Getting It Wrong...
I'm not familiar with any of Yuval Levin's other work nor "Commentary" magazine which he apparently writes for, but (via Volokh) this article on Sarah Palin's legacy ensures I will be unlikely to read either again. The wrongness just oozes from his article and his analysis is inaccurate on almost every level.
Before her elevation, Palin had not been known as a combatant in the cultural battles of recent years... She was a good-government reformer with social conservative leanings, not the other way around.
Yes, yes, of course. That is very true. In fantasy land. Let's take a look at her actual record. According to Time, in this September article, Palin:
Palin was a highly polarizing political figure who brought partisan politics and hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest among neighbors... While Palin often describes that race as having been a fight against the old boys' club, Stein [the mayor of Wasilla Palin unseated] says she made sure the campaign hinged on issues like gun owners' rights and her opposition to abortion (Stein is pro-choice). "It got to the extent that — I don't remember who it was now — but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says.
Vicki Naegele was the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman at the
time. "[Stein] figured he was just going to run your average, friendly small-town race," she recalls, "but it turned into something much different than that." Naegele held the same conservative Christian beliefs as Palin but didn't think they had any place in local politics.
"I just thought, That's ridiculous, she should concentrate on roads, not abortion," says Naegele.
And, as we now know, she tried to have Wasilla's librarian fired because the librarian opposed Palin's attempts to ban books that didn't conform to Palin's Christian views. She also stopped paying for rape kits, a move which clearly put her on the front lines of "cultural battles." It's as if Levin wasn't paying any attention at all during the campaign. Or perhaps he wants to ignore things that don't comport with his premise.
And to the idea that she was a "good-government" reformer? She was under investigation for ethics violations for conduct as Governor of Alaska at the very moment she agreed to be McCain's running mate! She was accused of trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from his job as a State Trooper, and then firing the Public Safety director when he refused. We now know these allegations were true. Using one's office to settle personal scores does not make one much of a "reformer." That, in fact, is exactly the kind of thing that "reformers" oppose.
We were told that Palin was opposed to contraception, advocated teaching creationism in schools, and was inclined to ban books she disagreed with. She was described as a religious zealot, an anti-abortion extremist, a blind champion of abstinence-only sex education. She was said to have sought to make rape victims pay for their own medical exams, to have Alaska secede from the Union, and to get Pat Buchanan elected President. She was reported to believe that the Iraq war was mandated by God, that the end-times prophesied in the Book of Revelation were nearing and only Alaska would survive, and that global warming was purely a myth. None of this was true.
"None of this was true," Levin blithely asserts, to make his point. Except for the part that it was true. She did try to ban books, did support abstinence-only education, did make rape victims pay for their own rape kits (perhaps Levin is trying to pull a fast one by distinguising "medical exam" from "rape kit" here). Perhaps she didn't actually try "to have Alaska secede from the Union" but she and her husband were, in fact, affiliated with a political party who wanted to do just that. She did deny global warming and the church she attended for years in Wasilla did preach end-times prophecy.
Levin offers no evidence to contradict any of these facts. That's because he's lying.
There was a strong case to be made in her defense. Palin had as much foreign-policy experience as most governors do... And while Palin seemed out of her depth in several television interviews, she was extraordinarily effective on the stump, was a quick study, and proved to be at least an even match for Joe Biden, a six-term senator, in the vice-presidential debate.
Er... where to begin? First off, Palin's lack of foreign-policy experience became a center of controversy for two basic reasons that Levin is choosing to ignore. One, McCain had made Obama's foreign-policy inexperience a centerpiece of his campaign, so it naturally became a focus of criticism when McCain chose a running mate with even less. It created the legitimate question of why it was important for Obama to have foreign-policy experience but not the VP pick of a 70+-year-old candidate with past cancer problems? And, two, because Palin's argument in response to questions about her foreign-policy experience was to make stupid claims like the fact that Alaska is close to Russia makes her a foreign-policy expert. Her defense of her foreign-policy credentials was ludicrous and exposed how woefully unprepared she was to deal with foreign policy.
And I like how Levin breezes past how badly she performed in television interviews and how that, as much as anything, exposed her incompetence and invited criticism. Even conservatives were saying she should step aside after she showed that she had no freakin' idea what the hell she was talking about. It was not just "the Left" that was shocked that a candidate for major office was so unprepared to even discuss the issues of the time, it was everyone but the most ideologically bent crazies on the right. Her failures in those interviews weren't just a blip that wasn't important, to be easily overshadowed by her stump speeches (which were effective mainly when she was lying and distorting Obama's relationship with Ayers and his supposedly being a secret Muslim).
And I'm not sure what world Levin lives on when he says Palin was "at least an even match for Joe Biden." Wha? I seem to recall that Palin was roundly considered to have lost that debate, even by conservatives. She certainly didn't perform well enough to counter the negatives coming from those interviews.
