Monday, September 6, 2010

Sarah Palin: Old Hickory in a Skirt

by Michael Kaplan

Well, the liberal media did it again. In the October 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, writer Michael Joseph Gross delivered what conservatives and even some liberal feminists are calling a “hit piece” on Sarah Palin. What is it about this woman, the former governor of Alaska, that inspires devotion in so many and drives so many others into paroxysms of incoherent rage? For Jacksonian Tea Partiers and conservatives Sarah is virtually a saint, while for elite liberals she is nothing less than the devil incarnate—a woman who in Gross’s words inhabits “a place of fear, anger, and illusion.” In the two years since she stepped on to the national stage as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin has emerged as one of the most popular and divisive figures in American history. In this, as in much else, she is following in the footsteps of none other than . . . Old Hickory!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this Weekly Standard cover says it all. (Go to Matthew Continetti’s outstanding cover article which examines Palin’s Jacksonian heritage.)

I really like Sarah Palin. As a Jewish academic I guess that makes me an oddity. But as a Jacksonian I’m right on target. When a former student asked if I would feel safe knowing her finger was on the nuclear button, I said yes, I would feel quite confident that the security of the American people was in good hands with Mrs. Palin controlling the nuclear codes; more confident than I feel with President Obama, his rejection of American exceptionalism (though he does believe in Obama exceptionalism), and his unending apologies for American power and greatness. Since when does the President of the United States bow down to the king of Saudi Arabia or kowtow to the mandarins of China! Old Hickory and Ronald Reagan must be turning over in their graves. I remember back in the ’80s when the liberal elites denounced Reagan as an ignorant, out of control cowboy, who by calling the Soviet Union what it was—an evil empire—would set off a nuclear holocaust. This is no different than today’s Palin derangement syndrome (or the recent Bush derangement syndrome) on the left. And despite my problems with President Obama, I don’t much like the Obama derangement syndrome on the right either. A little too apocalyptic for my tastes.

Anyway, I don’t agree with the idea bandied about by some elitists, liberal and conservative alike, that the presidency has outgrown the capabilities of the average “salt-of-the-earth” American. Having spent much of my life in and around academia, I've developed a somewhat dim view of the leadership abilities of academics and intellectuals (think Woodrow Wilson). Barack Obama reminds me of much that I find unattractive about the academic mindset—ivory tower arrogance, narrow mindedness, and theoretical obsessions disconnected from any true understanding of the realities of human nature, something you are supposed to learn from the study of history. It is precisely an “average” American with the right instincts, common sense, and strength of character that is needed to be commander in chief; someone who can make the hard decisions for the direction of this nation. George Washington was the least intellectual of the Founding Fathers, yet he was the only one who could lead America through the pangs of her birth. It was Andrew Jackson, who lacked any formal education, who kept the Union together during another time of crisis and Abraham Lincoln who kept it together during an even greater crisis. FDR was said (by John Maynard Keynes) to have had a second rate mind but a first class temperament. More recently it was Ronald Reagan, who nobody ever accused of being an intellectual, who presided over America's economic and national revival and of course defeated communist tyranny. It was the so-called “best and the brightest” who often led the nation astray and gotten us into deep trouble—think Vietnam. A president needs intellectuals among his advisors, but he (or she) needs above all to be a decision maker who can assimilate conflicting strands of advice and information and make a policy decision based on his or her larger vision of where America should be going.

Sarah Palin has the right Jacksonian instincts and intelligence to lead America. She needs to get up to speed on policy issues, which she can and will do if she intends to run for the Republican nomination. But it’s a still an open question whether she wants to run, at least in 2012. She has been most effective as a symbol, heroine, and spokeswoman for the conservative cause and as a leader of the Jacksonian Tea Party movement. Mrs. Palin is redefining feminism in the image of the Jacksonian frontierswoman whose strength of character and heroic endurance built the nation. Conservative Christian women see in her a prophet who eloquently articulates and confirms their traditional values in opposition to liberal elite feminists (Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazis”). Governor Palin has also become a role model for living one’s life in a way that joins those conservative traditional values with active engagement and success in the modern world. And she is making the big money as a media figure. When you put it all together Sarah Palin is the face of modern Jacksonian populist nationalism, following in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. She brings together potent symbols of feminine sexual power, motherhood, and executive authority.

