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.