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Jul. 7 2009 - 7:06 pm | 7 views | 0 recommendations | 22 comments

Wait! Our mandarins helped undo Palin

I wrote yesterday that Gov. Sarah Palin’s apparent downfall was her own fault. She displayed ignorance of foreign and domestic policy and therefore was unfit to be elected vice president, much less to be nominated as a national candidate. Several smart pundits offered variations of this analysis, and I think it ultimately explains Palin’s apparent demise. But her relative ignorance and incuriosity doesn’t tell the full story of her political flameout, or even the most important part of it.

Many national politicians display less than total command of the issues and interest in the intricacies of politics and government. I’m thinking of Ross Perot and his presentation of NAFTA; Gen. Wesley Clark and his explanation of the nation’s abortion laws; and George W. Bush and his 2000 explanation of the Social Security system. Yet none of these candidates was undone by their ignorance.

So why is Palin’s demise different? The answer is that one social group viewed and treated Palin as a threat to their worldview and way of life. Which is why as Ross Douthat wrote yesterday, they threw everything but the kitchen sink at her during last year’s campaign:

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.

And, Ross might have added, the media will forget that the church in your hometown was burnt to the ground.

After Palin announced that imminent resignation, great has been the rejoicing among this group. On MSNBC last night, Keith Olbermann’s and Rachel Maddow’s show made Palin’s resignation their top story, a full three days after the Alaska governor’s press conference. On the op-ed pages of the nation’s two elite newspapers, the usual who’s who of columnists piled on Palin’s political corpse, intoning solemnly that John McCain’s choice of a vice-presidential running mate was “reckless” and dangerous. On Trueslant, innumerable contributors have stuck and twisted their knives into her, using language more commonly found on the playground or at amusement parks than on a respected national website.

The group that hastened and celebrated Palin’s downfall is not just any social cohort. Black and Hispanic leaders did not work to crush Palin; labor leaders did not issue bromides and philippics against her. Douthat contends that college-educated Democrats despised Palin, but as Matt Yglesias points out, that explanation does not suffice entirely; Joe Biden’s academic credentials are less than sterling yet he is a respected figure.

The group that helped undo Palin is not an economic class or racial cohort. It’s a path. It’s a group defined by the route it takes to the top of the pecking order. As author-journalist Nicholas Lemann pointed out, this group is the Mandarins: an elite who made it based on academic achievement in general and high scores on the SAT in particular. In a forgotten but great article for Time, which turned into a less successful book, Lemann sketched their history and roles this way:

The Mandarin path is the newest of the three. It was built during and after World War II, through the introduction of mass mental testing and the expansion of higher education. People become Mandarins by performing well in school; educational credentials, the more elite the better, are the coin of their realm. Theoretically, Mandarins are free to do whatever they want, including pursue the Talent or Lifer path. But the default activity for them is to go into limited-access fields where their degrees confer the maximum benefit, mainly the professions of law, medicine, academia and the Wall Street side of business. Mandarins aspire to get tenure in their 30s and thus be more protected from risk than the people on the other paths.

Practically speaking, what the Mandarins have done is take over a chunk of territory that was previously controlled by an inbred group of self-styled gentlemen called the Episcopacy. Their domains: Ivy League universities, the big foundations, Wall Street, major research hospitals and corporate law firms. Mandarins therefore congregate in big metropolises and on the two coasts.

Many of the anti-Palins mandarins attended elite universities; Olbermann graduated from Cornell and Maddow from Stanford, for example. But most did not. Their hatred of Palin is based less on her lack of academic credentials than the fact that she does not share their worldview. In the words of Yuval Levin, the mandarin worldview is based not on a person’s guts or heart, but rather his or her brain:

Although the intellectual elite is deeply shaped by our leading institutions of higher learning, belonging to it is more the result of shared assumptions and attitudes. It is more cultural than academic, more NPR than PhD. In Washington, many politicians who have not risen through the best of universities work hard for years to master the language and the suppositions of this upper tier, and to live carefully within the bounds prescribed by its view of the world.

Applied to politics, the worldview of the intellectual elite begins from an unstated assumption that governing is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and verbal fluency more than for prudence born of life’s hard lessons.

To mandarins and those who support them, Palin’s national candidacy was a cruel joke. Palin rose to the top based on her feminine pulchritude and charm; she won shallow competitions that had nothing to do with governing the country. The fact that she raised five children, was elected the first female governor of the state, and raised taxes on oil companies didn’t matter. She was a pure talent, a person who attained her position based on her charisma and ability to project empathy alone, and that doesn’t cut it in the mandarin view.

Mandarins believe that their ideology of meritocracy is fair and just. But as Lemann and Douthat note, their version of meritocracy, in which admission to elite schools relies heavily on one’s parents and cultural background, is undemocratic; it depends too much on a person’s background than his or her achievements or actual knowledge. No wonder that so many of those who attend elite schools come from a few dozen high schools. That system is different from the democratic notion that a person should rise based on his or talents rather than inherited traits.

To repeat my earlier point, Palin was not undone ultimately by the mandarins; Bill and Hillary Clinton were abused by their detractors as much as Palin, yet they endured and even prospered. But our mandarins contributed to her downfall. The lesson of their vetoing of her candidacy should be clear to national candidates: Choose your ignorance carefully.


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  1. collapse expand

    Sounds like someone didn’t get into their first choice of schools Mark? This class war you righties keep trying start up isn’t working Mark. Seriously dude how many election cycles do you have to lose before your kind decides to give this up divide and conquer strategy. Has it even occurred to you even for just a moment that the problem isn’t who or how your messages is being delivered but it’s the message it’s self.

    • collapse expand

      Ha! Questioning my subjectivity is perfectly valid, but in the case of schools, I got into my first choice, for graduate schools at least: the great University of Chicago.

      The political argument you expressed doesn’t cut it. Let’s look beyond the past few elections to the beginning of the two parties’ modern coalitions, in the mid-to-late 1960s. The Democrats have lost seven of the eleven presidential elections.

      I know you to be one of my best commenters, so I am a bit surprised you didn’t address the heart of my argument: less-than-democratic mandarins help undo a democratic figure.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Ok, lets look beyond the last couple of election cycles, regardless of who lives in the White House other than a moronic tax cut what exactly has your side gained? Has the nation moved any closer to outlawing abortion? Yesterday with congressional consent D. C. started recognizing same sex marriage, no state to the best of my mind is looking to change their divorce laws. Has the nation moved any closer to changing immigration policy?

        At the heart of your argument here is that what you are claiming that is Palin was done partly due to too much press scrutiny, I guess you never heard of either the Rev. Wright or Bill Ayers (speaking of the U of C). And hey if you can’t stand get out the kitchen!

        And Mark what does having raised 5 children have to do with her qualification to occupy the most powerful position in the world? After reading this thread, my first thought was that you were feeling guilty about turning on one of your own in your prior post. Mark you shouldn’t feel guilty about your prior thread, you should feel guilty for having voted to place a moron one heart beat away from the Oval Office.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Full disclosure: the last institution I graduated from was the local public high school.

    That said, I agree with you that the reason I was horrified by Palin’s candidacy is that she is “a threat to (my) worldview and way of life.” That is how I choose whom I vote for, isn’t it how most people choose? One votes for the candidate or against the opposition candidate.

    The mandarins you rail against are on both sides of the divide. They are the professional commentators, writers, media celebrities, and politicos both liberal and conservative.

    I can give Palin props for being a self-made woman and be thrilled that she is unlikely ever to be anymore than a footnote like Perot.

  3. collapse expand

    That’s the thing with us pretentious “Mandarins,” we’ve sided with the academic elitists who think that one of the most important qualifications for holding public office is, you know, a sound understanding of law and policy.