Palin does, however, lack experience when compared to Jackson or Reagan. Jackson was a distinguished general who had defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and saved the nation at the Battle of New Orleans. He had extensive experience in Tennessee state politics by the time his victories made him a national hero. Reagan was a two-term governor of the largest state in the Union, with a long career in Hollywood union politics, who ran for president twice before winning in 1980. He had also played a role for twenty years as a leader of the conservative movement, having given speeches and written essays defining his political philosophy. Both men were considerably older than Palin, with a good deal of achieved gravitas, when they ran for president. Having given up the Alaska governorship midway into her first term, Palin is charting a different route to national power through the conservative new media; a path made possible by the new technologies of the twenty-first century. So far it seems to be working, at least in giving her a national platform as a spokeswoman for Jacksonian conservatism. Whether this will enable her to expand public trust in her leadership ability beyond her base remains to be seen.

For now, Sarah continues to rally the Jacksonian populist conservative base with her appearances and speeches. Her support has proven decisive in helping a number of Tea Party candidates win Republican congressional and senatorial primary fights. Palin’s choice for Alaska’s Republican senate nomination, Joe Miller, knocked out her longtime rival, incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski. This was a truly big win for Palin, greatly enhancing her political street cred. Losing the 2008 election was probably the best thing to happen for Palin’s burgeoning career (other than having been chosen by John McCain to run with him in the first place). As John McCain’s vice president Sarah would have had to keep a low profile and could not have become the conservative superstar and de facto leader of Jacksonian America which she now is.

And Sarah again displayed her unmatched ability to inspire by drawing on the mythopoetic symbolism of American exceptionalism so dear to Jacksonian hearts at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally on August 28 at the Lincoln Memorial. Speaking before a crowd of at least 100,000, possibly more (the liberal media tried to play down the numbers), Sarah delivered a passionate and moving speech on the power of honor, sacrifice, patriotism, and faith. Invoking historical memory, Palin linked the deeds of America’s servicemen and women today in an unbroken chain with those of the past. After paying tribute to Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, she issued a call to restore America, not transform her:
Now, in honoring these giants, who were linked by a solid rock foundation of faith in the one true God of justice, we must not forget the ordinary men and women on whose shoulders they stood. The ordinary called for extraordinary bravery. I am speaking, of course, of America’s finest – our men and women in uniform, a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for.
Abraham Lincoln once spoke of the “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.” For over 200 years, those mystic chords have bound us in gratitude to those who are willingly to sacrifice, to restrain evil, to protect God-given liberty, to sacrifice all in defense of our country.
They fought for its freedom at Bunker Hill, they fought for its survival at Gettysburg, and for the ideals on which it stands – liberty and justice for all – on a thousand battlefields far from home.
It is so humbling to get to be here with you today, patriots – you who are motivated and engaged and concerned, knowing to never retreat. I must assume that you too know that we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor!
This is a longstanding theme with Jacksonians. In 1828 Andrew Jackson ran for president on a platform of restoring America’s honor by tossing the “corrupt” John Quincy Adams/Henry Clay political elite in Washington out of power. The Tea Party movement aims to do the same in 2010. But America’s Jacksonian patriots, those who put on the uniform, Sarah insisted, never lost their honor. “If you look for the virtues that have sustained our country, you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath, who pay the price for our freedom.”

Palin introduced three veterans—of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—of whom Jennifer Rubin commented: “If you are not moved to tears by the stories of three heroic military men, you have a heart of stone.” One of them, Air Force Colonel Tom Kirk, spent five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, sharing a cell with John McCain. After his release from that living hell, Kirk would write: “Patriotism has become, for many, a ‘corny’ thing. For me, it is more important now than at any time in my life. How wonderful it is to be an American come home!”

The Restoring Honor rally was a celebration of “traditional American values” which is to say the values and culture of Jacksonianism. It was also a reminder that America was built on the traditional values of grit and sacrifice; of sacrifices made by men like Tom Kirk. We Americans have grown complacent over the last twenty-five or so years. Those born into the upper middle class in particular, have come to expect effortless affluence as a birthright, forgetting all the hard work needed to achieve individual and national success. Tom Friedman laments that “We had a values breakdown—a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.” Walter Russell Mead cautions Americans not to forget that verse from “Amazing Grace” (which came originally from an earlier hymn “Am I a Soldier of the Cross”), which goes:
Shall I be carried to the skies
On flow’ry beds of ease,
While others fight to win the prize
And sail through bloody seas?

