Re-Entering the Palin-Drome

Looks like Ross inaugurated Sarah Palin day yesterday at TAS. Well, I guess that’s another excuse not to finish my comments on that book of literary criticism I read a few months ago.

As someone who was quite enthusiastic about Sarah Palin for about 30 seconds, and then walked a long way back towards disliking her intensely (if you want to track my sentiments, feel free to wander through the archives; the record isn’t hard to find) I feel a certain obligation to make three points about Ross’ column.

Point #1: There is an assumption running through Ross’ column that Palin, had she not been thrust into the arena too early and too quickly, might have developed into the kind of right-populist leader that the GOP really needs. That was, in fact, what I thought when I first heard of her (from Reihan, as it happens) some while before her sudden stardom: this looks like someone really promising, and it would be a big risk for McCain to pick someone like this for VP, but he needs to take a big risk because the safe choices aren’t going to do it, and she looks really promising. But it’s not what I think now, because I’ve seen how she actually performed. Ross is perfectly willing to say that she performed poorly. He doesn’t seem to be very willing to say that her performance reflects things about her fundamental character. Why? What has she done to earn the benefit of the doubt that he gives her? Why does he still have as much faith in who she could have been that he seems to have? It speaks a level of emotional investment in Palin that I don’t see a lot of justification for, unless the reason relates to my next point.

Point #2: The column, and Ross’ writing about Palin generally, treats her not so much as an actual person so much as a symbol, a personification of a certain type of person. There’s an expression for that: identity politics. It’s a kind of politics that, purportedly, the American right is against, and while I never think that was truly the case (indeed, I’d argue that identity politics are unavoidable, because so much of the motivation for engagement in politics comes from questions of identity), I’m surprised by the degree to which movement conservative politics in this country have become entirely the politics of identity, and the Palin phenomenon is the best evidence thereof. I think Ross should be against this trend, and if he isn’t I’d like to understand better why he isn’t. It strikes me that it is problematic to say the least, both practically and in terms of principle, for the American right to so openly embrace the politics of identity. This is a topic to which I will return at a later date.

Point #3: Ross is critical of the idea of meritocracy as the prime organizing principle of society. So am I. I’m interested, though, in how Sarah Palin represented a meaningful response to that idea. Meritocracy, in practice, means the selection of the “best and the brightest” for positions of power and authority, primarily by means of testing and scholastic hoop-jumping. The elite chosen in this manner are Nicholas Lemann’s “Mandarins.” And there are alternative roads to power and authority in this country. For example, you can work your way up slowly through an organization – Lemann’s “Lifers.” And there’s always nepotism – an important social force in any society, and unfortunately something you can’t talk about objectively in America because we’re supposed to be against privilege of birth (all the while we strive mightily to ensure just that privilege for our children). And then there are Lemann’s “Talents” – people who distinguished themselves by achievement in an entrepreneurial fashion – the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Michael Bloombergs. Sarah Palin would, presumably, be one of this last group. But what, exactly, is her achievement, beyond her one election to the Alaska governorship? The big problems I have with meritocracy include: that it tells the chosen they are better than other people (in some objective sense), which is an anti-democratic ethos; that it very consciously separates our elite from the people, which isn’t healthy for democracy either; that it separates the elite from “real life” in a way that ill-prepares them for the reality that will inevitably smack them in the head one way or other; and that it selects for particular personality types that, while useful in an elite, need to be balanced with other personality types. It is not one of the problems of meritocracy that it tries to select people an elite as such, or tries to select one that will be good at its job. You have to have an elite; you can’t have a functioning society without one. That being the case, what exactly is the great counter-meritocratic message that Palin purportedly embodies, and that Ross wants to salvage (presumably for some future candidate) from the wreckage of her brief career on the political stage?