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Resentment and Populism

George Will is at his best with this column on Sarah Palin.  Good paragraph:
"America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism. But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness. This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites. Besides, full-throated populism has not won a national election in 178 years, since Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832."

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Discussions - 28 Comments

What is on Jackson's Tombstone?

"General Andrew Jackson, March 15, 1767 – June 8, 1845"

Someone look up the first 2,000 names in the Cambridge, MA phone book.........

This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites.

Someone ought to tell Will not to let the door hit his ass on the way out. (One cannot help noticing that the only American President over the course of his public career that he did not disdain was the one who taught the Republican Party self-deception in matters of public accounting).

With regard to our economic predicament, if someone is willing to persuade the general public that there is such a thing as scarcity (i.e. that our wants exceed our productive capacity, always), that there must always be a mechanism for rationing scarce goods and services (medical care included), that people who lend you money expect to be paid back (even if they are Taiwanese), and that public expenditure (beyond a certain modest level) entails a cost in paid in a diminution of economic dynamism, it does not matter if they are 'intellectually ordinary' or not.

Art Deco: Do you by chance live in Cambridge, MA? I'm hoping "Art" makes the 2,000 person cut-off.......

I don' t want someone "ordinary" as president. I want someone insanely accomplished; someone who is extraordinarily bright; someone who is able to see the interconnections between complex problems and situations and is willing to wrestle with that complexity; someone who is able to articulate a clear vision and path through the muck that is our modern and global economy; someone who is willing to work 20 hours a day and demands that kind of work from his or her staff. We deserve at least that much. I want a person who is well-connected and who has a well-rounded and serious education. I don't want my president to be someone who speaks in colloquialism and cliches that emanate from anger and insecurity. I don't care if this person is someone with whom I could share a beer. I don't want someone who is inarticulate and uncultured. I want the best and the brightest, and if that's elitist then so be it.

Yes, agatha, but if that person was instead a populist, or just a plain, old-fashioned republican, or was someone whose colloquialisms and (short-cutting) cliches were cheery and emanated from a deep identification with the nation's idioms, who could do just what you want in terms of intelligence and work, though without a "serious" education and lots of great social connections. Would that be all right?

I am one of those folks weary and leery of elitists. I don't want someone who knows what's best, never mind me and everyone else of the hoi polloi. I want someone who knows what's right and is willing to articulate that and I don't much care about the quality of his vocabulary.

And by "right," Kate, you mean ... just what you think, right?

In support of Kate, and contra (maybe) Agatha, I'd add that Lincoln was pretty far from ordinary . . . but he was not embarrassed to use colloquialisms or talk in the cadences of the people (most especially, the book most familiar to most of them--the Bible). He was not obscure or unknown . . . but he was not particularly "well-connected." And, above all, though he was broadly and deeply educated in a better way than most men ever hope to be, he did most of it himself (as, ultimately, anyone--whether with or without a high-class degree must do). Lincoln, however, did not have the benefit of much tutelage and, certainly, not the kind that one may receive (or imagine he receives) in a fancy or well-known institution.

I don't simply dismiss what Agatha says . . . and I like, very much, most of what Will says. But I think somewhere between this and best of what the tea partiers have to offer is the real truth of the matter. Lincoln, I submit, in his rejection of so-called "popular sovereignty" or Douglasism and in his ascendancy to the natural aristocracy not only thought so too--he proved it.

"I killed the bank" at least that was the legend I always heard. I can't find proof though, but he did kill the national bank with his veto and now is ironicly displayed on a federal reserve note. If the legend is false, I am curious to how it got started.

Herbert Hoover was among the most accomplished men ever to sit behind that desk; with a few exceptions, he may have been the most profound student of political thought to have occupied the office in the last 180 years. His Administration was also a disaster like no other.

Kate, while I sometimes long for the world of Thornton Wilder and small town America, I live in a modern, technological, and urban world. While the idioms of my world don't necessarily resonate with you, for all of their strengths and weaknesses they are the future.

I want someone who knows or can determine what is both best and right regardless of what the hoi polloi think because the hoi polloi seldom have the knowledge, connections, and experience, to examine and understand the complexities necessary to manage and lead a very large and diverse country. I certainly think that optimism and a lightness of being are key elements for leadership, but they are not the most important components. I do also care about the quality of his or her vocabulary because how one comports oneself verbally is a reflection of one's thoughtfulness and intelligence.

So, in answer to your question, I agree with Will and my fellow "elites" that a populist (of either party) would be a disaster.