Sarah Palin has lived by these traditional American values on the last frontier that is Alaska. This goes a long way in explaining why she is so vehemently despised by the liberal progressive elites. The rally and the response it generated illustrated once again the seeming chasm separating Jacksonians and academics. Sarah Palin, more than any other figure in America today, reveals, as Lee Harris puts it, “the real split in the American psyche, which is essentially a cultural divide.” Harris continues: “On the one side are those Americans for whom nothing can be more sacred than honor, patriotism, and God, and who get goose-bumps at the very mention of these words. On the other side are those who instinctively cringe at what they regard as the shameless display of such manipulative emotionalism.” Patriotic emotionalism was certainly on display at the Restoring Honor rally, which was in reality an old-style Jacksonian camp meeting revival with roots deep in America’s frontier heritage. Tom Kirk admitted that emotional displays of patriotism and religious faith can seem corny. And while Sarah Palin is a heroine to Jacksonians, she comes across as an uncouth buffoon or a demagogue to those who oppose her. “Yet,” as Harris points out,
those who deplore Beck or Palin fail to see that the reason for their popularity stems from their uninhibited willingness to evoke and champion precisely those values and themes that the overly fastidious and sophisticated perceive as crude and corny. It is when Beck and Palin are behaving most boorishly in the eyes of their cultured despisers that they are most apt to win the enthusiastic cheers of their devoted admirers.
One of those admirers, a 20-something blogger from San Diego named Rachelle Friberg, “a patriotic American at heart!” explained why Sarah Palin is a source of inspiration and empowerment for young conservative women:
The droves of people who continue to turn out to see Sarah are craving for her because she tells it like it is. She does not walk with the Washington establishment, and she does not surround herself with lobbyists and special interest groups. Sarah IS truly one of us, although this is only one of the many reasons I support her. She believes in many of the same things as I do. Like me Sarah is a conservative and lives her life with integrity. She inspires me to want to do more and be more.
Sarah, Rachelle exclaims, inspired her to become a politically active blogger and makes it “cool to be a young conservative.” And Ms. Friberg offers up this rallying cry: “So, Sarah, on behalf of ‘Mainstreet U.S.A.’ folks everywhere, continue to stand up, speak out and rock on!!!”

Just one of us. An un-glam Sarah on vacation in Hawaii.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi had a very different take on Palin, seeing her as nothing less than the herald of a national apocalypse.
Sarah Palin is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States. As a representative of our political system, she's a new low in reptilian villainy, the ultimate cynical masterwork of puppeteers like Karl Rove. But more than that, she is a horrifying symbol of how little we ask for in return for the total surrender of our political power. Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she's the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV — and this country is going to eat her up, cheering her every step of the way. All because most Americans no longer have the energy to do anything but lie back and allow ourselves to be jacked off by the calculating thieves who run this grasping consumer paradise we call a nation.
Palin, “a puffed-up dimwit with primitive religious beliefs,” embodies everything Taibbi despises about Jacksonian America. This is an America that likes “politicians who hate books and see the face of Jesus in every tree stump.” Jacksonians embrace leaders in whom they see their own image: mean, stupid, and ignorant. “And when it comes time to vote, all you have to do is put your Country First — just like that lady on TV who reminds you of your cousin. U-S-A, baby. U-S-A! U-S-A!” It’s no surprise that Taibbi concludes that Sarah Palin’s popularity is proof that Americans are not fit for democracy. Taibbi actually does believe in American exceptionalism. Americans, especially Jacksonians, are exceptionally dumb; too dumb to know what’s good for them and who’s best qualified to lead them. So let’s give a shout out to Boobus americanus.

For Jennifer Rubin, Palin is a “national Rorschach test” who reveals “the distinctions and conflicting perceptions of often antagonistic groups of Americans—the religious and the secular, the conservative and the liberal, the urban and the small town, the elitist and the populist.” In an article in Commentary called “Why Jews Hate Palin,” Rubin put her finger on the dynamic that fuels hostility to Palin not just among liberal Jews of an intellectual bent, but for the entire liberal progressive elite.

