Elites Can Talk About Class, Gender, Meritocracy and Elitism, But Can They Tap Dance?

Ross Douthat writes in NYT today about Sarah Palin.

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

[…] Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You’ll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your “slutty” looks and your “white trash concupiscence,” while a prominent female academic declares that your “greatest hypocrisy” is the “pretense” that you’re a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin’s gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even think about it.

Andrew Sullivan:

The column is yet another rehash of the Nixonian class resentments and Rovian cynicism that dominate what passes for the GOP’s thinking classes: if only she’d waited and “boned up” on the issues, she could have had a real future. Er: How about nominating someone who actually knew something about some issues before she was picked? Or someone who could at least give a passing imitation of even being interested in them? Did that ever occur to Ross?

He mentions not a single policy issue, nor a single actual accomplishment this hood ornament of a candidate can be credited with. He mentions not one of her increasingly fantastic delusions and lies. But somehow it’s her elitist enemies’ fault that she came acropper!

How about her elitist friends’ fault for believing that a few starbursts and a media strategy worthy of Vladimir Putin could keep the show on the road long enough for them to collect their checks? Really. When will Kristol and Barnes and Douthat apologize for their sponsorship and toleration of this reckless nonsense?

Freddie at The League:

Actually, Ross, a great many of the people love Sarah Palin because she hates the right people and the right things. That’s not reason enough to write her or her supporters off, but it takes a willed blindness to have seen the rallies last fall and not detected the visceral anger and violence that undergirded them. And it would take a particularly myopic viewer to believe that Sarah Palin, by any relative standard an immensely wealthy woman, proves that anyone can become president. Actually, I think the idea that Ross Douthat can run a column (in the country’s newspaper of record) calling a woman whose family makes better than five times the national average lower class just goes to demonstrate to us all a little better than whatever we can be, President isn’t one of them. If you’ve gotta make 250K just to be called lower class, what hope do you or I have?

John Schwenkler responds to Sullivan and Freddie:

Criticizing Palin’s startling lack of policy knowledge and almost total inability to communicate positions effectively is one thing, but calling her “slutty” and mocking her “white trash concupiscence” is quite another, and naturally opens the way for columns like this one: for no unbiased observer can seriously deny that Palin’s class and gender were consistently seized on in the attempts to discredit her, and no one who takes the democratic ideal seriously should look back at that saga without some real concern for the role that class plays in American politics.

Via Schwenkler, Radley Balko:

Here’s all I want to say: It is possible that Sarah Palin was both unfairly mistreated and personally attacked by the media and many on the left, and that her family was rather ruthlessly and mercilessly run through the ringer wringer . . . and that she’s a not particularly bright, not particularly curious, once libertarian-leaning governor who sadly devolved into a predictable, buzzword spouting culture warrior when she was prematurely picked for national office by John McCain.

These two scenarios can coexist.

Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic on the column:

In Ross’s telling, what separates the meritocratic ideal from the democratic ideal is whether you can be a success story without having attended Columbia or Harvard. Okay. Well Joe Biden was born into a middle class family to a father who had a long spell of unemployment, and later found work as a used car salesman. He made a success of himself having graduated from the University of Delaware in Newark and the Syracuse University College of Law. Why isn’t he the embodiment of the democratic ideal?

But I actually don’t want to concede Ross’s premise. Given the history of race in America, the election of a mixed race black man to the presidency — Columbia and Harvard or not — ought to have as much a claim to fulfilling the democratic ideal as the nomination of a woman who didn’t attend an Ivy League college. We’ve had our Andrew Jacksons and our Jimmy Carters. Despite the frequency of Ivy League presidents, no one doubts that a candidate from a less elite educational pedigree can be elected. Which candidate caused more Americans to reconsider the kind of person who might be elected to the presidency, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin?

More Conor:

One more quick note on the “Sarah Palin versus elites” narrative: although it captures the fact that she’s garnered considerable elite criticism — a lot of it unfair — it misses the fact that far from “pulling herself up by the bootstraps,” her rise to national prominence is largely the doing of another group of elites who’ve done their best to advance her career and laud her every action. Our political discourse often seems to presume that “elite” and “liberal” are concepts that are inextricably bound to one another, but the fact is that Bill Kristol is a political elite, Fox News is every bit as much a part of the elite mainstream media as any other cable news outlet, and Rush Limbaugh is as much a coastal elite commentator as Maurene Dowd. And I say that as someone who doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with rising to elite status.

Jason Zengerle at TNR:

I just don’t think it’s possible, though, to neatly separate out Palin the person from Palin the symbol. Sure, there’s bound to be some snobbery among some elites toward someone like Palin. And I think in the very early days after her nomination–when all that was really known about her was her CV–you saw that. But the anti-Palin sentiment didn’t kick into high gear until a few weeks after her nomination–after she disappeared and refused to do interviews; after the interviews she did do (Gibson and especially Couric) revealed her to be completely out of her league; after her Agnew-like performances on the stump.

In other words, I don’t think hostility toward Palin represents hostility toward the democratic ideal. The real problem for people who believe in the democratic ideal (and I include myself in this category) is when they allow someone like Palin to become a symbol of that ideal. Just because she grew up to be a great success without graduating from Columbia and Harvard doesn’t mean she’s a democratic heroine. In fact, making her out to be one just cheapens the ideal.

Alan Jacobs on Zengerle:

According to Zengerle, “after briefly acknowledging that Palin made mistakes, Ross goes on to blame her plight on elites’ mistreatment of her.” Actually, Ross says that “last Friday’s bizarre, rambling resignation speech should take her off the political map for the duration of the Obama era.” And then he says that, while a resignation for personal reasons elicits sympathy, “A Sarah Palin who resigned in the delusional belief that it would give her a better shot at the presidency in 2012 warrants no such kindness.” And then he goes on to write, “With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites.” Maybe Zengerle didn’t read that far. He also thinks that Ross says that hostility to Palin is hostility to the “democratic ideal,” but Ross doesn’t say that.


Here are the lessons of every national politician ever. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer (see Chelsea Clinton). Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented (see Barack Obama is a Muslim). Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith (see id).

None of which is to say that Sarah Palin didn’t endure her share of sexism — she sure did. She was ultimately brought down by her own idiocy — a fate that didn’t befall her idiot compatriot George W. Bush. She was attacked for her looks and for her family choices in a way that male politicians aren’t — she also played on her looks and her family choices in a way that male politician’s either can’t or don’t.

UPDATE: Noah Millman

UPDATE: #2: Via Sully, The Monkey Cage

And Sully


1 Comment

Filed under Feminism, Go Meta, Political Figures, Politics

One response to “Elites Can Talk About Class, Gender, Meritocracy and Elitism, But Can They Tap Dance?

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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