Palin's Lack Of Expertise Slowly Dawns On Her Defenders

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 6, 2011

Palin's Lack Of Expertise Slowly Dawns On Her Defenders

Remember the halcyon days when Sarah Palin was parroting the talking points of the neocon foreign policy advisors airlifted into the McCain campaign and remaining with her thereafter? It was an article of faith among conservatives, and especially neoconservatives, that Palin was a brilliant and thoughtful leader. Any notion to the contrary was the creation of a liberal media plot and fanned by the flames of coastal snobbery. The peak moment of the campaign came when Jennifer Rubin wrote a lengthy story in Commentary singling out the Jews, in particular, for their intellectual disdain of Palin. Rubin attributed this "anti-Palin fever" to, among other things, Jewish credentialism and intellectual snobbery:

Jews historically have not warmed to politicians who do not project intellectual sophistication. George W. Bush is in fact an avid reader and a possessor of two Ivy League degrees, but his populist persona and avowed contempt for liberal academics were red flags to Jews.

So it was with Palin, and, if possible, even more so than with Bush. Although she grew up in a household where her mother read poetry aloud, and Palin herself read voraciously as a teenager and initially chose a career in journalism, she, like Bush, soft-pedaled her intellectual interests—and, more important, suggested that her policy views and problem-solving abilities were derived not from what she had learned in books but rather from character and instinct. For those for whom an Ivy League education is the essential calling card for leadership of any sort, an elite-bashing populist with a journalism degree from the University of Idaho who lacks both a mellifluous grasp of policy and a self-consciously erudite vocabulary was always going to be a hard sell. As Continetti observes with savage irony, “The American meritocratic elite places a high priority on verbal felicity and the attitudes, practices and jargon that one picks up during graduate seminars in nonprofit management, government accounting and the semiotics of Percy Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark.’” Given that Jews are overrepresented in these sorts of professions, it is not surprising that they would be among those most put off by Palin.

Jews, who have excelled at intellectual pursuits, understandably are swayed by the notion that the presidency is a knowledge-based position requiring a background in the examination of detailed data and sophisticated analysis. They assume that such knowledge is the special preserve of a certain type of credentialed thinker (the better the university, the more unquestioned the credential) and that possessing this knowledge is the key to a successful presidency. This was not the prevailing conception of the presidency through most of American history; indeed, the very idea of a technocratic president is of recent vintage. The argument that such knowledge might be acquired or accessed when necessary by a person who has demonstrated a more instinctual skill set—the capacity to make decisions and to lead people—does not resonate with those for whom intellectual rigor has been a defining characteristic and a pathway to success.

Palin’s intellectual unfitness in the eyes of Jews was exaggerated during the course of the campaign as they, like other Americans, received an incomplete image of her abilities and talents.

That story appeared a year and a half ago, when Palin appeared like a plausible Republican nominee, and thus a useful electoral vehicle. Since then, a few things have changed. Palin has parted ways with her neoconservative advisors, has begun listening to the more Realist Peter Schweitzer, and is now sounding a distinctly non-neocon line (“We can’t fight every war, we can’t undo every injustice in the world.")

The neocons, meanwhile, have stopped defending Palin's intelligence and policy expertise. Indeed, the once-misunderstood bibliophile of Jennifer Rubin's imagination turns out to be more of a ventriloquist's dummy. Rubin writes:

Her about-face in foreign policy tells us a couple of things. First, her views then and perhaps now don’t spring from a well-grounded understanding of foreign policy but from briefing cards. Change the cards, and presto, a new foreign policy! 

If only Rubin was writing her pro-Palin article now -- she could have quoted herself as a prime example of Jewish snobs dismissing Palin's intellect. It's always so frustrating for writers when the best example of a phenomenon you identify occurs only after you write about it. Sadly, the cottage industry of elite Palin intellect defenders seems to have melted away without a trace, or a second thought.

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posted in: jonathan chait, george w. bush, jennifer rubin, sarah palin, ivy league

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