It comes down to social class and meritocratic credentials which are believed to authenticate intellectual ability. Educated upper-middle-class professionals, Jews in particular, are neither comfortable with nor do they respect the Jacksonian style of leadership. Leadership, they believe, is essentially technocratic, the product of knowledge gained through higher education. It is not based in instinct, character, or common sense. “For those for whom an Ivy League education is the essential calling card for leadership of any sort, an elite-bashing populist with a journalism degree from the University of Idaho who lacks both a mellifluous grasp of policy and a self-consciously erudite vocabulary was always going to be a hard sell.” Such a woman, lacking the polish of the Ivy League, who worked at jobs like waitressing and seafood processing, is open and passionate about her Christian faith, and is a mother to five children, is simply white trash. “In a real sense,” Rubin concludes, “by the way she lives and the style she has adopted, Sarah Palin is the precise reverse image of an American Jewish professional woman. The two are polar opposites. The repulsion is almost magnetic in nature.” (David Frum wrote a reply to Rubin that took issue with her analysis of whether or why Jews are opposed to Palin.)

White Trash Nation. How the elites see Palin.

Shannon Love at the Chicago Boyz blog takes Rubin’s analysis one step further, arguing that Palin’s success destroys the liberal progressive elite’s sense of superiority. In other words, Palin gives the left a severe case of status anxiety. After all, if an ignorant, Bible-thumping, white trash woman from the backwoods of Alaska (think Tammy Faye Bakker or Anna Nicole Smith minus the weight), can rise to the top of the political/media food chain and cultivate a mass following among the American people, “what does that say about the leftists’ claims of intellectual and moral superiority?” And if liberal progressive elite claims to such superiority are shown to be hollow, what does that say about their assertion that they know what’s best for the American people? What becomes of the liberal progressive plans for an expanded government taking over a larger share of people’s lives?
That is why leftists see Palin as a genuine and significant threat of unusual magnitude. In the emotional thinking of leftists, she is a personal threat to everything each individual leftist has attained in life. They feel a sincere, visceral sense of danger about her because she attacks the very core of their egos. They feel the same hatred towards Palin that the European upper classes felt towards the upstart middle-class. They feel the same hatred that poor whites felt towards non-whites. They feel that way for the same reasons. If she succeeds, worse, if she is right, then they become nobodies.
A liberal reader named Mauro responding to Love’s post, said “It’s not her [Palin’s] ideas that are problematic, but her middle-America anti-intellectualism and superstition that is a problem, because the people go crazy for it and it’s dangerous for America.” To which Love responded in turn, “Mauro’s problem with Palin is that he believes her to be an ordinary middle-class American who are themselves unfit to influence public policy.” Well, the predecessors of today’s metropolitan elites saw the same in Old Hickory and his supporters back in their day. Matthew Continetti calls this the “Coonskin Cap Critique.” More than anything the political and cultural elites fear being ruled over by those they consider their intellectual inferiors. Love concluded that the liberal obsession with Palin will not go away because it is basically irrational. “She threatens something too deep and too profound in a political subculture built around the belief that a small percentage of human beings have a vastly superior understanding of the world compared to all the rest.”

For the left Sarah Palin embodies all the stereotypes of white trash America, its boorishness and tackiness, wrapped up in one package. She oozes both trailer trash sexuality and fundamentalist brimstone. She is the leader of the White Trash Nation rising up in rebellion against the bonds of a politically correct nanny state, aiming her moose hunting rifle at everything liberal progressives hold dear. At least this is what Heather Mallick believes. Mallick, an outspoken socialist Canadian journalist (Canada, by the way, is the liberal progressive promised land—America without the Jacksonians), caused a tempest in a teapot in the great white land to the north when she launched her own verbal jihad against Palin, her white trash family, her tacky fashion-challenged white trash looks, and her white trash Jacksonian supporters, “the demographic that sullies America’s name inside and outside its borders yet has such a curious appeal for the right.” Malick defines white trash as “rural, loud, proudly unlettered (like Bush himself), suspicious of the urban, frankly disbelieving of the foreign, and a fan of the American clich√© of authenticity.” Palin, Mallick charges, is not a real woman but a social type: a badly dressed hillbilly with a screeching voice, a roughneck husband, and a slutty teen mom daughter, and no knowledge of the complex world outside of Wasilla, Alaska. “Palin has a toned-down version of the porn actress look favoured by this decade’s woman, the overtreated hair, puffy lips and permanently alarmed expression.” Mallick also lets loose on Canada’s “redneck cousin,” the good state of Alaska, “a frontier state full of drunks and crazy people, of the blight that cheap-built structures bring to a glorious landscape.”

