The ‘democratic ideal’

THE ‘DEMOCRATIC IDEAL’…. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat agrees that Sarah Palin has disqualified herself for national office, and has “delusional” expectations of her future. Douthat insists, however, that her rise and fall has been “a dispiriting period for American democracy.”

[President Obama] 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.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. 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, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it’s also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.

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.

This argument is wildly unpersuasive. Indeed, it’s contradicted by very recent events. The Clintons’ daughter was put through the wringer, and both Bill and Hillary have Ivy League backgrounds. Barack Obama’s religious background was “misrepresented” to almost comedic levels, and as Douthat reminds us, he’s a product of Columbia and Harvard. Politicians’ records have been distorted since the days of the Athenian Empire, regardless of one’s class or collegiate background.

Douthat, in other words, sees classism and misogyny driving the criticism of Palin. He’s mistaken. Not only have others with more impressive backgrounds faced similar scrutiny, but the criticism is actually the result of Palin’s own remarks, beliefs, record, and character.

For that matter, Douthat’s reliance on an old cliche — give political power and authority to those who are uninformed and unqualified, and the system will thrive — is tiresome.

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.

For goodness sakes, the aphorism remains true, to the extent that anyone can grow up, work hard, develop an intellectual curiosity, learn something about the functions of government, earn the trust and respect of others, and seek public office. Douthat sees some romanticism in leaping from the first to the last step.

That’s absurd. An unqualified conservative got elected governor, and quickly tired of complicated unglamorous policy work. The same unqualified conservative was chosen to seek national office, and quickly tired of complicated policy questions and interviews in which she’s supposed to know what she’s talking about. The same unqualified conservative then returned home, ready to do her job, but quickly tired of her responsibilities and quit.

If this is the “democratic ideal,” and Palin somehow represents the best of the American mainstream, I think much more highly of the United States and its people than Ross Douthat does.