The Wall Street Journal News Pages Lose Their Mojo II
New York Times Crashed-and-Burned Watch (Noah Milman on Ross Douthat Department)

American Right Wing Crashed-and-Burned Watch: Watching Sarah Palin

The Jeffersonian Democratic ideal was that the agrarian salt-of-the-earth people were virtuous, and would choose smart and virtuous men to be public servants--stewards of their interests and protectors of their government against corruption and luxury.

There is, however, one difference between the rhetoric of the Irving Kristol generation and the rhetoric of the William Kristol generation. In the Irving Kristol generation it was OK for the "gentlemen" to be hard-working or smart--it wasn't necessary, but it wasn't a positive disability.

For the William Kristol generation, however, it is. For them there are four legitimate ways to become rich and powerful:

  • You can peddle influence--use your Republican political connections to enrich a company, and take a share--that's OK.
  • You can inherit money--that's OK.
  • You can get a job though a relative--that's OK.
  • You can marry money--that's OK.

But work hard? Learn stuff? Think hard? That's not OK--that marks you as an "elitist."

Former Public Interest editor Mark Lilla: How... could younger conservative intellectuals promote a candidate like Sarah Palin... ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery... everything older conservative thinkers once stood against? It's a sad tale that began in the '80s, when leading conservatives... began to speak of an "adversary culture of intellectuals."... Irving Kristol... telling readers... that the "common sense" of ordinary Americans on matters like crime and education had been betrayed by "our disoriented elites," which is why "so many people--and I include myself among them--who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism."... Over the next 25 years... a new generation of conservative writers... none of their elders' intellectual virtues... no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency.... They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists.... David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives' "disdain for liberal intellectuals" had slipped into "disdain for the educated class as a whole."... There was a time when conservative intellectuals raised the level of American public debate and helped to keep it sober. Those days are gone.... [T]he conservative intellectual tradition is already dead...

I cannot help but think that a big role in this is played by the "neoconservative" disciples of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, who pursued a form of intellectual politics that had three planks:

  • They sought as political front-men "gentlemen" who would not understand their ideas and doctrines but who could both be persuaded to follow their lead in designing policies and could win votes from the electorate--Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin. (George H.W. Bush's and Robert Dole's and Mitt Romney's problem, from their point of view, was that they were too smart).
  • The neoconservatives routinely lied to the outside world--advocated a false "exoteric teaching" that they thought would have good poitical effects.
  • The neoconservatives told the truth about what they believed and thought only to themselves--and not always then, for how could you know whether you were really one of those in on the con or one of the marks and suckers (hoi polloi, outer party, et cetera) for whom the point of the con was to make you think that you were in on the con.

But the "gentlemen" were supposed to undertand at some level that they were the front men and that they did need the smart guys in the back room to do policy and design message. Dan Quayle knew that he needed William Kristol. Ronald Reagan knew that he needed James Baker. What seems to be happening now is the coming of a generation--George W. Bush and Sarah Palin come to mind--who don't seem to understand that populist exultation of the salt-of-the-earth blood-and-soil kneee-jerk reactions of the regular-buy politician is the mask rather thqn the face:

Noah Milman had something to say about Sarah Palin--and Ross Douthat, who I take to be one of Mark Lilla's big targets:

Re-Entering the Palin-Drome: As someone who was quite enthusiastic about Sarah Palin for about 30 seconds, and then walked a long way back towards disliking her intensely.... I feel a certain obligation to make three points....

Point #1: There is an assumption running through Ross’ column that Palin... might have developed into the kind of right-populist leader that the GOP really needs. That was... what I thought... before her sudden stardom: this looks like someone really promising, and... [McCain] needs to take a big risk.... But it’s not what I think now, because I’ve seen how she actually performed. Ross is perfectly willing to say that she performed poorly. He doesn’t seem to be very willing to say that her performance reflects things about her fundamental character. Why?...

Point #2: The column, and Ross’ writing about Palin generally, treats her not so much as an actual person so much as a symbol... identity politics.... I’m surprised by the degree to which movement conservative politics in this country have become entirely the politics of identity, and the Palin phenomenon is the best evidence thereof...

Point #3: Ross is critical of the idea of meritocracy.... I’m interested, though, in how Sarah Palin represented a meaningful response to that idea. Meritocracy, in practice, means the selection of the “best and the brightest” for positions of power and authority, primarily by means of testing and scholastic hoop-jumping... “Mandarins.”... [T]here are alternative roads to power and authority... work[ing] your way up slowly through an organization... nepotism... "Talents”... who distinguished themselves by achievement in an entrepreneurial fashion.... Sarah Palin would, presumably, be one of this last group. But what, exactly, is her achievement, beyond her one election to the Alaska governorship?... [W]hat exactly is the great counter-meritocratic message that Palin purportedly embodies, and that Ross wants to salvage (presumably for some future candidate) from the wreckage of her brief career on the political stage?

The point that we want a multi-dimensional meritocracy is, I think, a very good one...