I suppose this is what passes for sophisticated analysis in the elite media these days. Even the Canadian press, steeped as it is in fashionable anti-Americanism, found Mallick’s tirades embarrassing. Jonathan Kay at the National Post condemned Mallick’s “childish vulgarity . . . as she dissects the appearance of Sarah Palin with the sort of predatory salaciousness that would make a frat boy blush; and then mocks Palin’s unionized working-class husband as unfit for dinner-party society.” Tirades like Mallick’s reveal more about the intensity of elite status anxiety than they do about Sarah Palin and the America she represents. So too did the similar tirades launced when Old Hickory rode into Washington in the winter of 1829.

Andrew Jackson's inauguration: "all Creation going to the White House."

To imagine the horror that the elites (liberal and conservative both) would feel at the sight of a President Palin descending upon the Capitol in 2013 or 2017, with her army of Mama Grizzlies and Tea Partiers in tow, one can look back to Andrew Jackson’s first inauguration in 1829. Between 15 and 20 thousand of Jackson’s supporters came to Washington to take part in the inauguration ceremonies. Most were unsophisticated farmers, frontiersmen, and small businessmen from the South and the West, who looked like a dirty unkempt horde to Washington’s shocked fashionistas. As members of the Washington establishment watched uneasily, the crowd filled the open spaces and the streets near the east portico of the Capitol Building, where Jackson delivered his inaugural address. Afterwards the crowd, growing ever larger and noisier, followed the new president into the White House. Old Hickory was almost crushed to death by the love of his followers and had to escape out a back entrance, while the crowd proceeded to trash the executive mansion. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, a John Quincy Adams supporter, conveyed the verdict of the elites on this display of popular democracy: “The reign of King ‘Mob,’ seemed triumphant,” he wrote sadly to his wife. In the event of a Palin presidential victory it’s unlikely that her supporters would be so uninhibited in their behavior.

Ronald Reagan, in a 1978 radio address, professed his Jacksonian democratic faith in the greatness of the American people. “They are not ‘the masses,’ or as the elitists would have it–‘the common man.’ They are very uncommon. Individuals each with his or her own hopes & dreams, plans & problems and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any other place on earth.” This is Sarah Palin’s AmericaThe truth is Sarah Palin embodies and represents the culture, values, and interests of conservative, populist, traditional, religious, nationalist, “red,” Jacksonian America in the same way that Barack Obama embodies and represents the culture, values, and interests of liberal, elite, progressive, secular, internationalist, “blue,” metropolitan America. I think of Sarah as “Old Hickory in a skirt.” And she hunts moose! Take a look at her “Mama Grizzlies” video which she made to launch SarahPac.

This is pure Reagan “Morning in America” and Old Hickory frontier spirit imagery. It remains to be seen whether or not she will pick up the presidential baton. But whether or not she runs for president, Sarah Palin will be a presence in the American psyche for years to come. This is because her true power is as a cultural symbol; a symbol in which Jacksonian America sees its hopes and aspirations made real and progressive America sees its worst fears and forebodings made equally real. I will be coming back to Sarah in future blog posts. This will be an interesting year.

P.S. The latest liberal progressive attack on Sarah Palin comes from The West Wing and The Social Network producer Aaron Sorkin. On the premiere episode of CNN's Parker Spitzer (October 4, 2010, and not expected to last very long), Sorkin told Kathleen Parker that “Sarah Palin’s an idiot. Come on. This is a remarkably, stunningly, jaw-droppingly incompetent and mean woman.” Parker responded: “Wow. What do you base that on, the meanness part?” To which Sorkin then said: “When she talks about real Americans versus not real Americans, that's a divisive thing. I’m pretty sure I fall into the category of a not real American.” (This is a point David Frum emphasized in his response to Jennifer Rubin.) Parker, who as I wrote about in another post is an establishment Republican hostile to Sarah and the Tea Party, gave Sorkin a cutesy come back: “Right. You're not real. Because you have those horn-rimmed glasses.” So it seems that Sarah Palin’s power to bring out the worst in liberal progressive pundits remains as strong as ever. I’ve posted the video below.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan