Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sarah Palin’s Culture War

How has Sarah Palin succeeded, yet again, in making herself the center of attention? The short answer is that she took Todd and the kids along on a bus tour without telling the media where she’s going, leaving us all to guess whether the fact that she’s letting herself be seen going somewhere portends a presidential candidacy. But that only invites another question: why are so many people watching her every move so attentively?

It’s not because Palin is doing anything likely to have electoral repercussions. A presidential candidacy on her part still doesn’t look very likely, and looks even more unlikely to get very far if it does occur. And it’s not because Palin is saying anything that’s politically noteworthy either--try remembering a single thing she’s said other than “refudiate” and “death panels.” Yet all Palin has to do is visibly move her lips to turn us into a nation of lip readers.

If we aren’t watching Palin so attentively because of what she’s doing or saying, it can only be because she’s presuming to speak at all on the national stage. That’s all it takes to make her into an insurgent on the latest front of the culture war. We’re apt to miss what’s distinctive about Palin if we think of the culture war as being mostly about issues connected with sex. Yes, she’s pro-life-anti-same-sex-marriage evangelical Christian.  But you could say the same thing about Tim Pawlenty, without anyone (much to his frustration) obsessing about him. The culture war that Palin’s waging isn't about sexual mores, it's about cultural accreditation.

Most of us perceive politics through media and intellectual lenses focused for us by people who’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort in burnishing their credentials as “serious people.” To that end, they went into debt to graduate from the best schools they could get into, got good enough grades to enable them to acquire a post-graduate degree or two, scrambled to get and keep positions in prestigious institutions etc. They did all of this on the theory that the meritocratic credentials that count in the academy and the white shoe professions are not only a necessary condition of professional advancement, but intrinsically worth having because they’re good proxies for genuine virtues like intelligence, industriousness and moral seriousness.  Every time we perceive the political world through the lenses "serious people" put before our eyes, we acknowledge the social authority that their credentials confer upon them.

Having gone to all the trouble of credentialing themselves, it’s natural for credentialed people to think that their resumes entitle them, and their worldview, to a measure of deference from less credentialed people. The credentialed class can't take its eyes off Palin because it can't believe that anyone with her meager credentials would presume to run for national office. It’s just as natural for less credentialed people, who’ve lately seen a lot of spectacular foolishness in high places, to resent credentialed people’s sense of entitlement. They might not want Palin to be our next president, but they're tired enough of being condescended to that they take pleasure in seeing her stick her thumb in the eyes of "serious people."

There’s always been a political dimension to social credentialing. By and large, Republicans have cared more about the bourgeois virtues they associate with success in the marketplace than Democrats. Democrats have tended to care more about the virtues associated with success in the academy and the established professions. But neither side has ever been utterly unimpressed by what most impressed the other side. George Bush used to joke about being an indifferent student at Yale as a way of telling everyone that he couldn’t have cared less about what was said of him in faculty lounges. But he still cared enough about academic credentials to send a daughter to Yale.

Sarah Palin’s cultural populism is a lot more radical than that. She’s not the least bit embarrassed by her own meager academic and social credentials, or by the fact that her own children aren’t even trying to go to college. She really thinks that honorable manual labor is more highly correlated with practical wisdom than academic or professional distinction. She speaks in cliches because she thinks they encapsulate truths that "serious people" are too clever to remember.  The mere fact that she raises her voice challenges the established cultural order, exciting the status anxiety of the people who thought they still commanded enough social authority to silence her.

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