More to the point, agatha, is the simple truth that the idioms of your "modern, technological, and urban world" don't have anything whatever to do with determining what is "best and right." But if I grant you the existence of the so called "hoi polli" of your description, you must also grant that there is another sort of "hoi polli" that is equally problematic . . . those who mistake geography, degrees, and "connections" with real wisdom and virtue. This group, in my experience, is every bit as likely to be parochial (though in the service of with a different parish), falsely proud, and--ultimately--servile and lacking reflection in their opinions. In what way is it better for a man to be a slave to "received opinion" spoon-fed to him at a top-tier university than it is for him to be a slave to back-woods prejudice or down-home philosophy? I say that, on the whole, it's probably a wash.

Sarah Palin's trouble is not in her origins or in the way she speaks or in the pedigree of the institution from which she obtained her degree. She is not, as Will even recognizes, a woman without significant accomplishments and she is not a stupid woman. But to say that Sarah Palin does not rate high enough to be president is not the same thing as saying that no person with a life-path similar to hers could rate. The one thing does not follow from the other.

Just as I think there is equal probability of encountering both snobbery and stupidity in both a "small town" and in an "urban" environment, I think there is about an equal chance of encountering the potential for nobility and greatness in both kinds of places.

While I am not in any way a defender of what I understand to be populism, the thing I find most annoying in all of this recent and, frankly, sometimes condescending talk about "populism" is the seeming lack of recognition on the part of some observers to note that the vices of populism are really just the vices of associated with pandering or the deliberate stroking of untethered passions. And this sort of thing is not now and never has been confined to any particular "class."

Dear Sarah Palin:

You win. Some one anywhere posts something about you on a blog, newspaper, or whatever, and the comments going flying. Some good, some bad. On this particular blog the post about you has more comments than any other post including any one written about the Messiah that is now sitting in the White House. But the fact remains, whether they like you or not, you have more power than anyone will admit. More over, if someone says your name around liberals, they will fall apart and need prozac for the next few weeks. Say you are running for president in 2012 and the rattlesnakes start committing suicide. Thank you for making my day.


Julie, I was, of course, writing with Lincoln in mind.

agatha, your idioms are part of America. At least, I consider them part of America. The "modern, technological, and urban world' has colloquialism and cliche, too. I know it, though I don't know if an idiom can be the future since it has to have been said. That's a petty point. America's idioms are various. I'll leave it at that.

Sick, when I am right, I am right and when I am not, there is always someone around who is kind enough to correct me. I did not know how to put what I meant in a brief way. Maybe I lay too much on that little word: right.

Part of what I meant and had my eye on was what Art Deco wrote about economics up there; in that case, an economic realism is right. For example, Hoover's problem was that he thought we could overcome economic realism. He was wrong. Our current president reminds me of Hoover in his idealism, as if we can soar above reality because we want to. It's not that I would not like to play Icarus, but I know the end of that story.

Of course, Hoover started life as a poor Iowa orphan and his rise to national prominence was as unlikely as Sarah Palin's. He had made a fortune, privately, in the meantime. I think Sarah Palin has done very well with what she has and she certainly has connections galore at this point and she is getting experience in all sorts of things. I don't know about her understanding, or her wisdom, as Julie puts it.

"to say that Sarah Palin does not rate high enough to be president is not the same thing as saying that no person with a life-path similar to hers could rate. The one thing does not follow from the other."


I will agree that intellectual shallowness, illiteracy, are not desirable in any politician and especially not in a president. I have been fairly longing for an conservative with a golden tongue. Yet, a speaker can be thoughtful and intelligent without a vast vocabulary. I had professors who were logophiliacs of the first degree and neither thoughtful or intelligent. Intellectualism is a mug's game. While not just anyone can play, the words do not make the men any more than his clothes will.

Oh well. Whether Palin can speak or not, everyone is certainly speaking about her. I like Dorothy Rabinowitz yesterday, on the annoying whininess of Palin and the connection it gives her to the politics of grievance:

Other people are saying nastier things, still. While I cannot imagine her being president, I can imagine her being a political celebrity for a long time. Would Alaska elect her as senator? She might pull off congressman from her home district, though. Let's try this game; in a Republican administration, what cabinet post would suit her?

I think agatha might have watched too much West Wing.

One thing that is clear from reading all of these posts is, there is no such thing as a perfect President, or “leader”. It is a great lesson in the tremendous wisdom of our Founders in limiting, as much as possible, centralized power. In a nation as huge and divers as ours, what is “right” for say, California, will rarely be “right” for Arizona, and what is “right” for Arizona could be disastrous for Vermont. Heck, right here in New York, what is good for NYC is often bad for Albany and what helps for Buffalo, hurts Long Island.

Our Founders knew that some things were right for all people; the right to life, personal liberty and the ability to peruse (i.e. work towards) that which gives one sustenance and fulfillment. They knew that the more power the government had, the more corrupt it would become, and we are today reaping the bitter fruits of that corrupted power.

If the people of the US were once again free to live and work and spend and earn and succeed and fail as they see fit, without the massive interference and expense of a bloated and inefficient national bureaucracy, we could once again be moving toward being the great nation our Founders envisioned.

Kate – I think Palin would make a great Secretary of Energy!

The thing with the whole "I want someone insanely accomplished and bright" line of thinking is that there's some crucial question-begging hidden in the middle of it.

If the presidential role were still limited in the way it was intended to be, "accomplished and bright" wouldn't be any big deal, because it wouldn't really be pertinent.

If you intuitively WANTED the presidency to be limited -- if you viewed American governance the way the founders intended -- you likely wouldn't even be thinking in terms of a president who can "see the interconnections between complex problems and situations and is willing to wrestle with that complexity." It just wouldn't be the lens through which you view the thing.

Now, maybe that IS what you explicitly want: Maybe you're a progressive who champions powerful government and thus by definition wants a powerful president. If that's the case, then yeah -- it naturally follows that you demand someone who's bright and complex and all that.

If you're not a progressive, and you actually want America to return to its founding principles, then your real goal should be shrinking the government in general and the presidency in particular. But just be aware that's not the message you're sending when you insist on a president who works 20 hours a day overseeing the global economy and whatnot.

If you do consider yourself a conservative, make sure you're checking your premises -- and the conclusions that follow from them.

on the annoying whininess of Palin and the connection it gives her to the politics of grievance

She says, being annoyingly whiny.

A post on Romney wouldn't get 19 comments! On the other hand Romney is more or less the elite/policy wonk/math/business whiz, either this or folks dislike him because of a general prejudice against Mormons(?) A general sort of populism vs. elitism meme could get carry water for both candidates going into Iowa. In the end Palin/Romney(because you always merge the factions, a la McCain/Palin) 2012?

Art Deco, am I being whiny or is Rabinowitz or are we whining an awful harmony of petty annoyance?

Of all of the complaints out there about Palin this was the one that I could could agree with. Why? I confess to wishing conservative politicians had a more positive approach to the world and to America's problems. We can certainly complain about all sorts of things in America. I know I do. It does seem off-putting for America, which is so in need of a rousing cheer of hope.

I could whine about Obama here, but will forebear.

I don't think it is just a personal need to emerge from a dark winter and the years-long, apparently relentless grimness of the American political scene. For just about everyone I know, a bit more sunshine would be nice. That was the part of the Rabinowitz piece that I embraced. Of course then, yes, she did proceed to hand Palin grief about conservative/libertarian connections. Probably we have to take our friends as we find them, especially in the politics of our democracy.

Chris, that was nice and neat. Except that all of our (conservatives) favorite presidents were really bright guys who managed the complex issues of their day effectively and often with high principle. In addition, given the place America has set itself in the modern world, how would we get by without a fairly strong executive?

"... all of our (conservatives) favorite presidents were really bright guys who managed the complex issues of their day effectively and often with high principle. In addition, given the place America has set itself in the modern world, how would we get by without a fairly strong executive?"

Note that I did not argue that there's anything WRONG with a president who's intellectually resourceful, etc. I'm just pointing out that there can be a (largely unspoken) implication in the demand that a president MUST be that way. It represents a specific view of the presidency -- one that I think is contrary to the founding intent.

Yes, obviously there is a fundamental baseline of competence we should seek in a person to fill the role of president. That goes without saying. But we should be careful about promulgating this notion that we need someone capable of simultaneously juggling a thousand plates and pulling a thousand levers, then promptly writing a doctoral thesis about it all. Implicit in that is an assumption that a president should be juggling a thousand plates and pulling a thousand levers in the first place.

If you argue that the presidency requires an extraordinary human, then you are arguing that the presidency is an extraordinary role. And that argument is ultimately a threat to liberty, individualism and every other basic American principle.

Kate, it was a cut at you (and you misrepresent Dorothy Rabinowitz to boot).

With reference to Rabinowitz' remarks:

I cannot see the point of Gov. Palin self-consciously emulating Ronald Reagan, even if I were a retrospective admirer of Reagan (I am not). Gov. Palin is 46 years old and a finished product, more-or-less. You like the merchandise or you do not. I think Rabinowitz has also forgotten the sunny old man was capable of quite a riposte when he was in the mood ("looked like Tarzan, walked like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah"), not to mention losing his temper and telling hecklers to 'shut up' over and over. I think if you did a content analysis of the Public Papers of the President and what not, you would discover he was notably more verbally confrontational than most others on Republican national tickets in the last 70 -odd years. (Spiro Agnew and the young Richard Nixon might have been the only exceptions).

I didn't try to misrepresent Dorothy Rabinowitz. Perhaps I oversimplified or misread her. And maybe I was whining.

Yes, either we like Sarah Palin or we do not. I badly want to and keep trying to figure out why I don't or rather don't absolutely. maybe that makes me whine. I know what Reagan was capable of in terms of verbal combat and I liked it. I don't mind Palin fighting back against attacks. I like when she seems plucky and has a humorous response to her really awfully stupid attackers. I prefer a combative anger to her playing the victim, which I think she too often does. Maybe men respond to that better than women do.

She has been very successful with what she's got and what she is. That is admirable. She has also misplayed and mishandled some things and showed some poor judgment. That might not be fatal, but it makes me look at her with a harder eye than otherwise. Maybe, as some of us said when McCain chose her in 2008, she was not quite ready and was being put out on the national stage too soon. I think that hurt her. She needed more experience as governor and I wish she had gotten that. She needed to be able to make mistakes and recover from them on a smaller stage. Right now she is a media celebrity and while that is great experience in the PR game that is national politics, I don't think it leaves her ready for the presidency.

Or maybe David Brooks was right in that editorial of the other day, that with modern media we know too much about our public figures. To respond to Chris, I think we always wanted our representatives to be the best among us or at least not to be embarrassments to us, which requires a certain something of merit that we might not think we have ourselves. Any one of us might actually have that certain something, but not whatever it takes to run for office. We are not always looking for intellect and I think that when we have elected intellectuals we have always been disappointed. We might be looking for something of character and I mean character in the old-fashioned way of being able to play the role capably and having the inner person up to filling that role. Of course, we know we are not always looking for that. I think we should be.

I think we should also acknowledge that if we look for someone extraordinary in the way you put it then we are bound to be disappointed because we are expecting someone inhuman. We don't want someone inhuman, but we do want a good human.

Or maybe Americans want someone inhumanly wonderful to lead them. Maybe the ignored or denied or just unfilled hunger for God makes people look for some person with God-like wisdom to lead the nation and the world.

They're not going find anyone like that. Any man is bound to disappoint. There's a real pity.

-“They're not going find anyone like that. Any man is bound to disappoint. There's a real pity.”

Kate - Or perhaps, that is just reality. Mankind is imperfect, each more or less so, and governments are also all imperfect, some less so than others. The less centralized power given to any imperfect individual or body, the better. I must deal with my own mistakes, but it truly grates to have to deal with the mistakes of my governor or president, no matter how brilliant or capable they may be. It is deep in the heart of the race to want to pull our own “levers”.

Mechelle, I was writing a bit ironically, although there a couple of real "real pity"s in the matter.

Yes, it is just reality -- the reality of humanness. That's not the pity, though many people seem to think it is.

That any man can grow up to be president in America is, has been, both a great blessing and sometimes a bit of a curse. The curse is alleviated by the separation of power, the Constitution as guide and limit, and other things that flow from that. Thank God we do not need a demi-god as our president as we could not get one. (Poor Mr. Obama! The virtual worship of him by some people have led him to foolishness like the way he is dealing with his healthcare proposal this morning. I hope he continues being ham-fisted and hope he cannot get his 51 votes for what he is proposing.)

I was also thinking of the pity that people are looking for a man/god when there is a God/god available.

I am being clumsy with words again this week. Sorry.

It would not have occurred to me that you misrepresented Dorothy Rabinowitz deliberately.

It does not surprise me that Gov. Palin lashes out at some critics. It is highly unusual for the children of politicians to be harrassed by journalists, comedians, and television writers. Meghan McCain gets skewered some, but in response to her proffered (half-baked) opinions.

During my lifetime, there have been fifteen individuals who have occupied the public position she holds. Three were raked over the coals by the newspapers. John Edwards was whoring around on his terminally ill wife. Both the husband and son of Geraldine Ferraro faced criminal indictments and it came to light that both Ferraro and her husband had a lengthy history of keeping unsavory company. The reasons for the public flaying of Gov. Palin are exactly what? It is quite a challenge to one's good humor to be stuck with a six-figure legal bill and to have one's children the but of Seth MacFarlane's repulsive humor. Gov. Palin, unlike the increasingly insufferable Dr. Will, could not just pay it out of the proceeds of her investments.

What does it say about Will that he thinks that being mayor of a small town and director of a state agency are 'unserious jobs'? Given that Gov. Palin's current employments resemble what Will has been doing for a living since 1973 (bar that she gets a more enthusiastic audience), is he being self-deprecating?

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