    How close-minded of us.

  4. collapse expand

    What you say may be true. However, I wonder if it misses a larger point. Regardless of what “Mandarins” or anyone else said or wrote during the campaign, I think Americans felt this in their guts: a) We cannot elect another anti-intellectual after 8 years of George Bush b) We cannot elect someone who might undermine our credibility in the international community after 8 years of George Bush c) Perhaps this Obama guy might be a nice alternative to 8 years of George Bush. My take: The Bush legacy did more than anything to undo Palin.

  5. collapse expand

    I admire your chutzpah, Mark. There’s nothing like yelling the mandarin has no clothes! in front of thousands of mandarins who buy their ink by the barrel. I think you’re right about a mandarin class that lifts itself up by pushing upstarts down. Anyone who has rubbed up against it knows it’s as stuffy and exclusive as the House of Lords. Maybe democracy is not in our nature.

    Josh makes a good point about Bush fatigue, but Bush was an anti-intellectual with the right credentials, from Harvard, Yale, and through daddy’s connections in oil, Congress, and the CIA. Joe Biden and Dan Quayle at least have law degrees. And they all got somewhere in Washington. Palin doesn’t know any secret handshakes, including the one conferred by the Y chromosome. I’m glad Palin’s gone–if she is gone–because I don’t like the positions she took, but it’s worthwhile to recognize that a lot of the knife twisting, even from progressive thinkers, was classist and sexist.

    Progress means eliminating intolerance and hatred, not just aiming it differently.

  6. collapse expand

    I’m sorry, but as the child of parents who each had to quit school, after grades six and eight respectively, in order to help support their families, and as the second person in my extended, blue collar, family to ever go to college, I have to say this opinion piece is bunk.

    The real issue is not whether anyone criticized Palin for her arrogant and self satisfied ignorance; it is why the American populace, or such a large percentage of it, embraces willful ignorance as a virtue, or at least as a likeable trait. We have had, and continue to have, many politicians who parade their ignorance, but none has done to more proudly than Palin or with less understanding of what that ignorance could cost the country. That is what makes Palin both despicable and dangerous.

  7. collapse expand

    I have to agree with marinab. I couldn’t fit all my objections to this post in a comment, so I decided to go ahead and write a rebuttal here.

  8. collapse expand

    Great piece, thought I disagree with the sentiment. Where do Reagan and Schwarzenegger fit into this mardarin worldview? I happen to believe the mandarin worldview to be correct. It is far from undemocratic. The “democratic notion” is that anyone can rise to the top of their field through HARD WORK. See Obama, Sotomayor, Bill Clinton, and Abe Lincoln. What effort did Palin put in to learn foreign policy? She didn’t even read!

    Yes, Palin was attacked more viciously than most other public figures but that’s at least partially because she was such a joke. As Matt Damon said “it’s like a bad Disney movie.”

  9. collapse expand

    After reading the Lemann article, another thought:

    Reagan was pure talent. Schwarzenegger was pure talent. But both could articulate policy positions. Reagan gave a great policy speech in 1964 that was so well received that he was considered Goldwater’s heir. Long before people thought it possible that he could hold elected office, Schwarzenegger was such a big fan of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose that he gave the introduction to the PBS series.

    Can anyone picture Palin doing any of those things? $100 says she never read Conscience of a Conservative or Free to Choose. Palin has some talent but not enough to be president. Let’s remember that she didn’t get to where she was on her own. If it weren’t for McCain, we’d still be saying “Sarah who?”

    The Economist lumps Palin together with American Idol stars. Not completely talentless but on the high end of mediocrity.

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    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (Encounter Books, 2007). He was born in San Francisco in 1970 and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from Santa Clara University and the University of Chicago (M.A. in Social Sciences, '97). In between, he worked, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for an inner-city housing agency in Baton Rouge, La. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. He, his wife, and two daughters live in the Washington, D.C. region.

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