Monday, June 6, 2011

That Paranoid Style in American Politics

Howard Dean made some headlines recently by opining that Sarah Palin, of all people, could win the next presidential election. There was a lot less to what he was saying than the headlines suggested.  He wasn’t predicting that Palin would win the Republican nomination or that she’d beat Obama in the unlikely event that she did. Dean was just recycling the conventional wisdom that, if the economy doesn’t start getting better soon, Obama could find himself losing to a candidate we’d regard as too weak to defeat a sitting president under normal circumstances. And now that the economy is looking spectacularly weak, that might even include Palin. If what Dean said is noteworthy, it's because an influential Democrat was testifying, not to Palin’s political strength, but to Obama’s political weakness.

Yet Dean’s words provoked this reaction from Andrew Sullivan (my emphasis):
“He gets it. Finally, someone gets it . . .

“Pundits speak of her lack of professional organization. What they don't speak of so often is her willingness to say and do things very few politicians will. She will play the race card powerfully, often and repeatedly. She will run a campaign against Obama as an un-American. She will run on hatred of elites, will turn every sad gaffe, lie or untruth into ‘truth’, she will deploy religious motifs more effectively than any Republican candidate in modern times. In the last campaign she accused Obama of being a friend of terrorists, and was prevented from using Jeremiah Wright in the last few weeks of the campaign. She will make the Willie Horton ad look like happytalk.

“Most responsible politicians do not throw gasoline on a cultural tinderwood. But remember Tucson. Even then, she could show no restraint, no regret, no responsibility. Even when a politician was shot in the head, she tried to divide and conquer. And the MSM have no idea how to handle her, how to cope with her, how to expose her. She destroyed them last time and somehow perpetuated the meme that they destroyed her. This is a dangerous, dangerous person.
I know that Sullivan probably isn’t the go-to guy to put facts about Palin into perspective. Yet although Palin-induced fearfulness is especially extreme in his case, he’s hardly the only highbrow intellectual feeling it. That’s a little perplexing inasmuch as, however adroit she may be as a media entrepreneur, by all accepted standards of political handicapping she’s extremely unlikely to ascend to higher office in the foreseeable future. So exactly what is there about Palin's celebrity to be afraid of?

You won’t get an answer to that question by inspecting Sullivan’s Bill of Particulars. Everything he accuses Palin of doing is standard operating procedure in American politics. Insinuating that your opponent is contemplating doing un-American things? Isn’t that exactly what Obama’s doing to Paul Ryan when he says Ryan’s Medicare reforms break the terms of the “American social contract”? Running on hatred of elites? Like those Democrats who demonize "Wall Street greed" and hauled those hapless CEOs before Congress to explain why they paid large, but contractually obligatory, bonuses to their employees? Alleging guilt by association by linking Obama to Jeremiah Wright? Funny, Sullivan is happy to have Republican politicians linked to the least conventional views of Ayn Rand even though they didn’t spend twenty years attending services at some Objectivist church, but just liked a couple of her books. Saying that a political candidate was in the opposing party’s "cross hairs" in the next election? No one ever said anything like that before. . . .  You get the point.

So if Palin isn’t doing anything atypical of a national politician what is there about her to be afraid of? It can only be that she’s not the sort of person who typically aspires to be a national politician and lot a people are defying established conventions about who's worthy of being listened to by listening to what Palin has to say. You know how the master narrative goes; a former governor and vice-presidential candidate of a major political party ought to know better than to speak the language of people who cling to guns and religion as an expression of the status anxiety they’re feeling for being economically and culturally marginalized. That Palin does it anyway makes her the personification of the “paranoid style in American politics” that highly credentialed intellectuals like Sullivan have been deploring for fifty years.

I’d be the first guy to tell you that Palin isn’t presidential material, and if you believe the polls, a plurality of likely Republican voters don’t think she is either. But do you really think that Palin sounds more paranoid, and more prone to status anxiety, than Andrew Sullivan?


Anonymous said...

Andrew Sullivan must have a screw loose. I'd like him to explain why Sarah Palin bears any responsibility or should have any regret when it comes to the Arizona shootings. The shooter was a madman who never even heard of her. Sarah Palin is now to blame if anything bad happens to a Democrat? No wonder Sarah Palin causes such a media frenzy. It's people like Andrew Sullivan who created her. He ought to back down. If the media treated her the same way they treated any other Republican, she would be fighting to get a soundbite every day. As it is, she's front page news.

Sonny said...

Sarah Palin's most valuable gift is her strange capacity to make Andrew's head explode.