The reaction to Palin revealed a deep and intense cultural paranoia on the Left: an inclination to see retrograde reaction around every corner, and to respond to it with vile anger. A confident, happy, and politically effective woman who was also a social conservative was evidently too much to bear.
Yes, yes, that was "the Left's" (note the capitalization) problem with her. Not that she lied right off the bat in her introduction to the nation, when she claimed she'd said "Thanks, but no thanks" to the "bridge to nowhere" when, in fact, she'd pushed for it, along with tons of other earmarks from the Federal government. Not that she shit all over the hard work people are doing on the groung all over the country when she made fun of community organizers. Not that she portrayed herself as a reformer even as she was being investigated for misusing her office to settle a personal score. No, none of that was the reason the "the Left" became angry. Not at all. It was because she was "confident" and "politically effective." Because, you know, "confident," "effective" politicians spend all their time complaining about how eeeevil Katie Couric is as an excuse for why she couldn't answer tough questions like "what do you read?"
In fact, as Levin himself notes, Palin "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." Perhaps stupid, wrong generalizations of anybody who reads the news being a "latte-sipping" person who isn't a "real American" is the reason "the Left" didn't like Palin, not her being "confident" and "happy." Do you think?
Palin never actually boasted of ignorance or explicitly scorned learning or ideas. Rather, the implicit charge was that Palin’s failure to speak the language and to share the common points of reference of the educated upper tier of American society essentially rendered her unfit for high office.
Ah, that's it! It was her "failure to speak the language" of the elites that was the problem. Yes! Because only elitists read the goddamned newspaper to stay apprised of world events. It's so "elitist" to think a person who wants to run the most powerful nation in the world, whose reach spans the globe, would have interest in knowing what the hell is going on in the world. Yeah. She didn't speak the high-flying rhetoric with the command of, say, Joe Biden. Uh-huh. Biden doesn't exactly speak like the professor from "The Paper Chase" either. It wasn't that Palin didn't "speak the language" of the elite that was the problem. It was that she didn't even speak the language of a normal person. She spoke the language of a goddamned idiot and said things that didn't even make a tiny bit of sense. That is what "rendered her unfit for high office." The fact that she was a freakin' moron.
Although the intellectual elite is deeply shaped by our leading institutions of higher learning, belonging to it is more the result of shared assumptions and attitudes. It is more cultural than academic, more NPR than PhD. In Washington, many politicians who have not risen through the best of universities work hard for years to master the language and the suppositions of this upper tier, and to live carefully within the bounds prescribed by its view of the world.
No, the problem wasn't that Palin hadn't worked "hard for years to master the language... of [the] upper tier," it was that she hadn't mastered language, full stop. She spoke in word salad. It wasn't that she wasn't saying the right things "within the bounds prescribed" by the elites' "view of the world," it is that her language and suppositions were fucking incoherent.
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.
Okay, I'll bite. Which of the "hard lessons" of Palin's life would have prepared her to deal with the banking crisis we're facing, for instance? Did she get burned on a credit default swap? Did she hold a bunch of mortgate-backed securities that she now couldn't figure out a proper value for? Which "hard lessons" taught her whether a macroeconomy like the US will best be served and kept from depression by tax cuts or government spending?
Let's reword Levin's idiotic claim here and we will see how dumb it really is. Who would agree with this claim?
Applied to medicine, the worldview of the intellectual elite begins from an unstated assumption that surgery is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and medical fluency more than for prudence born of life’s hard lessons.
I'd be very interested to see if Levin thinks that the "prudence" Palin gained from "life's hard lessons" will be sufficient for her to safely remove his gall bladder. If not, then I would submit he doesn't really believe the bullshit he is spouting, because there is no way in hell being President, which requires one to make decisions in a wide range of areas, is so much less difficult than being a surgeon that anyone, no matter how unprepared, can just "jump in."
And let me make this supposedly "unstated" assumption a stated proposition: yes, governing does require a great deal of "knowledge" and "expertise," and if Levin is seriously suggesting otherwise, then I wonder why he bothers to write articles at all, since if the Presidency doesn't require those things nothing does, and why, then, would anyone care to about anything Levin writes anyway?
This is why Palin was seen as anti-intellectual when, properly speaking, she was simply non-intellectual. What she lacked was not intelligence—she is, clearly, highly intelligent—but rather the particular set of assumptions, references, and attitudes inculcated by America’s top twenty universities and transmitted by the nation’s elite cultural organs.
She isn't "clearly, highly intelligent." If it were so clear, it wouldn't be such a contested premise. Which it is, whether Levin admits it or not. She's a goddamned moron, which even many conservatives ended up having to admit.
Levin ends his piece by making the claim that the real problem wasn't Palin's: it was that the McCain campaign didn't have anything to say. Well, that, indeed, was a problem, for both Palin and McCain. But using that as an excuse to ignore Palin's other significant faults is to be willfully blind.
As Levin clearly has chosen to be.