"The Meaning of Sarah Palin"

In a smart piece on Sarah Palin’s candidacy, Yuval Levin argues that the cleavage separating her backers and critics is owed to “the age-old tension between populism and elitism in our public life.”

He writes:

Even the poor in our country tend to be moved more by cultural than by economic appeals. It was this sense, this feeling, that Sarah Palin channeled so effectively. Her appearance on the scene unleashed populist energies that McCain had not tapped, and she both fed them and fed off them. She spent the bulk of her time at Republican rallies assailing the cultural radicalism of Barack Obama and his latte-sipping followers, who, she occasionally suggested, were not part of the “the real America” she saw in the adoring throngs standing before her. Palin channeled these cultural energies more by what she was than by what she said or did, which contributed mightily to the odd disjunction between her professional resume and her campaign presence and impact.

I think that is sound analysis, but that a couple points need to be added: Americans disdain the cultural radicalism of men like Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, and their ilk, and comparing their lives, rhetoric, and personas to Barack Obama, a cautious, even-keeled family man who ran the Harvard Law Review, helps to demonstrate why Sarah Palin’s charges of cultural radicalism failed to take hold. If the professional, “latte sipping” class in America backs a candidate in large numbers, he may well be a social liberal, but it is exceedingly doubtful that he is a radical.

This point might be grasped more readily if we abolished the word latte and started talking about people who drink espresso with warm milk. Wikipedia says the latte originated in American life as follows:

Lino Meiorin… was the first Italian-trained barista in the Bay Area. Customers were not used to the strong flavor of a traditional Italian cappuccino and would ask Lino for more milk. Speaking in Italian, Lino would tell the barista to put more latte (milk) in their cup. Eventually he put a larger drink on the menu with the same amount of espresso but more steamed milk, and called it a caffe latte. It was originally served in a bowl, but switched to a pint beer glass.

Espresso with warm milk may stop dividing Americans if we reflect on the fact that if you walked into a diner anywhere in the United States, and replaced the coffee with espresso, a very American response would be to pour it into a pint glass, heat up some milk, and mix it with the overly powerful foreign coffee.

Okay, back to the estimable Mr. Levin:

Applied to politics, the worldview of the intellectual elite begins from an unstated assumption that governing is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and verbal fluency more than for prudence born of life’s hard lessons.

Sarah Palin embodied a very different notion of politics, in which sound instincts and valuable life experiences are considered sources of knowledge at least the equal of book learning. She is the product of an America in which explicit displays of pride in intellect are considered unseemly, and where physical prowess and moral constancy are given a higher place than intellectual achievement. She was in the habit of stressing these faculties instead—a habit that struck many in Washington as brutishness.

What I fail to understand is why, if I value “sound instincts and valuable life experiences,” I should be so enamored of Governor Palin that I imagine her to be the future of the Republican Party, or a plausible VP choice.

Senator McCain’s life experiences include seven decades on earth, combat duty in Vietnam, being tortured in a Vietnamese prison cell, having his instincts tested in that time of crisis and passing the test, a long career studying matters foreign and domestic, an ethics scandal that chastened him forever after, fact finding trips all around the world, etc. If it’s instincts and life experience you’re after, he’s your guy. But somehow, these supposed “instinct and life experience” voters weren’t at all excited by Senator McCain, whereas they were thrilled by a youthful first term governor who lacked any experience in the military or a corporation, who seldom traveled outside Alaska, and whose instincts haven’t ever been tested in a time of crisis. This isn’t to denigrate Governor Palin. It is only to say that neither her life experiences nor her instincts are particularly notable, even compared to other Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Duncan Hunter, and all the rest.

Later on Mr. Levin writes that Sarah Palin was a problematic candidate:

She began by opening up a huge space for herself, and then was unable to fill it.

…Her convention speech, her interviews, and her debate performance drew unprecedented audiences.

But having finally gotten voters to listen, neither Palin nor McCain could think of anything to say to them. Palin’s reformism, like McCain’s, was essentially an attitude devoid of substance. Both Republican candidates told us they hated corruption and would cut excess and waste. But separately and together, they offered no overarching vision of America, no consistent view of the role of government, no clear description of what a free society should look like, and no coherent policy ideas that might actually address the concerns of American families and offer solutions to the serious problems of the moment. Palin’s populism was not her weakness, but her strength. Her weakness was that she failed to tie her populism to anything deeper. A successful conservative reformism has to draw on cultural populism, but it has also to draw on a worldview, on ideas about society and government, and on a policy agenda. This would make it more intellectual, but not necessarily less populist.

I am confused. Earlier on in the essay, we were told that a defining attribute of cultural elites is their “unstated assumption that governing is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and verbal fluency more than for prudence born of life’s hard lessons.” Paragraphs later, we’re told that Sarah Palin needed to offer an overarching vision of America — but doesn’t that require verbal fluency? We’re told that she needed to formulate a consistent view of government — but doesn’t that require applying a proper mix of theory, expertise and intellectual distance? We’re told she needed a policy agenda — but doesn’t that require exercising the mind?

Though it isn’t explicit, it seems an awful lot like Mr. Levin thinks a successful candidate must possess all the attributes that supposedly relegate politicians to the “cultural elite” side of the American political cleavage, which would seem to be bad news for Sarah Palin and other candidates like her. Elsewhere, however, Mr. Levin seems more confident in the Sarah Palin model of candidate.

I’m sure other readers can help me to more fully understand Mr. Levin’s ultimate argument, which really is very much worth your while.