligations to be able to do a good job, either in campaigning or in serving, unless she renounced her commitment to family and ran with the political thing. Since her popularity was all about the kind of family-woman she is or purports to be, she was in an impossible position. If her character is sincere, then her problem is even worse. Yes, she should have said "no." Maybe now she wishes she had.

I have also written about the pain of laying aside ambition for one's family. With all the glorious things supporters have said about her - Christians I know just adore her - what she has done in resigning her office must be incredibly hard. What is she to do with the adulation? Coming to a place where she must make this choice - that is a real test of character. I wouldn't blame her if she couldn't just go home and be Mom. We can't expect her to be an angel, but I will only really be able admire her if she does wait for major public office until her children are grown and she has worked herself out of that job.

The Lusitania passengers spending eternity in Davey Jone's locker might not think so highly of Churchill.

I don't suppose the troops who were caught in the lost Turkish invasion would have praise for him either.

He did have a high opinion of himself, but if he hadn't he wouldn't have been on the spot to be PM when they needed him.

The ego that it takes to be sure of your decision is its own enemy and its own advocate.

It is better than never being right as the present POTUS is.

I was refrencing the fact that research suggests he planned and executed a sort of psyop with that ship. Making sure it sailed on top of the Uboats and would be sunk in order to sway public opinion. Sending soldiers to their death is part of leading nations, but sacrificing innocents in part of dirty trick? Similar to the gulf of Tonkin years later.


I have read tons of books about Churchill, but I have not heard that one. Sounds fishy to me. A bit like Roosevelt knowing the Japanese were definitely going to attack Pearl and when.

Churchill was roundly condemned and lost his office as Lord Admiral of the Navy because the attack on Turkey failed so badly and was considered rash.

Do you suppose Al Gore reads these blogs? That Churchill routine of his was the worse piece of advertising I have ever seen. Bar None. If I had never known anything about Churchill, I would have almost disliked him as much as I do Gore.

MikeD: VDH is the man. All there is to it.


The timing for Sarah P. was bad with the new baby. But since she has so much willing help, I am not sure it could not work.

I actually had seven children 6 of them girls. I am rather a feminist although, any gentleman who wants to open a door for me is on my "good list." I have been known to hold the door for a man if his arms are full.

I think it takes courage to raise a down syndrome child. I thank God I never had to make the choice. But if her family is truly with her, then I don't see that should stop her.

I strongly believe in "enlightened self-interest". That presupposes that what you do does not place the family in an untenable position where they feel guilty if they do not want to participate and do so unwillingly. It also presupposes that her motives for doing it are clear and right.

I am not sure "you first" is always the best answer, but it shouldn't be "me first" either.

This really is the dilemma of the age for women.

And timing is critical in the contests of life. If she'd said no, she'd probably not have had another chance.

Her main attribute for the campaign was her "charm" and drawing power. The fact that she could speak without saying "duh" (or "Uh" every other word like Obama when he hasn't a script).

She was the thing the Republicans needed. You can say that is flimsy - but then if you look at the Messiah - how flimsy is that? It was fighting fire with fire.

She is smart - something the Repubs need too - and Gore and Biden and quite a few Dems could borrow some smarts. I just hope she gets down to brass tacks and gets wise besides smart.

By the way - I meant Kennedy and Clinton were very charming men. But I think Kennedy was a user and well, we don't need to say what Clinton was.

(Sorry, gentlemen if this woman stuff makes your eyes glaze over).

Mike D: The VDH piece is excellent and I agree with most of it--though VDH may overstate a few things. The other one is a bit too much of wish becoming thought . . .

Really. Somebody show MikeD how to do links. He finds good ones.

The VDH piece may say it best, spelling out more fully what I think patfromtexas is getting at when she says Palin is what Republicans need/needed and why.

Pat, I don't know that Palin would not have had another chance if she had said "no" to McCain this time. Some of us were looking at her in Alaska, along with other young or youngish Republican governors around the country, as hope for America's political future. If she had served successfully as governor and been re-elected, she would have looked really good as potential president. Think of the refrain about her as compared to Obama and Biden, "At least she's successfully run a city and a state." Now we can't point to the latter, whatever she had accomplished while in office. I wish she had been able to prove herself in Alaska, as now she is relegated to charm and a (sometimes) glib tongue. God only knows what will happen to her by 2016 or 2020, or to us. I can't really see her as the Republican Messiah and at this point, she would practically be rising from the dead to run for president. Who knows?

Julie: You've got to respect VDH for his convictions though; he really does believe those things. I've seen his consistency for years -- something that can't be said about most columnists.

"There are many kinds of maneuvres in war, some only of which take place on the battlefield. . . . The maneuvre which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle." The evidence of guilt is sketchy and can be plausibly denied as incompetence, sound familiar? I think the idea of this cam about from a work by a guy named simpson who was quickly denounced by all other historians, which is hardly rare for someone who challenges traditional thinking without it being racial or sex based. This is all way off the topic, sorry.

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