A sequel to the praiseworthy primer, “Palin the Post-Partisan Populist Pals around with Pundits.”
It’s always entertaining to watch Ivy-educated well-connected authors pontificate on the need for common people to tear down Ivy-educated well-connected authors, but Matthew Continetti’s defense of a “new populism” strains even the relaxed standard of credibility applied to such antics. Setting aside factual problems — most Americans still favor healthcare reform, especially with a public option, and stripping power from insurance companies is a profoundly anti-elitist move — the central conceit of the argument, that Sarah Palin stands in unbroken succession with populist luminaries like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, is simply a bridge too far.
The analysis goes awry at the outset. Jackson and Bryan were not just populists, but masters of the art, heirs to a tradition begun in Rome and perfected in America. Classicists will recall Cincinnatus — the farmer-turned-dictator who saved the Republic and, upon completion of his duties, promptly returned to his farm to till his land, spurning the lifetime of fame and fortune that could’ve been his. Like Washington, Jackson and Bryan both drew substantially (if unknowingly) from the Cincinnatus myth. They were brilliant men who could skillfully navigate the halls of power, but chose not to. Visitors to Jackson’s Hermitage (Continetti and I agree, it’s well worth the trip) are treated to a full picture of a deeply intellectual man who, despite partially embracing his opponents’ portrayal of him as an illiterate backwoodsman, maintained a vast library, read and re-read Plutarch, and decorated his home with maps of the growing American Republic. This was a complex man — not a “commoner,” not an “elite,” but something uniquely American. Despite his unfortunate embrace of creationism (and… uh… racism), Bryan was much the same: he maintained the sensibilities of the common man, but advocated for them by taking up the weapons and vestments of the elites.
Continetti is right to praise these men, as exemplars of a substantially forgotten American political tradition — the expert statesman who does it because he has to, and never forgets the roots of democracy. However, Continetti misses the mark by putting Palin in their company. Palin, he argues, is their natural successor, misunderstood and maligned by the elites as an uneducated backwater hick. Fine. But there the similarities end. Jackson and Bryan were successful for their ability to walk both worlds — like Cincinattus, they could deploy the knowledge, expertise, and rigorous methodology of the educated elites, but through the perspective of, and to the exclusive service of, the common man. Palin, however, lacks the intellect that transformed Jackson and Bryan into paragons, and Continetti’s “intuitive faith in builders and traders, in hockey moms and plumbers,” is inadequate to supply the deficit, because it is meaningless. What could it possibly mean?
The Palin myth breaks down here, because ultimately, the stereotypes of the contemptible elite and the virtuous but “simple” small town dweller must be unsatisfying. Few elites are actually evil and subversive; and, more importantly, few small-towners are “simple.” The vast majority of Americans, regardless of domicile, are intelligent, profoundly interested men and women, committed to themselves and their country. Only aspirant demagogues like Sarah Palin actually (and gleefully) live the stereotype of the willfully ignorant backwoodsmen. Accordingly, when Palin claims to speak for and embody small town America, we should be offended by the implied insult. The average American, whether she lives in the city or the suburbs, is closer to a Jackson than a Palin, and thank God for that.
Somewhere along the line we decided to sever the parts of the Cincinnatus myth that lies at the heart of American populism: today we call someone a populist for simply identifying with the common man, and to hell with the vigorous competence and record of service that marked the populist movement’s first and finest avatars. To equate a lack of achievements and an utter disinterest in ever attaining distinction with the notion of the American “common man” demeans us all, and dupes us into selecting leaders based on their ability to act, rather than their ability to lead. We deserve better, we are better, and that, ultimately, is why Sarah Palin must fail.